Jennifer West’s “Is Film Over?” is on view in the Yuz Project Room until 28 May 2017.
The American artist’s first exhibition in China features projections that evoke a formative era of experimental film production.
Some time ago, sleek high definition screens and videos projected in secluded compartments replaced clattering movie projectors and hefty cathode monitors in galleries presenting the moving image. Therefore, it comes as a shock, entering Jennifer West’s show in the darkness of Yuz Project Room, to be bombarded with a lot of blurred projections rushing past side by side: any images are rendered almost unrecognisable beneath jittering abstract marks.
New Images of the World
A formative era of experimental film production is evoked in the initial impression of Jennifer West’s film works, in her first show in China, entitled “Is Film Over?”, launched on 18 March 2017 at Yuz Museum in Shanghai. Artists such as New Zealander Len Lye (1901 – 1980), working for the British General Post Office, produced pioneering work by drawing and scratching directly on spools of optical film stock, notably in, A Colour Box (1935). Man Ray’s (1890 – 1976) ‘cinepoem’ Le Retour A La Raison (1923) was produced with a similar approach.
At the beginning of the film, Ray exposed objects directly on the film-strip using his newly developed ‘rayograph’ technique. Although West adopts identical ways of working, the exhibition leaflet suggests that by addressing the replacement of analogue film with digital recordings her works engage
with the complexities of the total cognitive, psychic, and aesthetic shift in our understanding, perception and use of the recorded image.
West’s purpose is to question the authenticity of digital video by addressing the physical character of analogue film. In West’s view the electrical circuitry and coded information of digital video creates a distance from experience, while at the same time seducing the audience as to its veracity through the clarity of its mimesis.
She adopts multiple strategies in her practice to explore this question. In Shred the Gnar Full Moon Film Noir (2010), wobbling images of the moon, as shot with a handheld camera, are degraded by physical interaction. In this case, the reel of film was spread out on a ski slope under a full moon. Scratches and marks of stress are formed by a group of snow boarders enthusiastically skimming over it in the icy conditions. These abrasions appear as intense flares of light on the screen. West sutures the images in the projection to collaboration through this performative stage – a raw connection to people and location. West says in an interview, speaking about Dawn Surf Jellybowl with Devon Bella for Kadist Art Foundation, that “After the film was processed […] I brought the film to this particular spot.”
Film and Performance
West is also concerned with the division of time. An important feature of analogue film is that it is composed of discrete images. A 45-centimetre strip of film is 24 individual pictures that when seen consecutively represent one second of motion. In West’s practice, she treats a reel of analogue film as a canvas, one that is extraordinarily long and narrow.
In Lavender Mist Film/Pollock Film 1 (2009), West starts with transparent unexposed film. Following the methodology of US Abstract Expressionist artist Jackson Pollock (1912 – 1956), she pins the entire length of the film onto the floor of her studio. She invites collaborators to spray and spatter the celluloid material with skeins of paint. These marks traverse the ‘frames’ that would conventionally represent temporal moments, so that, when projected, the marks are transformed into fleeting incidents on the screen. The integrity of the original mark cannot be understood when it is experienced in this way.
West’s film refers explicitly to Pollock who was famously filmed in his studio by German photographer Hans Nemuth (1915 – 1990). Nemuth’s film shows Pollock at work, in the act of applying paint to his canvas on the floor with his signature ‘drip technique’. Just as in West’s approach, the way of applying paint is transformed when the finished work is seen, because it was made horizontally but exhibited hung vertically on the wall. Nemuth’s antecedent movie exposes the characteristics of the process, characteristics that have been obscured by the shift in orientation.
In West’s movie, the digitisation process needed to complete the work for exhibition, hides the gestural acts used to make the work. Digitisation splits up the unified field of the film, a long and narrow format, into moments, which are the frames of the film – experienced in time, as a sequence. West uses this strategy to show that the properties of analogue and digital images differ, despite the similar appearance of their outputs.
Analogue film is granular, made of isolated grains of photosensitive material, randomly distributed throughout the whole length of the film reel. As soon as they are exposed to light their value is fixed. By contrast digital pixels stay in one place on the screen but their level of luminosity keeps changing. For West the implication of this is that the pixels are chimerical, only seeming to fix appearances.
West takes her approach to a logical conclusion in Salt Crystals Spiral Jetty Dead Sea Five Year Film (2013). The work starts with film of Robert Smithson’s classic Land Art work, Spiral Jetty (1970). West soaked a film she made of the work in saline solution for five years until all visual records of the subject were effaced. What you see on the screen is completely abstract, the effect of salt having dissolved the image. This is analogous to the elemental sensations associated with Smithson’s Jetty but not of its visual appearance.
While he was constructing Spiral jetty, Smithson also collaborated with his wife, Nancy Holt, to make a documentary film. The film privileges the record of the works construction over its enduring manifestation as a sculpture. He comments:
As I looked at the site, it reverberated out to the horizons only to suggest an immobile cyclone while flickering light made the entire landscape appear a quake.
In an interview with Quinn Latimer in 2011, West also favoured intangible aspects of the image over the direct subject:
The images are often partially obscured, and the viewer is moving between the visual experience of the image and that of reading. The space I am interested in enhancing exists between those two experiences. Some things I put on the films don’t do anything to the film itself and aren’t evidenced with any trace at all—hence existing only in the viewer’s imagination.
West’s films explore the nature of digital video through its limitation, specifically its inability to be affected by physical touch. The exhibition suggests that cinema history needs to be revisited. As if the century of transition was too rapid, quickly shifting from the 50 seconds of the Lumière brothers’ first film reels, where the action of the hand-cranked camera had a muscular connection to human movements in front of the lens, to Toy Story (John Lasseter 1995), the first completely computer-generated feature film. In asking the question “Is Film Over?”, West seeks to eschew the inhuman clarity of the digital video image and to hold onto the tangible medium of film. West would have it that digital is well suited to making accurate copies, but only film can tell it like it is.
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Jenifer West lecturing at Yuz Contemporary Art Museum