Monday 5 March 2012

Great Cathedrals in Time and Space by Emma Darwin

If you dropped in at the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern recently, you might have seen Tacita Dean's work, Film, which was the twelfth in the Unilever series. I was lucky enough to be asked by my cinematographer friend Sam Garwood to a private view for the film industry: the sponsors were companies like Kodak (sharp intake of breath), the BSC, and Arri. I assumed it would be the kind of event that I once described to my offspring as "just a stand-up and shout": long on polite shop-talk and short on cake and bouncy castles. The only difference from the book-industry equivalent would be the gender balance and the fact that I wouldn't know anyone. And, it being February in the dear old/new Turbine Hall, it would be cold: even the invitations had suggested that guests might like to Wrap Up Warm.

Yes, it was all those things but it was more significant than that. Thanks to the ease and speed of digital - and undeniably the particular advantages it offers, while analogue has other advantages - the industry for analogue film is dying. The big, commercial studios are convinced that the future is digital, and without their money flowing in, the facilities to deal with film from shooting to projecting are shutting up shop. Kodak have filed for protection against their creditors, and something like twenty-eight out of the thirty film processing companies in London have closed down in the last two years. And because there's no one to handle your film, film itself is going the way of... well, can you think of any other creative medium that has ever just ceased to be available? Evolved, shrunk, got more expensive, fallen out of favour, yes. But just, plain, vanished? So there's a campaign, of which Dean and the likes of Martin Scorsese are only the most visible parts, to get photographic film named a UNESCO World Heritage... um, Thing. That would open the door to all sorts of help and funding for those who want or need to use and support it, just as in our own industry National Short Story Week is the umbrella under which all sorts of good initiatives can then huddle, confer, publicise themselves, and make grant applications.

Tacita Dean says that she "needs film as an artist needs paint." So, unexpectedly, a routine standup-and-shout turned out to be something more important, though what that was, perhaps, was according to how you saw it. A call to arms? The mustering of an army? A battle-charge? The last rites? A wake? Or a re-birth of the medium into a new life in a rather different world, where it's no longer taken for granted as the medium of transmitting stories, but defined by and used for its particular, essential, physical and aesthetic qualities?

There are parallels with other industries, of course, although they all need to be prefixed by mutatis mutandis, because our eyes don't work in the same way as our ears, so the shift from cinefilm to digital moviemaking is not the same as the shift from wax cylinders to digital tape to mp3 files. And different again is the shift from manuscript to printed book, to e-book: the medium in which our words are transmitted is secondary to the message it carries, and the printed book is a near-perfect, and astonishingly cheap, technology when you compare it to the paraphernalia of even the most guerillerish of film makers or sound artists.

But still... Maybe it was the walk along the South Bank, through Borough Market, past Southwark Cathedral (which I blogged about recently) and the Golden Hinde, on a damp, mild-scented February evening, with the lights of London glittering and shifting on the water... Maybe it was the fact that I'd had a good day working on the novel, so that what Rose Tremain calls "the anarchic, gift-conjuring, unknowing part of the novelist's mind" was wide awake in me... Maybe it was the wine, which was nicer than book industry bashes usually supply... Who knows?

The Turbine Hall is a cathedral of the early twentieth century, the era of big, grubby powerstations in the middle of big, grubby cities, the electrical age. You enter by the west door, and the party was on the upper deck, which spans the middle of it: we stood in the soft dark to watch the colours and forms in Film that flowed and flowered where the east window is. There's a west window, too: it gets a starring moment in Film, so there's a metaphysical but also physical link that runs the full length of the nave. Then we turned aside, to where the speakers were spotlit on the platform on one of the long sides of the hall, and heard each of them make a call to arms. 

And suddenly I saw us all as the ordinary folk of a Reformation world - the world of Galileo and Columbus, Newton and Harvey - the world that could turn the space inside a great, Gothic cathedrals on its axis, so that the people gathered round a pulpit to hear an argument rather than before an altar to witness an event. I heard what was said as something akin to Luther's and Bucer's argument: that we should return to the plain, unmediated origins of our experience, and keep hold of the raw, analogue, temporal business of being human creatures who exist in space and time and community, so that we can take it with us as we also grasp the new opportunities of the new age, for art and understanding.

I've no idea what the story is, in this moment - story in the novelist's sense, that is, not the journalist's. Those people in the Grote Kerk of 1673, above, were the first who could go home and read what we'd recognise as a novel: Tacita Dean's form and medium are a product of the electrical age as mine are of that humanist age:  But if ever there was a moment when the past was present to me and yet by being so present, filled me with the knowledge of how immeasurably distant it is, it was that evening in the Turbine Hall. Dean makes her art by running the film through the camera again and again, masking different layers, layering different colours and lights, stacking up images or leaving them alone. Historical novels get written in rather the same way.


Lydia Syson said...

Exquisitely put, and very evocative.

Linda B-A said...

Beautifully written, as ever, Emma. You'll be missed on History Girls. My daughter and I sat cross-legged on cold concrete for half an hour, spellbound by Tacita Dean's film. And we both likened it to sitting in a cathedral looking up at stained glass windows.

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Fascinating post Emma. I particularly loved the juxtaposition of the two images. The vast Turbine Hall and the tiny viewers within the space - the same for the Grote Kerk in Haarlem - those vast vaults dwarfing the people. And I thought your comparison of historical novels being written in the same way as Tacita Dean works with film - a process of layering - extremely apt. Well done on your RLF Fellowship. Sorry you are leaving us.

Mary Tod said...

You made me think of occasions when I was in the very places I've written about and the awesomeness of time fills every crevice such that I want to weep or sit down and write. A recent trip to Ypres comes to mind, a city that figures in two of the WWI stories I've written. Walking its streets and the surrounding land where so many died amidst noise and chaos so fierce men knew they were in hell was a very moving experience.

Emma Darwin said...

Glad everyone liked it.

Dianne, thanks - I'm sorry to be leaving too - but something had to give!

Mary, I know exactly what you mean - sounds like the sort of state I think of as "skinned". But usually it comes to me when history is physically present - buildings, tombs, artifacts, whatever. What was interesting to me about that evening in the Turbine Hall was that it couldn't have been a more modern - well, 20th Century - building and subject for the evening, recalling something purely by the arrangement of space - bricks enclosing air - and the significance of the moment...