Film and the Art Gallery – Gillian Wearing at the Whitechapel Gallery
I am in front of the Whitechapel Gallery in London on a rainy Sunday morning. I am waiting for the place to open. Turner Prize winner Gillian Wearing is on show, and I quite like to see the exhibition. I don’t have much time, I am supposed to be meeting people in about 90 minutes at the other side of London. So I have got about an hour really to run through the show. Unfortunately, Gillian Wearing is an artist that predominately works with video. Therefore much of what is exhibited, consists of film. And not just films running for a couple of minutes, but also works that last up to an hour. I sprint from one projection room to the next television screen, catching snippets from some videos, seeing minutes from others. So by the time I run out of the gallery towards the underground, can I earnestly say that I have seen the exhibition?
Which brings me to the point of the increasing use photographers make of film. In a recent talk by Dutch documentary photographer Kadir van Lohuizen about his Via Panam project, he predicted that in the next five years things will become problematic for photographers that stick to just shooting stills. John Wright, one of the UK’s leading fashion photographers, chastised photography students and colleagues alike at this year’s National Photography Symposium for not having yet made the jump to film as an essential skill for photographers. His viewpoints echo sentiments expressed by Inez van Lamsweerde & Vinoodh Matadin back in 2010 at the start of their exhibition at Foam. And more and more photography exhibitions are not just simple presentations containing photographs in a straight line on a white wall. Even the most conventional shows make use of some form of multimedia.
Considering that film is a much more linear medium than photography, this is problematic not only if you have little time, but also from an artistic perspective. Can you really appreciate the work for its artistic qualities if you have only seen a small part of it?
And this is the crux of the problem. Are art galleries and museums actually equipped to deal with this? From personal experience, badly or not functioning multimedia can really ruin an otherwise excellent exhibition. But I also know that curatorial departments have to juggle available equipment with continually shortening life spans, as well as face decreasing budgets and ever changing film and video formats. They also have to work on occasion with material that does not meet the technical requirements to be presented in the way and in the size the artists usually want, and deal with their sometimes unrealistic expectations.
What’s more, are the visitors ready for it? I tend to skip films and video works in exhibitions. Sometimes I do not have the time for it, just like in the case of Gillian Wearing. But mostly because I find myself ushered into a cramped dark space together with all the other visitors, having to watch the films sitting on the floor, squeezed onto hard wooden benches or leaning uncomfortably against walls. This is not a very enviable position to be in if the video lasts for more than an hour. Moreover, in most cases I walk in half-way through the film. Considering that film is a much more linear medium than photography, this is problematic not only if you have little time, but also from an artistic perspective. Can you really appreciate the work for its artistic qualities if you have only seen a small part of it? If I ask the question with regards to stills of which you have only glimpsed about 10%, the answer would inevitably be no. So why should it be considered satisfactory in the case of film? And then film and video in my mind still conjure up an image of comfy seats, beer and popcorn in an old-fashioned cinema late at night. This jars with the gallery experience, where a stilted and attentive performance is expected of visitors. We all instinctively know the rhythm with which to move from work to work in a museum. Videos don’t fit in that particular rhythm, nor in the average time span we are prepared to spend in an art gallery.
If I ask the question with regards to stills of which you have only glimpsed about 10%, the answer would inevitably be no. So why should it be considered satisfactory in the case of film?
So if film is to increasingly become a part of photography, or if film and photography converge more and more into this rather inadequately named discipline of lens-based media,¹ practitioners and curators alike need not only learn how to produce it well from a technical perspective. They should also pay much more attention to how to present it well in various contexts, including art galleries, and with different audiences in mind. I do not have answers on how to do best do this, but I feel these questions should at least be asked. Only in this way can films be appreciated to its full extent.
¹It should be noted that the distinction between film and photography has never been really that rigid. Think for example of Cindy Sherman and Alex Prager emulating film stills, Gregory Crewdson’s use of entire film sets and crews to produce a single image, and Chris Marker’s films La Jetée and Sans Soleil, which consist entirely of photographs.