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Anthony McCall: Film Installations

Anthony McCall, Film Installations,  2004
Anthony McCall: film installations. — Edited by Helen Legg. — Coventry: Mead Gallery, 2004. — 64 p. — Includes a bibliography. — ISBN 0902683667.

Catalogue published for the exhibition Anthony McCall: film installations, Mead Gallery, University of Warwick, Coventry, England, United-Kingdom, April 21-May 19, 2004. — Curator: Helen Legg.

The review focuses on the catalogue accompanying the exhibition of the same name, held April 21 to May 19, 2004, at the Warwick Arts Centre's Mead Gallery at the University of Warwick in Coventry, England. In addition to an introduction by Helen Legg, the catalogue includes two essays, "Film Beyond Its Limit," by George Baker, and "The Continuous Present," by Lisa Le Feuvre, as well as two texts by Anthony McCall, "Line Describing a Cone and Related Films" and "New Film Installations." Also included is a biography of the artist and a selected bibliography.

Baker begins his essay with a historical anecdote. Asked in 1924 to create the ballet Relâche, Picabia constructed a set comprised of 370 spotlights, placed, curiously enough, behind rather than facing or next to the stage. This reversal of theatrical convention had the effect of absorbing fascinated audience members into the set and involving them in the action. In much the same way, states the author, McCall reverses cinematic convention in Line Describing a Cone (1973), for here too spectators face the projector. The film installation begins with a piercing point of light. Over the following thirty minutes, the point slowly transforms into a wide open conical form defined by the light. By riveting spectators' attention on the projector itself and the essential component of film – the projection of light – McCall creates a critical reversal that rejects any form of illusion.

Except, perhaps, that which forces us to see as continuous movement what is actually animation comprised of still frames. Nor does the rejection of narrative conventions associated with traditional cinema negate narration in any form. Baker reminds us that the title of the work is, after all, "Line Describing a Cone." However, any narration present emanates from the "cast" participating in the film's creation as they move about the space. As the initial critical distance imposed by the installation transforms into an immersive field, participants can walk inside the cone and are incorporated into the film. The paradox becomes more pronounced when one considers that the medium (light-projector) creates an actual spatial dimension and not a mere representation: the film becomes sculpture. Indeed, McCall has called these installations, created between 1973 and 1975, "solid light films."

Baker goes on to discuss the issues associated with various minimalist artistic practices, citing the "specific object" of Donald Judd and the work of Dan Flavin, an important predecessor in the use of light as a medium. Among the key terms used to define the issues of the day, Baker refers to "continuity," which guided the phenomenological approach introduced by minimalists by focusing on process art and the relational interdependence between space and audience and the works themselves. Post-minimalist art is no longer isolated in an ahistoric temporality; it is durational, evolving within time and space. To illustrate his point, Baker draws on the radical strategies of Eva Hesse, Richard Serra, Bruce Nauman and Dan Graham and underscores the important work of Rosalind Krauss and her symbolically entitled text "Sculpture in the Expanded Field."

These considerations clearly apply to the films of McCall, and the author makes reference to the works that prepared the ground for the solid films: Slit Scan, Miniature in Black and White, Water Table and Landscape for White Squares (1972).

Baker views the solid films as "filmic sculpture," reversing the term "sculptural film" used at the time by critic Benjamin Buchloh in an essay on the films Hand Catching Lead and Hands Scraping by Richard Serra. Unlike Buchloh, who concluded that this was neither film nor sculpture, Baker prefers to borrow a concept from Deleuze – film AND sculpture – to emphasize the radical coarticulation (rather than dialectic process) present in McCall's projects.

Basing himself on these observations, Baker conducts an in-depth analysis of the three other solid films: Partial Cone, Conical Solid and Cone of Variable Volume (1974). By describing the transformation – or fluctuation – between "cinematic time" and "sculptural space," he dissects the properties of each film and finds affinities with works like the modular cubes of Sol Lewitt and the Rotoreliefs of Marcel Duchamp.

This logic is also at play, continues Baker, in McCall's "long" films, such as Long Film for Four Projectors (1974), a six-hour event. As was the case in Four Projected Movements (1975), McCall deployed new strategies to bring the spectator into the work by using architectural space as never before. The author remarks that this approach greatly changed the ambiance of the installations, which, once ethereal, had now become more "disciplinary." And because these would be McCall's last solid light films for twenty-five years, Baker speculates on the reasons why the artist abandoned the project after just two short years, examining the sociopolitical dilemmas surrounding the era's avant-garde strategies.

He concludes his essay by reflecting on Long Film for Ambient Light (1975), the final "long" film by McCall and a project even more radical than its predecessors, with both film and projector disappearing. Highly conceptual, the installation consisted of a time-schema affixed to a wall, a two-page text entitled "Notes on Duration" and an architectural space where windows covered in white paper diffused the daylight, while serving as screens at night. In the centre of the room, suspended at eye level was a light bulb. One sensed that the installation was laying open the cinematographic machinery by exposing its constituent elements. In a radical redefinition of the medium, the "film" emerged from the fusing of these diverse elements with the passage of time. After abandoning screen and image, McCall dismissed celluloid and projector in order to concentrate on two essential cinematic elements: light and time. Baker concludes by reiterating the importance of "continuity," which is represented through the becoming of a work of art within time and space.

The title chosen by Lisa Le Feuvre for her essay "The Continuous Present," refers to a fundamental notion by Gertrude Stein, which initially came to her through cinema and which she explored in her writing. A great admirer of Stein, John Cage was particularly attuned to her efforts to liberate language from syntax. Both artists were fascinated by repetition and in particular the variance that occurs in repetition. Le Feuvre discusses their impact on McCall and therefore studies his work in terms of duration as a continuous present that closely resembles Baker's notion of "continuity." The author alludes to the 1963 performance by Cage of Éric Satie's Vexations, which consists of a musical score repeated 840 times, and the film Empire (1964) by Andy Warhol, an 8-hour still shot. Because each execution is different and each image unlike the one before, the repetition involved is not repetitive after all.

Le Feuvre finds this sort of temporality at play in a number of McCall's installations, most notably in Long Film for Ambient Light, which she likens to other artistic offerings that aimed to lay bare the exhibition condition itself: the celebrated Le Vide by Yves Klein, presented at the Iris Clert Gallery in Paris in 1958, and During the exhibition the gallery will be closed (1968), by Robert Barry. In her discussion of McCall's practices, the author studies the role of the spectators, who are invited to invest themselves in the work to give it meaning.

She ends her essay by commenting on the fruitful dialogue between Line Describing a Cone and Conical Intersect, the brilliant tribute to McCall's work executed by Gordon Matta-Clark in Paris in 1975, as well as Light Conical Intersect (1996), the revival of the Matta-Clark work by Pierre Huyghe. What wonderful examples of one work inspiring another, which in turn inspires a third.

In the first section of his text "Line Describing a Cone and Related Films," McCall offers a series of notes and reflections on his major projects, providing insight into his frame of mind during that period. In the second section, he shares with us the historical context within which he created his works, a context dominated by structuralist and experimental cinema. In this respect, he explains the importance of Empire and Michael Snow's Wavelength (1967), both of which he admired for their "conceptual clarity." He also raises, in addition to Cage's influence, his relationship with Carolee Schneemann, which allowed him to discover Happenings, Fluxus and the Judson Dance Theater.

In a second text, "New Film Installations," McCall discusses his return to artistic practice after a long absence. He began by revisiting the strategies used in the 1970s, but today's computer technology has since provided him with new methods to facilitate production. The motif has also changed; while the early works consisted of circular or straight lines, today McCall is exploring the motion of waves. In addition, with current technological advances to assist him, he is now working with a hazer machine capable of producing a continuous fog, allowing for enhanced visibility of projected light rays.

Jacques Perron © 2005 FDL