A Holey Approach to Film Studies
Monday, March 14, 2011
By Peter Simpson
Is it a homage, a nod of respect to the virtue of film, or is it an ironic and cruel indignity, a glib slap to film as it slowly fades from the horizon of photography?
Andrew Wright’s Coronae is one of those things. The series consists of five large-scale digital photos of ... film. It is no longer the medium, it is now the model, elevated or reduced, depending of your perspective, but either way shuffled from the tech department and over to creative. Well, in a changing world, we all have to adapt.
Here’s what Wright, the artist and assistant professor in visual arts at the University of Ottawa, did: He used a jeweller’s tool to drill a tiny hole all the way through a canister of unexposed 35-mm slide film. He left the canister in the sun for an hour or so, then developed the film, and then used a digital camera to photograph the tiny flares of red, white and yellow that the sun burned through the tiny hole and onto the naked frames.
Two more things had to happen to get the beguiling effect that Wright has wrought. First, there’s the expanse of deep, rich black that surrounds the small bursts of light at the centre of the prints. Second is the size — five feet by five feet, printed on Dibond, thin sheets of aluminum over a plastic core — which simultaneously expands the black to infinity and isolates the glowing light in a way that seems both microscopic and cosmic.
You are expected to you stand before the prints, now on display at Patrick Mikhail Gallery, and ask yourself: Is that light infinitely small, or is it infinitely distant? Are those magnified bits of dust on a dimly lit surface, next to what seems to be a vividly glowing ring, or are they many moons orbiting a vast, distant, burning planet?
In fact, it’s just a hole, not much more than a pin prick.
“They’re just really blow ups of tiny, little holes in film,” Wright says, standing in the gallery one day last week. The truth briefly seems a disappointment after all that cosmic anticipation, but then I think, “If it’s a hole, then what’s on the other side?”
Wright smiles. “I really like to confound the viewer in a certain way,” he says. “I like to suggest that it is both things, but neither. I think photography has some pretty strong conventions that we’ve arrived at that we believe in, and we don’t sort of look at images in other ways anymore. So I like to confound that.”
Confounding, indeed. The prints have only a few square inches of light and colour in the middle, and all else is blackness — blackness, nothing but enigmatic blackness. Inevitably, it makes me think of Nigel Tufnel’s line in This is Spinal Tap: “That’s so black, it’s like, how much more black could this be? And the answer is, none, none more black.”
Wright is more coherent. He says, “What is the nature of this black? Am I meant to believe that I could fall into it, that it’s infinite, or am I meant to understand this as a surface in this very space I’m standing in now. Hopefully there’s a little bit of tension there, back and forth.”
Tension simmers on different levels, most sympathetically in the nostalgic struggle of film in a digital age. Wright’s use of film as subject was not some amiable gesture, it was the essential part of the process.
“It’s the kind of thing that could only happen on film,” he says, as he explains how they are photographs of holes, so they are photographs “of nothing.” Thanks to film the images are “extremely realistic, yet it’s an abstraction at the same time.”
He stresses that he’s no retro evangelist, he’s all for digital technology and the creative possibilities it opens up. And yet, “What are we missing when we start forgetting photo-sensitive materials like film and paper, and what are the imagistic possibilities that are being left behind? I think that digital in a lot of ways always assumes we know what we want, and I think we very rarely know what we want, photographically speaking.”
And there is the true nature of the dual cosmos Wright has created, these cleverly parallel universes of macro and micro. “You get a lot of weird optical effects when you project light through anything,” he says. “Film allows for the unpredictable much more readily.”
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