Although I am returning to Dunedin before the show opens I was fortunate enough to see it in a state fairly close to completion. I marveled at Judy Millar and her team as they worked on her huge sculptural piece specifically shaped for the space. I sat in the dark room of the Kirk Gallery and watched Phil Solomon's American Falls. I was hypnotised by the Matt Saunder's film piece. I felt an intimate connection with the framed pages of Colin McCahon's pencil drawings. And then I took a step back from it all to admire and really reflect on the significance (and brilliance) of the curation - of the themes and connections that flow through each work and end in a sea of pertinent ideas.
Because my words may not be enough, the poster for the show eloquently (and appropriately broadly) describes its role or purpose:
"Cinema & Painting examines the intersection of two screen-based arts against the backdrop of a culture characterised by the increasing plasticity of pictorial surfaces and flexibility of viewing spaces. Turning to contemporary and historical artists who engage the relation between the screen and the space that projects from it, the exhibition maps the genealogy and continuing life of a modernist tradition of depth.
"Over three thematic suites, this exhibition’s volumetric cinemas and paintings that spill off the wall offer exemplars of a strain of aesthetic practice in which the interrogation of a haptic surface accompanies a commitment to the formal complexity of images. By addressing the materiality of projective space—that physical zone beyond the picture plane activated by the body of the spectator in conjunction with the beam of the projector or the intricacies of painted forms—Cinema & Painting examines the interconnection of these arts not only in pictorial but in explicitly phenomenological terms."
Although I read up on a handful of the artists featured in Cinema & Painting it was Phil Solomon's American Falls that provided me with an access point to the show and, through the astonishing process and result, it converted me into an activist for the film medium.
Below is a short text I wrote on the work, which will be shown in the Kirk Gallery and I imagine will be a highlight for many who view the exhibition.
American Falls Extended Text
When Phil Solomon was asked by Paul Roth, the then Associate Curator of Photography at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., to do a film installation for the gallery, Solomon was unsure - he had never thought about doing an installation before. However, as Solomon wandered around the Corcoran, his wavering mind became steady - determined even. Frederic Church’s extraordinarily detailed painting, Niagara (1857), on the gallery’s first floor, the interaction with, and transformation of, space by an artwork involving six projectors set up in the gallery’s rotunda, as well as the wider context of Washington D.C. itself - a city where the ghosts of America’s past are embodied in countless statues and memorials - directly inspired Solomon to begin on American Falls - a project that would take him twelve years to complete.
American Falls (2000 - 2012), originally presented as a triptych, serves multiple purposes both as a film and an artwork. It is the result of an intricate exploration and experimentation with chemistry and film. It also beckons and challenges the viewer to uncover meaning from its distorted and manipulated portrayals of iconic figures and moments in America’s history - carried together by the pertinent and constantly flowing metaphor of the fallen. The historical content of this work also represents Solomon’s emergence from his typically private and hermetic choices of subject matter and exhibition strategies to meet, and honour, the public element of the work. It is through American Falls, as Leo Goldsmith writes for The Brooklyn Rail, that Solomon has located “a critical meta-history of the American mythos at the intersection of film’s decay and digital media’s ascendancy.”
The film opens with 1901 footage depicting a reenactment of Annie Edson Taylor, the first person go over the Niagara Falls in a barrel and survive. The turning reel of chemically manipulated footage then provides the viewer with countless moments of recognition. From Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy to footage of soldiers fighting in such wars as the American Revolution or America’s Civil War - the metaphor of the fall persists. Solomon explains to Goldsmith the role these condemned or celebrated elements of America’s history have in American Falls: “I started to think about [...] the whole idea of the fall, and the rise and fall of the capitalist parabola in particular—what goes up must come down. The uneasy marriage between capitalism and democracy. And the rise and fall of fame; ultimately, the rise and fall of, perhaps, this country. I’ve always been interested in the idea of cinema and loss, the beautiful and poignant conjuring of human presence and its absence. It’s an illusion, we know that, and yet it’s so profoundly vivid and moving. You long for it to be real, and then when it’s over you have to go home and your life isn’t like that, like the dreams that were given to us.”
Despite the beauty of the finished work the processes involved to create American Falls were intensely laborious and time consuming. To begin the task, Solomon searched through hundreds of DVDs, or “found footage”, in search of what he considered to be the “primary markers of American history.” As described by the filmmaker to Goldsmith, Solomon captured “hundreds of digital scenes into timelines, with each scene bordered by fades into and out of black, which essentially translates to the images emerging out of and submerging back into the chemical treatments I employed. I also digitally enhanced the gamma and contrast for every scene because the overall effect of my post-processing treatments is primarily based on the density and location of black in every scene.” In an interview with Scott MacDonald, Solomon summarises his role as “something of an archaeologist in reverse: I try to discover truths in these artifacts by throwing dirt back on them. I bury things rather than excavate them. For me found footage has been a way to unearth lost truths.”
Frame by frame, these film timelines were transferred to 16mm black and white film, which was then processed, printed, treated, dried, and manually re-photographed again on an optical printer. By the end of the project Solomon had shot over “half million individual photographs of these 16mm treated frames, enough footage for several feature length films.” However, despite the “essential cinematic character of its source material and a particular type of organic photochemical textural beauty” the final work, as Solomon maintains, “was only made possible by tweaking, editing, posting, and presenting in the digital medium. [...] American Falls is therefore also a lamentation for the end of cinema, whose lifespan essentially bookended the 20th century, which is the primary locus of the photographed events in the work."
“It’s almost sculptural,” Solomon observed of the chemically touched footage to Goldsmith. “It literally has depth. The chemistry is caked on top of the film surface, and I’m lighting it with the optical printer to enhance the bas relief and the three dimensional surface. So, it looks like gold leaf at times. The depth is palpable—haptic, as they say, the sense of touch. And when it’s that big, and the textural details have remained, the painterly aspects of this piece are amplified. And that’s what I’ve learned by doing it as a huge, outsized mural,essentially: you’re able to contemplate it and behold it, especially because it’s presented in the dark, without other distractions.”
While the visual result of American Falls resonates with a poetical beauty in its emphasis on form - on film itself - the audio playlists, which sounds throughout the film, also have a crucial role in the viewing experience. Solomon’s choice of music for his works evolves from an almost spiritual calling - as the filmmaker describes in an interview for Cinemad, “Usually, as I go along, at some point in the editing process, I’ll just hear…the silence. Or I’ll start to imagine the sound – in other words, I will begin to feel the absence of sound as a negative space, a place that needs to be attended to and realized."
Now, Kodachrome 16mm, the film stock Solomon has used for almost his entire career, is no longer in production - presenting another type of fall or collapse for the filmmaker. But as both this realisation, and the realisations invoked by American Falls, require of the viewer, we are left to wait - and hope - for something to rise from the mist of the eternally falling water.