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08 Nov, 2009

Running Time: artist films in Scotland 1960 to now | Art review

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

Dean Gallery, Edinburgh

I can’t stop thinking about a film I saw in – and about – Edinburgh, a dream of the past in glimmering black and white. Of mist clinging to the dark canyons of the Royal Mile, of booted feet clattering out of church in principled lines, of sun glinting off high tenement windows and the winter moon rising above black boughs in snowy gardens. I freely admit that it brought back my Edinburgh childhood.

But Margaret Tait’s Where I Am Is Here is not just a souvenir of the city. With its extraordinary rhythms – cutting slowly from glide to long shot, from close-up to pan – this wondrous work is self-evidently the art film as poem. Night falls on the watchman with his lanterns, the sun rises on the towerblock staggering into life behind him, twilight comes round again in the playground, cobbled street and among the stony monuments of dead men, impotent rivals to the latest highrises. The circular eye of the lantern is reflected in the hemisphere of the car’s polished hubcap.

The film moves to the sound of pipe music – wandering, yearning, circling without resolution. Its sorrow and glory lie in the minute observation of everyday life. Tait sets her camera (visibly: this is a shadowy self-portrait as well) at what is overlooked, buried, alone, as much as what is swept along in the streams of the city’s business. In slipping the bonds of narrative, the film is freed to enter into the most unexpected places – the wreath of kelp on the shoreline, the newspaper booth by Princes Street Gardens; each image spools directly into the mind’s eye.

Tait was born in Orkney in 1918. She trained as a doctor, practised medicine in the army and somehow landed up in Rome in the early 1950s. A love of Italian neorealism is apparent here and there, but what makes this Scottish artist so unusual is her sense of vision as knowledge. She often quoted Lorca’s idea of “stalking” the image: that if you looked long and hard enough at an object it would eventually yield up its nature. This is precisely what her almost ethereal films achieve.

Tait is the central figure in Running Time at the Dean Gallery – you might say its chief revelation. For if, like me, you have never seen her many masterpieces – self-funded, slowly made – then this exhibition is valuable for Tait’s art alone. A poet too, once described as Whitman crossed with MacDiarmid, she seems wholly unique as a film artist.

But one cannot say that there is nobody like her today. In fact, many of the artists here are following, consciously or not, in her footsteps. Over and again, the works are impressionistic, free-form, aspiring to the condition of poetry. You see it in Rosalind Nashashibi’s slow-flowing meander round Glasgow University library, taking in the book titles, the silent pianist in her headphones, the potted plants in the neon gloaming. You see it in the early work of Paul Rooney and Luke Fowler.

Fowler – who had an excellent show at the Serpentine Gallery earlier this year – has two half-hour films here. Neither is his finest work. I mention this by way of pointing out that the selection is puzzlingly variable and that you may have to devote many hours to Running Time if you want to get the best of it. The projection is poor and the schedule changes every week.

Still, this is an unprecedented event: the first survey of Scottish art films ever mounted. It presents more than a hundred works by almost as many artists and, in its singular way, offers a portrait of both the medium and the country in the last half century.

Many works are classics: Douglas Gordon’s high-speed montage of every film he has ever made; Eduardo Paolozzi’s History of Nothing; Roderick Buchanan’s violently enthralling Sodastream, in which a soda bottle crashes to the ground in a high-colour explosion of fragility and fizz.

The Boyle Family’s films are here in all their sculptural beauty. There are bright animations by well-established artists such as David Shrigley. The deeply lyrical bent of Scottish art film is well represented – Hugh Watt, Ian Stephen, the excellent Matt Stokes with his captivating eulogy to northern soul, Long After Tonight – and so is the tendency to both dramatic and satirical narrative.

Look out, among others, for Graham Fagen’s parodies of urban planning and Henry Coombes’s portrait of Edwin Landseer painting a portrait, in turn, of Highland landowners; nature threatens to overcome the artist even as his visit nearly overwhelms the lairds. Now look again, Coombes proposes, at the finished picture.

It would be absurd to advance any generalisations about Scottish art films; any theory that could be made to stretch all the way from Margaret Tait to the Boyles cannot be of much ultimate value, after all, and it’s no surprise that this show lacks a catalogue. But there is a marked lack of self-reflexive theorising here, of the self-absorption of some contemporary art. As an apt coda, the Dean Gallery is simultaneously showing Paul McCarthy’s gleefully violent satire Painter in which the Los Angeles performance artist appears with clown nose, outsize hands and what looks suspiciously like a Willem de Kooning wig, lugging gigantic tubes of paint around his studio-cum-nursery. The act of painting – this solo feat, this battling with one’s demons – is sent up as the monstrous display of infantile ego, all messing and throwing and tears before bedtime. McCarthy was at college in the wake of abstract expressionism – not for him the tragic-hero artist.

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