London – Tate Modern Oil Tanks

68
Tate Modern

[Texte en anglais]

Tate Modern Oil Tanks, London, UK, October 15–18, 2009

A few weeks before the start of Tate Modern’s ambitious extension works, the space which used to shelter the oil tanks of the former Bankside Power Station offered a scenic backdrop to the last in a series of specially commissioned artistic projects. On four consecutive days, to coincide with the Frieze art fair, this part of the building, normally inaccessible to the general public, hosted John Baldessari’s film installation Five 1968 Films (New) from 2000 alongside his retrospective Pure Beauty (on display until January 10, 2010).
The five-screen projection by the artist, cast in the retrospective as one of the pioneers of conceptual art, takes as its starting point all the US-produced films shown in cinemas in Los Angeles on August 21, 1968, the day of the invasion of Czechoslovakia by armies of the Warsaw Pact, which stopped the Prague Spring in its tracks and thus effectively marked the beginning of the end of the Socialist utopia.

From a total of 130 films, Baldessari first chose four which he thought epitomised both the zeitgeist and Hollywood’s recurring genre stereotypes: Planet of the Apes (science-fiction), Rosemary’s Baby (horror), The Green Berets (war) and The Thomas Crown Affair (love story). He then split the images of each movie into four equal frames, from which he selected one to be projected as a full image on a large screen. The four resulting projections each show a different square—top left, top right, bottom left and bottom right, respectively—of the individual films. This is where the fifth screen, the dramatic climax of the installation at Tate, comes into the picture. Here, the four fragments are reunited in a split-screen projection, forming a kaleidoscopic condensation of the dominant (Western) film typology of that era, while the combined soundtrack of the four blockbusters furthermore underlines their formulaic structure.

Five 1968 Films (New) reflects Baldessari’s lifelong interest in -typologies and ordering systems of the world, which he previously pursued in other media—notably the series of works on paper entitled Blasted Allegories, based on complex verbal-visual statistics informed by structuralist methodologies. More to the point, this particular installation stages a confrontation of utopias, in which the political reality of one (East), despite or because of its conspicuous absence, is reflected in the ideological vision of the other (West). Ironically, it was the latter which survived, proving Baldessari’s implicit point that fantasy might well be stronger than reality.

The screening of this hard-edged conceptual demonstration in the cavernous, “auratic” halls of the oil tanks might have appeared like a bit of a gamble. As it turned out, its audacious staging by Tate Modern film curator Stuart Comer, assisted by Gil Leung, was a welcome addition to the scholarly but arguably somewhat conventional presentation of Baldessari’s retrospective on the upper floor of the building.

Image: John Baldessari, Five 1968 Films (New), 2000. photo : Lucy Dawkins, courtesy Tate Photography, London

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