Thursday, 15 May 2008


The Art of Andrei Tarkovsky, Tate Modern, 9 May 2008

There have been numerous retrospectives of Andrei Tarkovsky over the last year – at the Barbican, French Institute, and Curzon Mayfair – and each has presented a different Tarkovsky, revealing his mutable and elusive influence. Take the Curzon Mayfair events in December 2007: featuring talks by actors and collaborators it presented Tarkovsky as Russian Genius, filmmaker of the spiritual world, preferring anecdotes and narratives of his films transformative potential to critical discussion. Layla Alexander-Garrett, translator on The Sacrifice and one of the organisers of that event, was in the audience at Tate Modern for The Art of Andrei Tarkovsky, several times intervening angrily at this latest re-working of Tarkovsky, which foregrounded his influence amongst contemporary artists.

Organised by Nathan Dunne and Vlad Strukov, in collaboration with the London Consortium, the day had begun with a presentation by Evgeny Tsymbal, director's assistant on The Stalker, which attempted to shift the idea of Tarkovsky from Romantic, spiritual genius-prophet to a collaborative, process-based, slightly conceptual artist more amenable to an age of relational aesthetics. Tsymbal himself, of course, didn’t have this framework, but he did want to return Tarkovsky to the everyday, focussing particularly on a sequence in The Stalker where there is a slow pan over a number of sand covered objects under water. Tsymbal emphasised that he himself had chosen the objects with minimal interference from Tarkovsky. He showed the auteur’s vision falling prey to practicalities of film making: Tarkovsky wanted to include images of Giotto and Piero della Francesca, but Tsymbal could only find Rembrandt’s Three Trees and Van Eycks’ Ghent alterpiece; Tarkovsky’s own contribution to the scene was to introduce a live frog, but it always jumped out of frame too quickly to be included. Tsymbal also emphasised the way Tarkovsky thought through film making: starting work on the film three times with different camera men; the final film needing a change of conception of the stalker himself from hard, decisive strong man to something more elusive and emaciated before the rest of the film could take shape.

The space that Tsymbal opened up was occupied by scholar Robert Bird, who sought to understand why Tarkovsky has been so influential to contemporary artists. Bird’s observations were rooted in his own phenomenological experience: that he experienced the same emotions and sensations in, say, Douglas Gordons 24 Hour Psycho as he did watching a Tarkovsky film. This he related, as did many of the days speakers, to Tarkovsky's sense of time, particularly its unfolding through long takes. Bird saw this as Tarkovsky inhabiting the material of his media, in a way related to, for example, Man Ray’s photograms. Furthermore, in a Tarkovsky image different regimes of representation – from icon painting, to the fireworks evocativie of revolutionary celebration – were reinscribed in individual memory and body. Indeed, Bird's sense of the long takes were in part that they offered spaces where a variety of different times, experiences and confluences are imprinted. This explained the particular atmosphere of Tarkovsky’s films, as well as – and this point was repeated by many of the presentations – creating an openness for the viewer to reach their own understandings.

The artist Hannah Collins showed two works that positioned themselves in different ways in relation to Tarkovsky: an extract from a work in progress that featured a long tracking shot through an abandoned factory in Lille, followed by extracts from A Current History (2006), a double screen work juxtaposing life in the Russian village of Beshencevo and the city of Nizhny Novogorod. More broadly, she outlined a model of both the specificity and vagary of influence, noting she had seen Tarkovsky movies as a student but not watched them again until recently. She noted how images and moments could stay in the mind and appear in a work years later; that one could only access parts of a work, meaning influence was always a matter of shadows and echoes. Indeed, Collins was the first to emphasise the alien historical circumstances of Tarkovsky’s films and the possibly unbridgeable distance from which, gathered in Tate Modern's Starr auditorium, we were thinking about them. During Collins’ talk I first experienced what was probably the days dominant sensation: excitement at the workings of Tarkovsky’s influence; disquiet at the ease with which he was being absorbed into the language and attitudes of contemporary art making and viewing.

The afternoon began with James Quandt, Senior Progammer at Cinematheque Ontario in Toronto, who offered an overview of Tarkovsky’s infuence in a range of contemporary art-house film makers, including Bela Tarr, Lars Von Trier and Carlos Reygadas. Quandt, admitting both the range of forms influence could take and that in the end it was always ineffable, was adept at showing Tarkovsky’s influence at work both literally through a range of motifs – dogs, rain, ruins, trees – and through their related attitudes of spiritual anguish and nature mysticism. He sought to distinguish between artists who could absorb the influence into their own film making – such as Bela Tarr – and those who got lost in the endless production of “Tarr-clones,” most notably Andrey Zvyagintsev's The Banishment. Admitting the endless and elusive characteristics of the game of influences, Quandt concluded with a number of questions: is it the most singular style that proves the most influential and easy to emulate? How - thinking of Tarkovsky's influence on Asian film makers such as Tsai Ming-Liang and Apichatpong Weerasethakul - do traits transmute in different places? What role do film schools play in the dissemination of style?

Quandt’s informative presentation was oddly paired with the novelist Toby Litt, who began by claiming to speak as post-MTV watcher of Tarkovsky and concluded by being the one speaker to directly explore and affirm the spiritual nature of Tarkovsky’s films. Litt focussed on the slowness of Tarkovsky’s films and how the viewer could shift from being very bored to fascinated by changing their expectations. Like Bird, he was interested in how Tarkovsky offered a “re-configured screen”, allowing the audience openness in how to respond. For Litt, this focussed on how, during these long takes, we could choose what to look at amongst the multiple “field “ of the screen, coming to accept what was there rather than impatiently searching for visions – a notion Litt drew from Tarkovsky’s own observations of living in the countryside in contrast to the city. Central to this, for Litt, was the way the viewer could look at an image, experience a lapse of concentration, but then come back to it, the pace of the film slow enough to allow this pattern of concentration-lapse-return to be repeated three or four times.

Litt's talk was entertaining and illuminating but such notions are inevitably a gross simplification of the perceptual process and the relation between looking and understanding. A similar criticism could be made of the bizarre last part of Litt’s talk which interpreted these aspects of style as a morally improving good, the products of the film makers own moral intergrity, Litt even observing that liking Tarkovsky’s films made one “less angered, more considerate and capable of self-control.” Litt presented all this in a self- aware, post-modern style, seeking and getting laughs from the audience, but ultimately using his authority to present a hugely reactionary, conservative, and ungrounded model of creativity and reader response. In the discussion afterwards, Quandt seemed, understandably, a little bemused, questioning the connection of long takes with spiritual import, and observing that Bresson’s own trajectory into a spiritual film making, for example, had seen an opposite development into shorter edits.

Finally, Hannah Starkey and Jeremy Millar offered two further models of contemporary artists engaging with Tarkovsky. For Starkey, her new found relationship to the film maker had developed from Nathan Dunne’s suggestion that her photographs had something of the Tarkovsky spirit, prompting a month of research. Starkey began by presenting her own work from 1997-2007, and the connection was apparent. She described her work as “a process of observation and consideration,” building up layers to create multiple relationships and a meeting between "outer world and inner experience." Her work focussed on the single image – that “holds” and exists in time “for as long as the viewer is interested” and where “compositional movement creates the illusion of movement.” Starkey was interested in the image become “inexplicable,” a quality she saw as partically explained by Roland Barthes’ notion of punctuum. As for effect on the viewer, Starkey sought for a balance of pleasure and criticality and to “seduce by aesthetic… [then] move into a deconstruction of the image.” In Tarkovsky, Starkey said, she had found confirmation and illumination via his example of attaining the almost impossible through sheer will, seeing his films as the products of entering an inspired working space of flow and connection that "allows chance and serendipity."

For Millar, the relationship to Tarkovsky was revealed in his own video footage of the locations of Stalker, part of Ajapeegal (2006-), an ongoing project motivated also by Tallinn's function as a popular location for English stag weekends. Millar's deliberetely flat, video images of peopleless landscapes contrasted with the highly stylised, atmospheric Stalker and outlined Millar’s practice of obliqueness, delay, and displacement, something he identified as characterising Tarkovsky’s oeuvre. In Millar’s work, Tarkovsky took his place alongside other obliquely viewed artists: Marcel Duchamp making notes on the large glass during three weeks in Herne Bay, or Robert Smithson at Hotel Palenque. In the fragmentary way it was presented here I found it impossible to get a sense of the rhythm and scale of Millar's projects. Instead, his presentation had the rather unfortunate effect of focussing some of the disquiet that had built up during the day in which Tarkovsky himself rather vanished amongst the contemporary artists' sense of their right to wander freely, composing out of an intoxicating mix of art history, contemporary reality, personal experience and memory. Such a practice may be a rewarding one, but at the end of a long symposium day, I felt it raised the danger of mis-appropriation and - at the risk of sounding like Toby Litt! - wrong relationship.

A rewarding day had thus followed a trajectory whereby Tarkovsky, freed from the tyranny of his own prophetical myth, ended up, strange and mutable, partially transformed into a Russian Robert Smithson, reading Relationship Aesthetics on a stag weekend in Tallin. If this was an exciting and informative process to observe, it also risked historical amnesia, as two powerful interventions by Lithuanian audience members highlighted. What was it like to watch these films in Russia in 1979? Unconsciously The Art of Andrei Tarkovsky had become less about bridging that historical gap than about removing it as an awkward question.