Tsai Ming-liang, Matthias Müller, Christoph Girardet, Graham Gussin, Sandra Gibson / Luis Recoder, Ariane Michel and Cesário Alves
In the last decade, cinema has been establishing a positive and privileged relationship with the museum as an exhibition venue. This form of artistic expression, however, found its own place in what would mark the life of the cinema phenomenon throughout the 20th century – the film theatre. The emergence of the film theatre, whose function was to show films, happened simultaneously with the birth of cinema, initially with the small rooms improvised by the Lumière Brothers on the occasion of the first public showings of the cinematograph.
From 1895, these venues served as a new place for magic and illusion where a small audience watched, inside a darkened room, the projection of a celluloid film. A succession of static images was thus projected on a white screen, which by its motion and sequence, created in the viewer the illusion of seeing reality in motion.
This way of creating the illusion of space, movement and life reproduced on a screen was possible because of celluloid and the object that projected light and images on the screen – the projector. Throughout the 20th century, this technique was perfected, establishing itself as the physical matter that would mark the history and the life of film theatres.
At the cinema, in the stalls or in the balcony, with rows of more or less comfortable seats, people were able to dream, find divas that they had never seen before, laugh with Charles Chaplin and Buster Keaton, applaud and maybe even sleep, as we can remember from Fellini’s theatre in “Amarcord”.
In the 1970s, the rise of video started a crisis that years later became decisive for the decline of the film theatre as a space of great social impact, where big audiences watched films as a great show.
At the same time, the impact of television was also growing. TV could be seen without leaving home and gradually conquered viewers from film theatres. TV also promoted a relationship of personal enjoyment with cinema.
Thus, over the last decades, we have been witnessing the progressive disappearance of big cinemas and their substitution by the typical small studios of the 1980s and by multiplexes which invaded shopping centres. Little by little, the new venues were emptied of the magic of the first cinemas and great movie theatres from the golden age of cinema. Venues started to close down in city centres and abandon its noble areas.
The 1990s brought digital technology and the definitive end of domestic film stock, such as Super 8 – as well as the progressive disappearance of the most recent domestic video format, such as VHS.
Currently, the new television and digital cinema systems have provided homes and new film theatres with great visual and sound quality for presenting films.
Thus, all the materials and media characteristic of the greater part of the history of cinema exhibition in movie theaters – such as the projector and the 16mm film – disappeared and even the current 35mm projectors, which equip most theatres around the world, are starting to be substituted by the new digital projection systems.
Nowadays, however, some directors have developed a nostalgia towards this phenomenon and artists from different areas have a greater interest in the artistic possibilities of the above mentioned obsolete materials as well as in the re-utilisation of images provided by cinema’s history. This can be seen in a noticeable recovery of film materials which gradually is invading venues, other than the film theatres.
We are therefore witnessing a progressive incursion of cinema’s history and materials into exhibition venues such as galleries and museums and even in performances of a more ephemeral nature.
In 2002, within the scope of and in association with Curtas Vila do Conde – International Film Festival, a new project emerged which has been paying special attention to this phenomenon – the interference of the cinematographic world in the space of a gallery. And so, Solar – Cinematic Art Gallery was born.
Solar has presented, for the first time in Portugal, work by artists such as Eija-Liisa Athila, Matthias Müller, Christoph Girardet, Martin Arnold and Graham Gussin. The work presented shows a special interest in recovering the memory of cinema through the use of found footage, the re-utilisation of material from the cinema phenomenon and from its genres. With these artists, artistic creation with a strong cinematographic motivation left the traditional exhibition in film theatres and TV and started to move into venues which traditionally are connected with visual arts such as painting, sculpture and installation.
At the same time, among those who maintain a nostalgic relationship with cinema and its history, there are movie makers such as Tsai Ming-liang (from who, this year, Solar presented the installation “Erotic Space”) who tend to show an interest in other exhibition venues for moving images such as the museum and the art gallery.
It was precisely from another project, devised by Tsai for the Atopia exhibition (curated by Hong John Lin for the Venice Biennale in 2007) – “It’s a Dream” -, that the idea of organising this exhibition, At the Cinema, emerged. This piece brings into the exhibition room a movie theatre with walls covered with mirrors, a screen and a series of chairs taken from an old movie theatre in Malaysia (where the director was born in 1957). In this “cinema”, a film showing an abandoned movie theatre with these same chairs is being presented.
Equally, this project also had at its origin, the installation “Deanimated”, recently presented at Solar during the exhibition dedicated to experimental director Martin Arnold. “Deanimated” brought into the gallery a simulation of a movie theatre showing a version of “The Invisible Man” where the characters progressively disappeared from the screen through a process of digital manipulation.
These two installations which relocate the physical presence of the film theatre in a gallery, were the starting point for this exhibition at Centro de Memória, whose title appeals to the past and present of the place of Cinema.
The melancholy of the end of cinema allows for the construction of a material memory of cinematic art and the musealisation of cinema’s space and its exhibition – the projection in a dark room. The notion of time is altered – the time of a personal relationship with cinema -, which is now fragmented into broken and never-ending narratives, as in a loop. Light, image, sound, film, the projector... create a new spatial relationship with the viewer, who incarnates the role of witness and survivor of a public show, which meanwhile has been devalued, surpassed by the shift from public projection to private consumption.
An itinerary is defined throughout the exhibition rooms, introducing the visitor in an immersion space, a space in which he (re)discovers traces of cinema’s space (the same cinema that accompanied us for decades until entering into decline due to current moving image broadcasting and viewing methods), in a context of visual bulimia that privileges a never-ending and fragmented flow of images.
The viewer is encouraged to walk around, abandoning the contemplative/passive attitude that he used to have in the movie theatre in order to, in face of the multiple and simultaneous projections, go through the different exhibition rooms, make choices, linger or discover new spaces, integrating the artistic work itself. In this exhibition, the visitor is invited to walk around the rooms and identify the forms and sounds of the very mechanisms that allow him to enjoy the films.
This is exactly what happens with the installation “It’s a Dream”, by Tsai Ming-Liang, where old cinema chairs are used to watch the projection of images from the context from which they were removed.
In “Play”, by Girardet/Müller, we are made to take the role of the observed when being confronted with a video made of sequences of images of audiences watching classic films, which seem to react to our presence.
The moment and the film projection process are accompanied either by the absence of viewers in “Unseen Film” – a piece by Graham Gussin which has a strong provocative sense, exhibiting all the tickets from a cinema session that will never have any viewers – or by the never-ending spill of film that invades the room in the installation “Light Spill” by Sandra Gibson and Luís Recoder.
“Café no Cinema” (Coffee at the Cinema) which includes pictures by the photographer Adriano, depicting Cine-Teatro Neiva, im Vila do Conde (1940), gain new life due to the past recollections of Cesário Alves’ family members.
The different pieces included in “At The Cinema” become a dismembered body, distant and without a context, but full of the shadows that inhabit our imagery, demonstrating the permanence of cinema’s existence which can be seen in the impact it has in contemporary art.