Tacita Dean’s vertical installation FILM, presented in the vast hall of Tate Modern, provides a brilliant experience of analog magic. A joyful, resplendent meditation on the mediums of film and photography—Dean’s signature theme—it is also something different. As the artist observes in her essay in the accompanying publication, her starting point was the Turbine Hall itself, with its immense “ego,” which she felt she must command. Unlike many of her earlier works, form determined content, since the architecture of the hall became the basis for her project.

The central, recurrent image in FILM—though its representation is rarely straightforward—is the back part of the hall, with its wall, window and shiny floor. It appears in an 11-minute, looped, 35mm film projected onto an imposing, freestanding wall, over 40 feet high from the floor up, that hides the actual architecture from view. The artist’s conceit is that the space in which one stands is both host and subject, and this makes for a loaded viewing experience. The dominating physicality of the luscious projection, viewed at the ground level or from the hall’s mezzanine bridge, draws you into its staccato flow, a pastiche of both black-and-white and saturated color images of great variety.

The one constant in FILM is a pair of 35mm film sprocket holes that run vertically along both edges, created by masking in-camera. Throughout the loop, this framing device reinforces a sense of the installation’s materiality, heightening our awareness that we are watching a celluloid film. The sprocket holes also provide an overall cohesion to the layers of imagery within: in addition to the back of the Turbine Hall, wondrously bizarre episodes such as a giant globe-shaped balloon falling gently into a bed of thick white smoke and the reversed footage of a waterfall, seemingly ascending; along with epic stills, among them a picture postcard image of a looming, snow-capped Matterhorn and a bough of ominously over-red apples.

Dean creates a witty exchange between the potentially overwhelming, fixed physical space of the Turbine Hall and the creative mutability of photography and film, which fail even to establish the “real” scale and size of the subjects they present. She uses masks and color filters to further divide the triptychlike structure of the architectural background image. In some shots, the ceiling is blue, the window yellow with pink side panels and the floor green. She also utilizes masks to insert cameos of, for instance, a delicate pink flower, a grasshopper and a snail. Their naturalistic detail is somehow made to seem all the more three-dimensional in the sequences where they are surrounded and juxtaposed with the color-filter blocks. The periodic appearance of hand-punched circular holes, seemingly within the film’s emulsion, further highlights the interplay between two and three dimensions, between representational illusion and tangible depth. In one episode, the artist’s eye at giant scale peers through a hole in the film, seemingly at the viewer. In anothe r sequence, the representation of the Turbine Hall space disappears entirely, leaving only the blocks of color and reminding viewers of their actual experience of the hall, as opposed to Dean’s now absent figurative description of it in her film.

Although one does not see the projector or the action of the film print moving through it, the occasional appearance of old-school scratches on the surface assures us that an old-fashioned projection is taking place. A sense of movement is enhanced through the waterfall images and an escalator ascending and descending. When I visited, children repeatedly ran toward the projection and into FILM’s illusions and visual play. They attempted to ride the escalator, jump into the waves of the sea and catch the falling balloon. The children’s joy reiterated that of the adult viewers, who were invited to remember the wonder and decisive presence of celluloid. 

Photo: Two views of Tacita Dean’s installation FILM, 2011, 35mm film, 11-minute loop; at Tate Modern.