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3 August 2016updated 14 Sep 2021 2:51pm

Can film ever work in an art gallery?

Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Primitive 2009, currently at Tate Modern, looked every bit as ravishing as his cinema work, yet it was hard to enjoy while people around me scrolled through their phones.

By Ryan Gilbey

Strolling around Switch House, the new building at Tate Modern, with its expanses of cold, smooth stone and the magnificent architectural crease-and-swivel effect in the brickwork, I had what felt like a breakthrough. It occurred on the lower floor, in the network of galleries devoted to live art and film and video installations, which lead off from the Turbine Hall. Like the rest of Tate Modern, the space itself is ideally suited to meandering and daydreaming. This is especially true of the largest gallery, which is currently home to Primitive 2009, a multi-screen work by the great Thai director and artist Apichatpong Weerasethakul (whose most recent film, Cemetery of Splendour, opened in June).

The space is steeped almost completely in darkness; visitors are greeted in a kind of reception area by a single screen on which one of Weerasethakul’s films is playing. Round the corner, in the main area, small screens either stand or hang on opposite sides of the vast dark hall with films playing on these also. But the room is dominated by a red carpeted area with scatter cushions which invite us to sprawl in the centre of the gallery, sandwiched between the two giant screens on the main walls. Films are showing continuously here but, though they are all part of the same installation, it is impossible to watch them at the same time unless you happen to have brought with you a large mirror. Some people slump on the cushions, immersed in one or other of the pieces. Others turn their heads at regular intervals, as if following the ball in a slow-motion tennis match, to create in their heads a self-edited montage of the two films, so that the images on the far wall, of boys sleeping inside a red-lit pod, are interspersed with shots from the near one, of lightning and fireworks illuminating a darkened village.

It was while watching these that I admitted to myself that I don’t like films and videos playing in art galleries. Perhaps I should clarify this. I like the films and videos well enough but I have always had a problem (without ever quite realising it until now) with the easy-come-easy-go manner in which they must necessarily be viewed in a gallery space. My mind is trained by the habits of cinemagoing: I can only watch a film from the beginning and I cannot leave before the end.

So the nature of film and video in a gallery is an affront to me. People walk in, they stay for a few seconds or minutes, or longer if there is space on the benches and their feet are throbbing, and then they drift away. I’ve simply never been able to adapt to that way of watching. Even though I know that this is a gallery, and that the rules are different, I am too much a creature of the cinema to break with the habits I have learned there.

Each time I visit a gallery, I make the same gesture to change, and each time it is doomed. Within a minute or two of starting to watch, I feel my impatience mounting—how can this be when I happily revel in the expansiveness of Jacques Rivette’s films Celine and Julie Go Boating (193 minutes) and La Belle Noiseuse (237 minutes)? It’s my surroundings that make me impatient, the walk-ins and walk-outs, rather than whatever happens to be playing on the screen.

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It’s likely that the Weerasethakul provided me with my epiphany because this is a filmmaker whom I already love, and whose films I have watched from start to finish in cinemas, without the option of wandering away at the first dip in my attention, or because I had already arranged to meet a friend in the gallery gift-shop. Primitive 2009 looked every bit as ravishing as his cinema work, and the relaxed environment was a good fit for his languid filmmaking, but I could already feel that the images weren’t taking root in me as deeply or as decisively as when they are the only focus in the room. Watching them unspool while people around me scroll through their mobile phones felt all wrong. The primacy of the image was undermined.

It may be that I need a great video installation to shock me out of my resistance. I long to see in its entirety Christian Marclay’s The Clock, for instance, a 24-hour film pieced together from time-related images culled from cinema history, so that the whole work functions as an ongoing time-piece. (You can see an excerpt from it here and read about its creation here) Until then, I’m going to stick with the other sorts of pictures in the gallery. The ones that don’t move.