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CHATS PERCHÉS – Case of the Grinning Cat

Michael Snow: Wavelength

by Elizabeth Legge
Afterall Books, Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts, London, 2009
Distributed by The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA
93 pp, illus. 32 col. plates, 16 b/w inline. Trade, $35.00; paper, $16.00
ISBN: 1-846380-55-3; ISBN: 1-846380-56-1.

Mike Leggett
University of Technology Sydney


The film, Wavelength, is one of the key 20th Century artworks that connects often disparate groupings: the Modernist tendency in the visual arts with motion picture technologies of the 1960s; the 'New American Cinema' with the European experimental filmmakers (and the often warring groups of artists amongst both groups); and it connects too the Continental structuralist philosophies with the burgeoning field of post-object art theory and criticism. According to the author, 'Wavelength is a lucid, closed-room mystery that evokes and calls the bluff of the preoccupations of an era', and she assiduously pursues the aesthetic preoccupations together with her interpretations of the work and its ramifications.

Elizabeth Legge's book is an admirable documentation of the film and its making within the context of the overall much admired output of the broadly respected Canadian artist, Michael Snow. Now producing sculptural public commissions in his 80s, much of his most influential work was produced in New York City during the late 50s and 60s. Set in a New York loft, the film comprises a 45-minute zoom that ends by framing a photograph attached to the wall between two windows at the far end of the room; during the time that elapses, events and sounds are seen and heard, that through aesthetic design, highlight the play between the filmmaker's engagement with the creative process and the audience's reflexive viewing as filmic experience of the projected artefact.

Wavelength and artists' films in general are only available through specialist distributors and though a version sourced from Italian television has been placed on You Tube, much of the film's subtleties are erased, together with the scale and pictorial nature of the large projected image, shared with an audience prepared to actively engage. Eighteen good quality colour plates give some idea of what is seen. Legge's account of the film describes her experience of it which, whilst essential to those who have not seen it, includes the kinds of asides, both hers and others, that many would wordlessly generate during a viewing: associations initially with the place, and the people who from time to time enter and leave, the music they hear, the sounds of the City, the stories and mythologies that resonate. As the zoom and her account progresses, so we learn of the milieu in which Snow worked, some pages from notebooks are evidenced, previous and later films are pulled in; the French presence in writing, theatre and the films of the novelle vague are accounted for, the other artists, dancers, musicians and experimental filmmakers with whom he shared 'thots' (thoughts in Canadian).

The 'structuring of time' and 'time-shapes' are expressions he uses to describe much of his work's involvement and this, Legge points out, '...draws Wavelength into the gravitational field of time as it was being recalibrated in philosophy, history, narrative theory, popular science, technology and systems theory'. These topics together with Snow's own interest in phenomenology moves the account inexorably into a deeper post-viewing interpretation and analysis of the work and its ramifications within the broader context of art history and art historical discourse. As Legge observes, the photograph of the wave at the conclusion of the film presents, 'different options for construing it', options which are dutifully taken.

The book is an enjoyable and lucid account of a major artwork and its context, carefully footnoted. It underlines the bizarre attitude of major collections towards visual artists in general who worked with 16mm film back then (for little more than a decade), who are still largely ignored. Whilst video dominates the offerings of most contemporary art galleries and biennales, the particular qualities of film are rarely seen.

This title brings to 14 the total so far in the One Work series auspiced by the University of the Arts London, who with the financial involvement of the Arts Council of England and distribution by The MIT Press, are setting out to expand in-depth critical responses to individual key art works from the 1960s to the present day. With some 100 monographs planned, other already published titles in the series include a key work by: Andy Warhol, Yvonne Rainer, Hollis Frampton, Ilya Kabokov, Bas Jan Ader, Sarah Lucas, Richard Prince, Joan Jonas, Hanne Darboven, Marc Camille Chaimowicz et al. The precept of a ‘key work’ as a way of avoiding the using the fusty unfashionable term ‘masterpiece’ nonetheless and unfortunately will divert attention away from the egalitarian attitudes from which most of the work of the period emerged.

Last Updated 16th August, 2010

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