Ceci n’est pas… – A thought on cinema and sight

In preparation for the May 24 Research Lab A Sensorium of Cinematic Apparatuses, the students of the UvA MA seminar Curating the Moving Image reflect in their blog posts on a particular aspect of the themes in the required theoretical readings or on the development of the curated EYE on Art evening.

Curation Histories, Curation Philosophies
By Lisanne van den Heuvel

René Margritte once said about his famous image of a pipe painted on canvas: ‘The famous pipe. How people reproached me for it! And yet, could you stuff my pipe? No, it’s just a representation, is it not? So if I had written on my picture ‘This is a pipe’, I’d have been lying![i] Of course, when we are looking at a painting we are in fact just looking at a carrier covered with paint. So, what is it than what we see when we as an audience sit down in our cosy seats at the cinema, the lights get dimmed and the film starts to play? This essay tries to illuminate on the hunger for people to go and watch representations of real life in light.

With his statement Margritte emphasises a point Maurice Denis stated 40 years earlier in 1890 when he said that ‘before a picture is subject matter, it is first of all a surface covered with lines and colors.’[ii] Brian O’Doherty describes the relation of illusionism in painting evolving to abstraction with its focus on the surface (covered with lines and colors) of the object and how this relates to the space and other objects with which the object is surrounded. He described the relation of illusionistic paintings to the space they were hanging before the twentieth century as entities excluding the wall: ‘For the easel picture is like a portable window that, once set on the wall, penetrates it with deep space [..] The wall itself is always recognized as limiting dept (you don’t walk trough it), just as corners and ceilings [..] limit size.’[iii] In this light, the illusionistic films that are screened in the cinema right now are probably comparable to a certain extent as how paintings were approached before the twentieth century. The walls surrounding the screens are denied by making them invisible by shutting the lights down. The screen itself must be as flat as possible so the screening can act as an ultimate window that penetrates it with deep space, with the dark space acting as a frame. How different would an experience in a cinema be if for example the screening was available on at least two walls and if the screen would not be flat and white?

To come back at Denis: what is a film than before it is subject matter? You could say that film is first of all a surface covered with light and the element of time is included, this definition would fit the analogical screening as well as a digital screening of film. Philippe- Alain Michaud explains in a dissertation ‘The movement of images’ how in the last decade many artists have been playing with these variables in film which include light, darkness, the cinematic apparatus, the screen, time, space, the place of the public.[iv] When he arrives at a section describing experimental art he mentions Paul Sharits production of ‘ Shutter Interface’ from 1975: ‘By using a modified projector with the shutter and the engaging claw removed, Paul Sharits produces a flow of colours with neither definition nor outline: the focus is no longer the ultimate end of the image, the film no longer appears as a discreet continuum of photograms, but a variant of the monochrome.’[v] (see fig 1.) This is what to my opinion what film can be in its truest form: (coloured) light on a flat surface without the element of time linked to a realistic narrative.


Figure 1. Paul Sharits, Shutter Interface, 1975. Photo courtesy of Smithsonian, source: https://www.si.edu/tbma/hmsg_sharits.

So what is it than, that when we go to the cinema we would rather be overwhelmed by representations of life than to for example watch hours of abstract images of colours flickering, which would be the material essence of film. Why are we so attracted to the illustionistic image? Probably this is a subject of large content and that has sociological, historical and psychological aspects to it and unfortunately I cannot claim to have found the perfect answer to this question. However, I have found a blog in which Brett McCracken has vividly written why he thinks why we watch naturalistic movies: ‘Movies are different because they can capture, probe, explore the world in ways no other medium can.[..] Movies are visceral.’[vi] In fact he sais that when you are watching a‘naturalistic’ film, feelings are provoked and senses are stimulated in an intuitive manner.

In our cinematic event you will be challenged to be consciously aware of your senses in the cinema. In several ways we will be trying to evoke stimuli to let you experience the pivotal role your senses play in making a film more than light flickering on a screen. We will aim for letting you experience the subject matter and at the same time making you consciously aware of space, screen time, light and the filmic apparatus So in the end, hopefully, giving you a material -as well as a visceral experience.

[i] Torczyner, Harry. Margritte: Ideas and images. p.71.

[ii] O’Doherty, Brian. Inside the white cube: the ideology of the gallery space. P.22.

[iii] O’Doherty, Brian. Inside the white cube: the ideology of the gallery space. P.18.

[iv] Michaud, Philippe-Alain. The movement of images. 15-30.

[v] Michaud, Philippe-Alain. The movement of images. 23.

[vi] McCracken, Brett. Why do we watch movies? 2015. Souce: http://www.relevantmagazine.com/culture/film/why-do-we-watch-movies




Figure 1. Paul Sharits, Shutter Interface, 1975. Photo courtesy of Smithsonian, source: https://www.si.edu/tbma/hmsg_sharits.


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