New York

Bill Morrison

Maya Stendhal Gallery

In A Voyage on the North Sea, Rosalind Krauss recalls that in the late ’60s and early ’70s artists including Richard Serra and Robert Smithson made a habit of visiting Anthology Film Archives, where they absorbed the canon of modernist film up to and including its structuralist endgames. These days, the art world seems to be in the midst of a similar, if more diffuse, engagement with the classics of experimental cinema—viz. Stan Brakhage’s inclusion in the current Whitney Biennial or the modernism-is-dead, long-live-modernism riffing of film and video artists from Jeremy Blake to Haluk Akakçe to Paul Sietsema. Experimental filmmaker Bill Morrison’s recent show, which centered on the feature-length Decasia, 2002, fell into alignment with this convergence; Morrison’s films, which use decayed footage as medium and metaphor, elegize the avant-garde tradition even as they make the case for its continued relevance.

What preservationists call “visual distraction”—the derangements of the cinematic image that occur when celluloid warps, emulsion cracks and blisters, or mold grows between the convolutions of the reel—is the main event in Decasia. Commissioned to make a movie to accompany a symphony by composer Michael Gordon, Morrison trolled film libraries around the US, unearthing decomposing newsreels, melodramas, and travelogues—most of them printed on celluloid nitrate, the notoriously nonarchival stock that was in wide use until 1951. He selected dozens of sequences and edited them into a sixty-seven-minute black-and-white montage in which cinematic conventions are repeatedly undone by the special effects of decay.

These effects are endlessly various: They take shape as flat patterns—linear striations or Art Nouveau–ish whorls—that appear to etch themselves on the surface of the image, or as billowing maelstroms or Brownian swarms that appear to engulf filmic space. There’s no narrative here and not much intercutting or other editing-room legerdemain—just a stately procession of decontextualized clips, many in slow motion. A woman in a kimono emerges from a nebula of lava-lamp blobs; a man at a spinning wheel looks as if he were lit from within by phosphor; a Jazz Age couple dance behind a metastasizing colony of black dots. Toward the end, parachutes descend through murky ether for an impossibly long time. But to describe these sequences at all necessarily ossifies them, since language can’t account for their jittery kineticism (which is heightened by the momentum of Gordon’s atonal, minimalist score). The images’ constant flux defeats the viewer’s attempts to fix and comprehend them, creating a sense of anxiety and suspense that, perhaps, qualifies Decasia as a peculiar kind of psychological thriller. Here, the bogey is not a sociopathic villain but the unstable nature of cultural memory embodied in its own physical support, which mutates and molders before our eyes. This is probably why the least successful part of Morrison’s show—which also included three short films that combine found and original footage—was a trio of silk screens that reproduce rotted, damaged stills from Decasia and from the short Light Is Calling, 2003. Frozen, decay becomes patina, an attractive finish that proffers all the comforts of nostalgia.

While Morrison’s concerns with obsolescence and with the archive place him alongside any number of neo-Conceptualists, Decasia resonates most strongly on a more reflexive level, where the history of film itself is specifically engaged. Its aleatory animations point toward an ironic denouement to the old conflict between representational and abstract film—what Malevich called, with respective disdain and approbation, “imitative” cinema and cinema “as such.” Imitative cinema would seem to have decisively won the day (not only in the theater, but, arguably, in the white cube as well). But as Decasia illustrates, Malevich gets the last laugh: All film, if left to its own devices, will eventually become cinema as such.

Elizabeth Schambelan