New York

Catherine Yass

Two projections, both shot on film and transferred to video, face each other across a darkened room. One shows the view, from the bow of a ship, of a concrete-lined waterway leading to a massive canal lock. In the other, the camera looks back from the ship’s stern at a disappearing river. Once the ship enters the lock, tiny figures scurry about on the bow to secure the vessel. Sound is minimal and muted: There is the low rumble of the ship’s engine, the groan of the gates opening and closing, and an announcement made over a public address system. The ship enters the lock. The water rises. The concrete doors open and the ship emerges into a misty landscape. That’s about it.

Catherine Yass’s film Lock, 2006, shot at the Three Gorges Dam on China’s Yangtze River during the second stage of the artist’s residency there last year, follows the pattern of much of her earlier work. Though she never employs slow motion, the passage of time in Yass’s films seems to occur at a glacial pace. But at several points in the nine-minute-and-forty-four-second Lock, the images fade to black, then reappear, shortening the apparent time it takes for a ship to traverse the system. Perspective is paramount. Lock offers forward and backward views; earlier projects employed even more unusual formal devices. Descent, 2002, for instance, was shot from an eight-hundred-foot crane at Canary Wharf in London and was both edited and projected upside-down, while Wall, 2004, which focuses on the partition erected by security forces to separate Israel from the Palestinian territories, offers a claustrophobic close-up.

At Galerie Lelong, Lock was accompanied by a group of photographs—the majority depicting the Yangtze River viewed from a bridge—mounted on five light boxes. Yass has developed a method of shooting, removing the film from her camera, reloading it, and then reshooting from the same vantage point, creating ethereal-looking double exposures in which her typically slow-moving subjects—ships, opening locks—seem to have ghostly auras. Here, the white penumbrae that appear behind the boats on the river represent traces of the first exposure. The superimposition of the two photographs also makes Shanghai’s skyline, shimmering in the distance, appear as weightless and immaterial as the clouds and their shadows on the river.

Yass downplays the significance of her subjects, but her locations hardly seem to have been chosen at random. The Three Gorges is the largest hydroelectric dam in the world and has been a site of controversy since construction, which was completed last May, began twelve years ago. It has displaced nearly two million people, whose homes are now underwater, and has caused widespread environmental damage, to say nothing of its effects on cultural heritage as ancient buildings and towns are inundated. Watching the boat’s slow progress, one is given ample time to ponder such facts and their implications. Lock could be a meditation on human life—where we’re going and where we’ve been. It might be a rumination on progress and industry, the freight traffic on the Yangtze asserting the presence of China, an ancient civilization, in the modern world. Some might even read it as a portent as the People’s Republic maneuvers to overtake the United States as the world’s preeminent superpower. On the other hand, given Yass’s strict focus on formal gestures and deliberate exclusion of contextualizing narrative, she leaves open the possibility that Lock is simply a film about a ship going down a river and through a lock.

Martha Schwendener