At the age of 20, I studied abroad for a year in Germany at Justus Liebig Universität. There, on a whim, I took a film studies seminar. The professor opened the course with a field trip to the Museum für Moderne Kunst in Frankfurt am Main. The class of seven made the trip down, a short ride on the Deutsche Bahn, and met the professor at the door to the museum. MMK is a rather odd building. Designed by architect Hans Hollein, it is shaped like a piece of cake wedged next to the Römerberg.
At the center of the Kuchen, in a small, darkened room, was Line Describing a Cone, McCall’s seminal work from 1973 in which a white line, starting with a dot at the bottom of the screen is slowly drawn with light from a 16mm projector. The first in his solid-light series, a line describes a circle and as one observes, a cone forms in the dust of the room. Over the course of thirty minutes, the physical presence of film becomes manifest. I saw film for the first time and the feeling remains with me. The cone, a shape synonymous with vision, first acts as a barrier, keeps you outside the scope of light but eventually draws one into the center, bisecting your body and entreating you to consider vision, projection, cinema and light all with the seemingly simple action of a line animation.
Prior to his solid-light series, McCall completed a series of performances including Landscape for Fire, 1972. He wanted to document these performances but soon found the act of documentation maligned the performative and simply was unable to capture the entirety of the performative act. This is, he believes, what lead him to create Line, where he allowed the act of projection to perform film. He first showed the film at a small gallery in Sweden, the first time he had seen the final print, while there for a performance from his fire-scape series.
The effect of the short film was palpable in the air, prompting McCall to comment during a symposium at the University of Chicago in 2012, “I couldn’t see the connection between what I’d done and what I’d seen.” Line became a success of interdisciplinary practices by allowing for the existence of independent disciplines, in this case film, sculpture and performance, to mutually inform and deconstruct one another due to the strict disciplinary constructions that existed between the divergent practices in the ‘70s. However, McCall recognized a correlation, something film theorist André Bazin noted of film in his seminal What is Cinema?: "The cinema is objectivity in time... Now, for the first time, the image of things is likewise the image of their duration, change mummified…" McCall refuted by exploring the contingency of time through light.
Long Film for Ambient Light, 1975, abstracted the practice of time-based arts even further. In a warehouse in New York, he installed a large globe lamp and hung white paper over the windows. During the day, muted light would flood the gallery and at night, the papered windows would become screens, whereupon the light from the central lamp was projected. McCall describes the filmic quality of the work in an essay written for the journal October in 2003; “the film existed in the space between the room, the statement, and the time schema, and could be grasped as such… The installation sat precisely on a threshold, on one side of which was ‘time-based’ art, and on the other, ‘non-time-based’ art.”
Twenty-two years passed from Long Film for Ambient Light until he would show work in a major way.
McCall worked as a designer for arts publications. He saw no possibility for making a career out of experimental art in 1975, citing the impossibility of displaying Line in environments that were not thick with dust and smoke, the medium in the air that allowed the work to perform sculpturally. Not until the ‘90s did fog machines facilitate his ability to exhibit. This shift coincided with a desire by museums to bulk up their film and video collections.
In 2004, McCall exhibited Doubling Back at the Whitney Biennial as a continuation of his solid-light series, but now executed digitally. The continuation of the solid-light series have all been designed algorithmically and projected via a digital projector. Doubling Back consisted of wipes between two forms implied through movement: always there but never fully apparent, creating a gestural sculpture that relies on the expected perception of geometric entities. McCall, throughout his oeuvre, always returns to essential elements: light and dark, fire and, as we will see, water. To manipulate these, he approaches the problem of artistic construction mathematically and in so doing entreats a universal artistic language of expression: geometric expression through elemental forms.
You and I, Horizontal followed in 2005. I was able to see this piece at the Phenomenologies of Projection, Aesthetics of Transition Symposium organized by Michelle Menzies at the University of Chicago this last February. Screened at the Experimental Station, a gallery close to the university campus, You and I, Horizontal was familiar. The experience of walking into a darkened room, senses heightened to avoid unwanted collisions, eyes reaching to seek out shadows. The screening was held immediately following the symposium and so the large room was crowded with people, milling about. Most stationed themselves somewhere between the projector and the screen, again, bounding the white forms that materialized in the fog-filled room. Eventually, this reverence broke and people crossed through the beams of light. McCall describes You and I as a mobile of light. It is, as is Doubling Back, a transitional sculpture “never not fully there.” It’s hard not to mark these newer works, especially the horizontal pieces, as small variations on a theme. In some respects, that is exactly what they are, an expansion of the solid-light series, however, one cannot help but notice the effect that is still present in the viewing audience. There is a mythic quality, a primitive scintillation.
Line Describing a Cone 2.0, 2011, was shown following the viewing of You and I. The digital nature of this second version turned the sound of a clicking 16mm projector into the soft hum of a cooling fan. Striations in the light beamed from the projector could be seen as well as slight pixelization in the solid-light images, but the magic was still there. People crowded into the space defined by the beams of light, inching forward to the source of projection, mesmerized by the play of form and formlessness like a swarm of Icaruses. Film theorist, Tom Gunning, was present and the smile on his face was of a child as he walked down the tunnel towards the light, experiencing for the first time what he had devoted his life to studying. This experience of Line 2.0 was much less about the solitary contemplation as was my first encounter with the work—the sounds of my murmuring mind becoming the soundtrack; this screening was celebratory.
McCall was in attendance and wandered about, observing the crowd with arms crossed and a satisfied grin rightly adorning his face. McCall is in the ascendant. In April, a large exhibition of his new works, both horizontal and vertical projections, entitled Five Minutes of Pure Sculpture will open in Berlin at the Hamburger Bahnhof – Museum für Gegenwart. This will mark the beginning of a series of exhibitions throughout Europe, culminating in his most ambitious project yet: Column. A spiraling, vertical cloud of steam that will project upward from a river near Liverpool to coincide with the opening of the 2012 Olympics, McCall is still working with environmentalists in the realization of the Column project that would be visible from sixty miles away.
(All images: Installation view of Anthony McCall's Line Describing a Cone 2.0, 2011.)