Exhibition Review: Catherine Yass

Posted on March 17, 2012


Catherine Yass. "Lighthouse" film still. 2011.All the world’s a stage. In Lighthouse, the captivating twelve-minute film by British artist Catherine Yass on view at Galerie Lelong, the fact that the subject of the work looks very much like a stage does not inhibit the metaphor. A mesmerizing portrait of one of the millions of purely functional places that make our modern world run, Lighthouse reveals a construction that is irrefutably more than the sum of its parts. As depicted through the artists’ lens, the structure proffers the notion that the man-made can be a profoundly telling proxy for the man.

The remarkably vivid film, projected on a large screen in the gallery’s blacked-out back room, starts with a close low pan over choppy open water. Immediately striking are the properties of light—it’s an overcast, silvery day—sound—a muffled windy one that suggests a vast expanse—and place—open water—that constitute the environment of the film’s protagonist: the Royal Sovereign lighthouse, a 1970s light that stands five miles from the coast of East Sussex in the middle of the English Channel. An upside down pan of the horizon line—with sea and sky inverted—foreshadows the remainder of the film, in which the lighthouse is examined in 360° from helicopter-provided vantage points that present it by turns right-side up and upside down. The final sequence is an inverted examination of the lighthouse’s massive concrete support column. From here, we’re treated to a brief, exhilarating plunge into the water for a final take on the structure, before the film ends in a gradual fade to black.

What is it about this lighthouse that warrants its filming from helicopter, boat and underwater? The first long aerial pan begins to answer the question. The entire construction, comprised of a platform (the light keeper’s living quarters topped by a square landing pad) with a three-story lighthouse in one corner, rises more than one hundred feet above the Channel on a large concrete pillar. The austere functionality of its construction is fascinating (you can make out every detail, from the ends of the steel I-beams that support the platform, to the safety fencing around its outer rim and the solar panels that power the light), but Yass wisely moves beyond a straight take as her swooping and inverted camera probes the structure’s associative possibilities.

Catherine Yass. "Lighthouse" film still. 2011.

Yass’s lighthouse is at once strictly functional and deeply mysterious. There’s no doubt that its every facet can be explained in concrete terms by its architects and engineers, yet, unmanned as of its 1990s conversion to solar energy, it carries about it the unmistakable aura of human drama. The landing pad implies flights to and fro for fresh personnel and resupply. The three-tiered light, like a ship’s brig, seems naked without a lookout. The safety fencing; has it ever saved a life? The rusty metal ladder bolted to the support column; under what circumstances have people traveled up and down it? And what of those apartments below the deck? Men and women operated the light for twenty years before its solar refitting. How was life conducted on that isolated platform?

Lighthouse is connected to a lineage of artists—from Italian Futurists and Charles Sheeler to David Smith and Antony Caro—who saw profound beauty in functionalism, but it’s deeply unsettling, too, as if warning against the dangers of idealizing such a world. It’s Yass’s fourth major film project, following Descent (2002), Lock (2006), and High Wire (2008). As the artist’s American debut, its new audience will doubtless see in it shades of the Deepwater Horizon disaster of two years ago, in which we became well acquainted with the imagery of the burning rig off the coast of Louisiana. The film’s final plunge and fade to black will be familiar territory to any who obsessively watched BP’s “spillcam,” as it broadcast the ever-worsening environmental disaster in real time.

Catherine Yass. "Lighthouse (East)." Lightbox sculpture.  2011.

In addition to the film, the exhibition at Galerie Lelong features a number of the artist’s lightbox sculptures, in which the lighthouse is presented through a technique of overlaid photographic transparencies. In each work, a rich ultramarine blue takes the place of the sun’s light, casting photographs of the lighthouse into eerie blue glows. All the work seems to allude to that of Yass’s fellow Briton, Garry Fabian Miller, who used the meeting of sea and sky as the subject of his astoundingly beautiful “Sections of England: The Sea Horizon” photographs, before moving on to the more experimental light and color work from which Yass’s transparencies might take their cues. The lightboxes are underwhelming, but so is the rest of Chelsea, art fairs and all, on the heels of Yass’s beautiful and unsettling film.