Film/Art | Evidence Visible from a Distance: Tacita Dean on Fata Morgana

By Antoine Thirion

In The Green Ray (2001), British artist Tacita Dean famously managed to capture on 16mm film the fleeting light that the sun leaves behind right at the moment when it disappears from the horizon. And, because a digital camera used by others at the same time, on the same beach, was unable to capture it, her film proves two things: one, that the green ray, despite being missed by almost all who try and see it, is not a legend; two, that only film can capture it. But the evidence is elusive, as Éric Rohmer found out while shooting Le rayon vert (1986), eventually choosing to underline through slow motion and heavy colour correction the phenomena he had been desperate to obtain for seven months (which was eventually captured by cinematographer Philippe Demard in the Canary Islands). Since no single frame actually shows the colour green in Dean’s film, and it only seems to be produced by the rapid succession of frames in the projector, a button allows visitors to rerun the two-minute reel to convince themselves it actually happened. But this is at the expense of the film itself, as the image slowly fades out with each repeated viewing, its transient nature akin to the elusiveness of the natural phenomenon.

A similar analogy between cinema and nature’s glorious visions seems to be celebrated in Dean’s dazzling Fata Morgana, a 22-minute 16mm film comprising approximately 25 shots, which premieres in the Wavelengths section at the Toronto International Film Festival in September after being shown at Marian Goodman’s Paris gallery this summer. The film starts with the day breaking over salt flats in Utah, where the only recognizable object is some sort of lamp pole or antenna blinking on an orange sky. But what seems at first glance to be clouds or hills are pure mirages resulting from specific atmospheric conditions, the same complex natural phenomena that have contributed in history to the illusion of distant land features—the Fata Morgana, named after the Arthurian sorceress Morgan le Fay. 

With daylight, stranger visions occur at the edge of the ground and the mountains. Blurry vehicles seem to be moving steadily like cursors on the horizon axis, some of them suddenly appearing out of nowhere or disappearing in the middle of the frame. (Werner Herzog, while filming his Fata Morgana [1971]—a “science-fiction elegy about demented colonialism” shaped like a cosmogonic poem and narrated by Lotte Eisner—was also deceived by the appearance of a van driving in the Sahara Desert, only to realize that this vehicle did not exist.) Buildings similarly vanish in the blink of an eye, and, when a crow lands on the barren soil, one is reminded that such visions used to lure people into death. Each new frame brings forth painterly qualities, surfaces that range from crusty to fluid, as if colour was either fixed or unfixed on a constantly changing acetate layer.

In Paris, the film was installed in a notoriously difficult-to-handle space in the gallery’s basement, whose pointed arches entirely covered with red bricks felt particularly attuned to the ochre palette of the film. A few chairs were arranged in an arc in front of the projector, and the sense of being alongside it in front of fleeting images pointed to the performative nature of film. Seated between the roaring projector and Western American landscapes producing their own fleeting images rising from the flat, white surface of a salt desert, I couldn’t help but take it as an allegory of film. But this is perhaps too heavy-handed for such a subtle celebration of cinema. As Dean wrote in a 2015 article in Artforum, when she was advocating for the survival of film with the platform, it’s undoubtedly more sincere to realize that, as Christopher Nolan (who campaigned alongside her) told an audience at the Getty Museum, “There is something profound in knowing that the light that reflected off the desert sand and exposed the salt crystals in David Lean’s negative of Lawrence of Arabia (1962) is, through a bond of chemistry and process, the very same light captured in the print you are watching.” 

Ultimately, cinema, like nature, only asks you to stay open to its quietly moving work. As Dean writes: “The value of any medium is that it can act independently of the artist: Not every action is deliberate; not every gesture has intent, as any painter can attest. Film as a medium brings qualities to the work, some that the maker never intended—characteristics integral to its chemistry and to its internal disciplines and material resistance.”

Cinema Scope: Chance and contingency are crucial in the way you work. The description about your most recent film Fata Morgana mentions that you encountered those optical illusions while working on another project nearby. Could you tell a little bit about how that happened?

Tacita Dean: Well, I was filming something else in Utah, in the Bonneville Salt Flats, and you have to understand that I’m someone who has always been very aware of Fata Morgana and always wanted to film one. I imagined and fabricated one in my print of Quarantania (2018), for example. So, I’ve done a little bit of research historically on that. When we were there, I started to notice it in the distance. It was February and it was extremely cold. We were up before dawn, and as soon as the sun rose, I started to see the landscape changing in a pretty radical way. There was something quite far away…Normally, there’s nothing there, but in the film, it’s like a whole town appears. Behind or beyond what is visible, there is just a truck stop, but it wasn’t discernible at all from where we were. 

So, I eventually came to the conclusion that the stretched things you’re seeing in the film are trucks. When you’re there, on most days you can’t see it at all. But within certain atmospheric conditions, the light is going up and then is projected down, the trucks are stretching and anamorphosing in a very mysterious way, and then they just disappear. Actually, there’s this kind of huge shed, or building, there, and that funnily enough appeared in another film of mine, JG (2012). It’s actually quite small and tiny in the landscape. Suddenly, it takes on these epic dimensions, and then the trucks are disappearing into it. It’s just unbelievably magical. 

I took 16mm as a backup option on the film I was making at the time, so we had only four rolls of backup 16mm, each around ten minutes long, and that was all. Once the phenomenon started and we started to film it with my crew, we were asking ourselves all these questions: should we use it all now, or keep it for the next morning? But the next day we wouldn’t be there or it wouldn’t happen again. So we were always sort of judging how much we could film. Unfortunately, there’s something that I didn’t get—that’s the way of the world. You know that weird metallic shape, that’s almost like a shield? I would love to have got the same shot, at a time when nothing appears. I mean, that shot is almost there, but you’d have to be a detective to work it out because there’s something in the landscape behind it. If I had that shot, people could have said “Look! look! There’s nothing there!” Most people work that out by themselves. 

I’m a real phenomena junkie, you know. I’ll always be attracted by things like le rayon vert and eclipses. My tiny camera crew weren’t aware of it at first—they couldn’t see it—but they soon became quite the junkies for it too. I think it was because I was alive to it, you know…I was already working in the direction we were looking for.

Scope: These phenomena can also be seen at sea, which holds an important place in your work. Was there something about the desert that was interesting to you this time?

Dean: Well, the Bonneville Salt Flats is the closest thing you can get to sea on land, really. Because it’s a dry salt bed, absolutely flat. It’s where they set the high-speed records. For miles and miles and miles you just get that flat, white surface. It was the perfect place to see it on land, because the Fata Morgana needs that flatness to appear, as well as the relationship between the cold and the heat.

Scope: When did your interest in these phenomena start?

Dean: It’s been a really long time. My interest in green rays came from Rohmer’s Le rayon vert, in a way. I first saw the phenomenon myself when I went to Morombe in Madagascar to film the 2001 eclipse, and I read in the guidebook that if you’re lucky you might have a chance to see the eclipsed sun setting into the sea. When we did see the eclipsed sun setting, I did see a green ray, but no one else did. I was so determined to see it again that I came back on that beach the next days, bringing a roll of film every night. I eventually saw one, and it just became the film.

Scope: Was Werner Herzog’s film an influence in the same way for Fata Morgana?

Dean: Yes, huge, of course. Herzog’s Fata Morgana is amazing. I love that film.

Scope: Like The Green Ray (2001), your Fata Morgana feels like an allegory of film, with the salt crystals relating to its own fabric, the mirages, and even the crow, which brings a folklore of death.

Dean: I’m not sure. Yes, of course, in an abstract way, but it’s not something that I consciously came across or formed upon or decided for myself. I can see it and I can welcome it, but I’m not sure it’s something I would have thought or done myself.

Scope: Could you talk about why you left this one silent?  

Dean: I didn’t think Fata Morgana needed sound, as it is an optical phenomenon. Sound is very grounding, and you don’t need that here. I didn’t need to illustrate the place or the time. It didn’t need to be grounded in the real world in any way. But what I realized is that the soundtrack is the sound of the projector. The sound helps carry a film, even if it’s just the sound of the projector.

Scope: The otherworldliness of the film reminded me of some of your earlier ones, such as those you did around the figure of the delusional British yachtsman Donald Crowhurst, and more generally about the relation you draw between film and longing. Watching these phenomena, it makes it impossible not to think about ancient perception of the earth, with what is far away, undiscovered, uncertain, deceitful, left to imagination. Were you looking for something that relates to such a primeval gaze?

Dean: I feel that Fata Morgana is very much about the picture of a phenomenon that is happening in a very contemporary world. Because you’re watching trucks, I mean. The trucks help you see the Fata Morgana more effectively than anything else. I needed the objects and infrastructures to show the phenomenon. I needed the highway, the trucks, the shed. It wasn’t the same type of work as JG, which was much more working with different times.

Scope: But it gives an uncanny vision of the world. You have to convince yourself that what you’re seeing is there or that it is what you think it is. Seeing becomes a matter of doubt and faith like in The Green Ray, although it’s not that it’s happening too fast, but that objects are never fully formed and remain in a kind of an in-between. It feels like the work is not only asking to believe, but a sustained belief based on fragile forms.

Dean: I agree with you. But, in a way, it’s a phenomenon that I just found and presented. I didn’t do anything to it. I mean, that’s what Robert Filliou’s expression, “art is what makes life more interesting than art,” is about. I found it, I noticed it, that’s basically it. Then, of course, filming an optical phenomenon on film is profoundly different from filming it in digital, and that’s because the nature of film is light and lenses and chemistry, which is pretty much what is happening with these phenomena. It’s just that the nature of the Fata Morgana, which is like a strange kind of convection of air, projection, optics, light, chemistry, all sorts of things, is very similar to the nature of film itself. 

I do think that this relationship is very important, and that’s what you were getting at in relation to the desert and the salt as an allegory of film, because I don’t think Fata Morgana work at all well in the binary logic of the digital medium. I think the nature of film itself, and the elusive nature of the way that film is made with salt and light and optical effects, is a perfect mirror for the phenomenon itself.

Scope: I heard you say that the more film has become endangered, the more you’re using film to show what a wonderful medium it is. Is this idea of belief changing over time? Would you say that the more precarious it gets, the more sustained the belief needs to be?

Dean: Well, I’m doing my best. The thing is, I’m always an immense pessimist about it. You know, I talked about film being an eclipse—that the medium is being eclipsed and suddenly comes back. I still have to believe that film will survive. We were obviously doing better before the pandemic than after, but I just have to believe that people understand the importance of film. It’s so profoundly different than digital. Unfortunately, film is sustained by an industry that has different views, and the artist alone cannot keep the medium going.

Scope: At what point in your practice did you realize that film was really in danger of disappearing?

Dean: It began when I was trying to get this black-and-white film stock. I found out that I couldn’t get the material anymore, and that made me film the Kodak factory in Chalons-sur-Saône in France. And then they closed down. That was 2006; that was the beginning. First 16mm was threatened, then the Harrow factory in London closed, then the film labs, and then suddenly it’s all film. And now, since last year, it’s cinema itself. 

You know, it’s a constant fight to persuade people, but I just need to have some hope. We need to keep educating people about the difference between the two mediums. Calling film a medium and not a technology is massively important in persuading the industry, and that language alone was enough to change the mindsets. Bringing something of our language, the art language, cinema language. What more can I say, you know the situation. I’m glad TIFF is showing some film. There was a time when all festivals were showing film. Festivals have to really be the ones that don’t force artists and filmmakers to have to choose for financial reasons. 

I’m sort of campaigning less now…I just try to do it through my work. It’s taken two years out of my life trying to campaign to save film, and it was so very important at that time. But now I’m just trying to show films everywhere I can. Last year I projected a 35mm film at the Royal Opera House as part of a ballet called The Dante Project, and it’s just a sheer sort of will that made me do that for them. I’m not writing to people anymore; I can’t. But yes, you’re right, I use film the whole time to do things that digital can’t. I really play with what film can do and digital can’t. 

Scope: One of the questions you raised in your 2015 article in Artforum was how to make film manufacturing practical on a smaller scale. Kodak resized the manufacturing process to the actual demand, but is there some sort of long-term agreement from them? 

Dean: There can be mistakes obviously, but you know, here in Los Angeles, they’ve actually got a shop now. You can drive along Sunset Boulevard and just pull off outside the Kodak shop and buy film. Which is a real change, because it used to be that you had to go to some warehouse far away; now, you can just turn up and buy some films. So, if you’re a younger artist or even someone like me, or a filmmaker, you can turn up, get your roll of film, get it processed and printed. I worry about other cities where it’s more complicated. You know the Kodak infrastructure worldwide is much diminished. At least I could come here in Los Angeles and do that.

Scope: Have you had any surprises, good or bad, when you got the footage back from the lab? You often speak of epiphanies in relation to what you’re trying to film, but does that happen in the editing room too?

Dean: Well, there was no plan for Fata Morgana

Scope: But when you’re filming, you may be looking for certain aspects without knowing how it will appear on film.

Dean: You know, we were filming what we could get. It’s so elusive: one minute you blink, and it’s gone. The thing about it is that you have to hold the shot through the change. That’s why we wasted a lot of film. The shots had to be long enough to see that the land that looked more like a pyramid now has become a kind of square, for instance. Spectators are relatively lazy, unfortunately—some of them at least—so they need to see the difference. Then I edited the film down and I imposed some kind of time structure on it, from dawn to day. There’s no plan in the film. That’s the nature of where I was and what it was. I knew about it; I’d always wanted it. I was lucky to be there: I was there for something else, filming the sunrise, and I found it. So, I can’t impose on the film something that is not there. Everything else is just found and about being blessed by a phenomenon and light. I wish I can say I was always in charge, but I wasn’t. Nature was. I let nature be in charge.