Magazine article Artforum International

Man of Letters: Henriette Huldisch on David Gatten

Magazine article Artforum International

Man of Letters: Henriette Huldisch on David Gatten

Article excerpt

AS A GRADUATE STUDENT at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1996, David Gatten, having been inspired by the work of Agnes Martin, experimented with drawing lines on film when serendipity led him to a little-known volume called The Secret History of the Line. An eighteenth-century text written by William Byrd II, a wealthy planter and government official in Virginia, this book (together with its companion, The History of the Dividing Line) is an account of the author's journeys mapping the border between Virginia, the first English colony in North America, and the newer colony of North Carolina. Byrd's life and writings became all the more interesting to the filmmaker when he learned that Byrd possessed one of the largest libraries in the colonies at the time, a collection of almost four thousand books. And so Gatten embarked on a cycle of nine films considering the relationships among language, image, experience, and representation, one of the most erudite and ambitious undertakings in recent cinema.

If drawing was the genesis of Gatten's Secret History of the Dividing Line, A True Account in Nine Parts (1996-), bibliophilia has been the passion sustaining it. Books from the Byrd library and other literary sources--including William's diary as well as his daughter Evelyn's correspondence with a forbidden lover--are integrated into the four Secret History films the thirty-five-year-old artist has completed so far. These works have been shown at numerous venues, including the Pacific Film Archive at Berkeley and the New York Film Festival. The latest installment, The Great Art of Knowing (2004), will be screened in New York on March 18 and April 23 as part of the current Whitney Biennial's film and video program.

In keeping with its bibliographer-cartographer subject, the cycle originated in literature and drawing, and these fields, particularly the latter's relationship to handmade film, are the intertwined structuring devices running through the works. Using rapidly scrolling text pages, hieroglyphics, and magnified script, Gatten traces the moment when words and letters become illegible as text and visible as image. In this regard, his filmmaking owes much to the poetry of Susan Howe and e. e. cummings, as well as Eastern character-based compositions, all of which hinge not only on the meaning of words but also their arrangement on the page. Gatten mentioned in a talk last year at the New York Film Festival that viewers often ask why he makes films and not books--a question perhaps well taken, but oblivious to his austerely beautiful cinematography and masterful command of nontraditional cinematic technique.

Indeed, Gatten's palimpsestic films showcase an array of cinematic processes that constitute a parallel (if idiosyncratic and incomplete) survey of the medium's history, tracing some of its technical developments and placing them within a larger movement from text to image. …

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