p. adams sitney

The films of Nathaniel Dorsky 1

The first thing, and perhaps only thing, one needs to know about Nathaniel Dorsky’s films is that they are ravishing. I had the pleasure of seeing them this summer for the first time, thanks to the generous agency of Charles Silver at MOMA. I only recently found out about Dorsky via this wonderful article by P. Adams Sitney in Artforum last winter. Amy saw it first and passed it over to me saying “you might be interested in this,” which I think she knew would be a gross understatement. This summer, I was able to see eight of his films over two afternoon sessions, four of them several times. They need to be seen more than once, and like any worthwhile work of art the films continue to give, change and challenge with repeated examination.

The second thing to know about his films is that they are silent. This is disorienting at first, but unlike other aspects of his films that continue to disorient, one ceases to note the silence after a short period. The silence leaves more mental space for the visual, and for the processing of questions, many syntactical, that arise during the viewing, but more on that later.

The third thing worth knowing is that the films are projected at 18 frames per second. It is an extremely fine difference, unrelated to object motion within the frame, but my sense is that this speed combines with the silence to create an atmosphere of measured majesty, subtly reifying the activities of persons, nature and machines, in concord with other aspects of Dorsky’s films that make us aware of our perceiving state by challenging our apprehension. More on this later as well.

One of the first challenges the films present is to ask us to see the world in a manner that takes us out of our quotidian myopia. To see through Dorsky’s lens is to see the incalculable visual richness that surrounds us, a richness we seldom have either the time or inclination to explore. One of the most memorable shots (from Song and Solitude, 2006) is a close up of a simple metal pull-chain from an overhead lamp. As it twists gently back and forth, the glare off the tiny globes of the chain blink on and off like a row of marquee lights. The shot lasts just a few seconds. The unpromising banality of the subject in combination with the pyrotechnic effect of the string of lights produce a disjunction that renders risible the frequent paucity of our perceptive world. (Another shot, from Variations, 1998, that of a plastic bag lolling in circles in the breeze, was surely the model for the similar, most memorable shot in American Beauty.)

This visual generosity would be reward enough in a film, but of course there are broader ramifications. What one does with this awareness is important—how the viewer participates and changes. A primary tenet of Robert Irwin’s work is the idea of the artist making the viewer aware of their own perception. This awareness carries over beyond the viewing experience, and can change not just the way we see but the way we think. I’ll continue with this later, and follow up on some other things begun, but at the start I’m deliberately limiting the length of posts, in recognition of readers’ internet proclivities and my own preference to build this project slowly.