In what amounts to a paean to modern technology, Lighthouse (2011), by Catherine Yass, attempts to aestheticize a functional object (The Royal Sovereign Lighthouse, located off the coast of Sussex, England) by filming it from almost every conceivable angle. To do so, she relies not only upon the technology of her video camera, but also boats, helicopters, and scuba-diving gear. The end result, although more than a little disorienting, is quite beautiful.
It seems she is intentionally trying to make us queasy: her camera bobs up and down on the waves before proceeding to swoop all around the inscrutable structure while executing perspective-flipping pirouettes. The camera repeatedly dips precariously close to the water until it finally dives beneath the surface, thereby freeing us at last from the fear of falling in. Our seasickness dissolves underwater, giving way to a different mode of disorientation: the soothingly abstract blues and greens of the English Channel surge all around us as the cement base of the structure looms in and out of our vision.
Far from feeling jerky, the camera maneuvers are carefully choreographed, such that something as simple as a helicopter slowly circling a lighthouse takes on impressive dramatic tension. One could almost imagine an orchestral score to accompany the film, but instead, all we hear are the dull, muted noises of the waves below and the rotors overhead (except, of course, when the camera is upside down). Yass explicitly states that it is her intention to disorient her viewers by taking them “somewhere slightly different, either physically or somewhere in their mind.” She achieves this objective not only through her acrobatic camera work and subdued soundtrack, but also by projecting the film onto a slightly angled screen, such that it appears not as a rectangle, but more of a rhomboid. The effect is subtle but significant, forcing the audience to stand in a specific area and tilt their necks just one or two degrees to the side.
The video installation is accompanied by four blue light-box images of the same lighthouse. Located in another dark room apart from the video installation, the images all look roughly the same, aside from their varying degrees of solarization. They don’t add too much to the story of the lighthouse; if anything, they tell the story of light itself, as the sun gradually moves behind the lighthouse and the photographs become increasingly solarized. As the solarization intensifies the blue become increasingly saturated, nearly obscuring the lighthouse itself and evoking with light that same progression towards abstraction that was achieved with water in the film.
The lighthouse might seem like an arbitrary choice of subject, but this English artist has made a name for herself by photographing modern structures, with a particular emphasis on the aquatic variety; her work on canal locks, for example, explores many of the same themes. Given the implicit valorization of technology taking place, it makes sense that she should choose a lighthouse, symbolic savior of those disoriented sailors who have drifted off course. Perhaps we are meant to infer that technology can serve as a guiding light for artists as we stumble blindly into a new century?
Not recommended for those prone to seasickness and fear of heights.