Out with the new: Turbine Hall's latest work is tribute to old movies

Tate Modern's showpiece gallery celebrates art of analogue film-making
  • @robbiesharp

Tate Modern's Turbine Hall has seen giant arachnids, huge suns and fake sunflower seeds fill its vast hangar-like space. This year sees a role reversal, with the gallery playing a pivotal part inside the artwork – as an extra in a giant film, projected on its side in the dark.

The Berlin-based British artist Tacita Dean's latest work, Film, unveiled yesterday as the 12th commission of the Unilever series, is an "homage" to the threatened analogue film-making industry. The east wall of Tate Modern appears as a recurring image inside Dean's 11-minute silent movie projection, which, at 13-metres tall, towers over visitors inside the blackened Turbine Hall space.

Dean, 45, said the "Turbine Hall as a strip of film" is the mesmerising 35mm film's motif – with references to Hollywood, the Dutch painter Mondrian and a previous Unilever artist, Olafur Eliasson. Dean said she "wasn't looking over her shoulder" at previous commissions, but acknowledged that the Turbine Hall's scale meant any work created for it needed to be about "the spectacular". She said: "It just grew, it became what it did."

Dean said she was motivated to create Film, in which she employs hand-tinting techniques, a mixture of speeds and images of flowers, tomatoes and smoking chimneys, after discovering in February that London's Soho Film Laboratory, a trusted collaborator, was due to shut. The lab announced it was stopping the printing of 16mm film, one of her chosen media. At the time, she said "the news will devastate my working life".

She said: "The beautiful medium we are about to lose... there's a whole industry that has just been wiped out. When you lose that you lose a certain vitality."

She said she "might go back to oil painting" or write a novel if she were no longer able to get hold of 16mm film, as the number of labs which can process it continues to diminish.

The artist said her difficulties highlighted the industry's problems. Less than two weeks ago a Dutch laboratory working on the film created an error of "colossal proportions". There were over 170 flashes of white at edit points in the film. The Tate was forced to track down British negative cutter Steve Farman, 52, who has worked on films including Batman Begins and Troy, to travel to Holland, where he worked through the night to salvage the project. Farman delivered the film to the Tate curator Nicholas Cullinan at 3am last Saturday. Farman said: "I've been doing film cutting for 35 years but I've never been so wrapped up in the passion of it all... I'm the last person doing it in the UK now. There used to be 200 people. It's very sad. It's a dying art. When I pack up, that will be it."

The exhibition's catalogue contains written defences of analogue film-making by internationally recognised directors such as Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg. The latter director writes that his "favourite and preferred step between imagination and image is a strip of photochemistry that can be held, twisted, folded".

Hall of fame

2003 One of the Unilever Commission's greatest successes, Danish sculptor Olafur Eliasson's The Weather Project saw thousands of visitors bask beneath an artificial sun, created through 300 mirrors.

2004 Raw Materials by Bruce Nauman, comprised 22 segments of spoken text played over loudspeakers. Voices broadcast included a man shouting "thank you" and the word "work" repeated like a yelping dog.

2006 Belgian artist Carsten Höller showed five giant slides of up to 55m long, the highest descending from the Tate's fifth floor to the level of the Turbine Hall. Höller said the installation, Test Site, was a playground for the "body and the brain".

2007 Colombian sculptor Doris Salcedo prompted speculation over how she created a 167-metre-long crack, called Shibboleth, in the Turbine Hall's concrete floor. Theories ranged from the placement of a false floor on top of the original to replacement slabs. She said it represented "racial hatred" and "division in society".

2010 Chinese artist Ai Weiwei filled the Tate's Turbine Hall with 100 million porcelain sunflower seeds shipped from the Far East. Each seed was hand-painted.