On the surface, North American master documentarian Frederick Wiseman’s three-hour film National Gallery is a conservative observation of a conservative institution, the National Gallery in Britain. But as anyone involved in the conservation of artworks from the epochs of empires will inform you, all meaning is simultaneously obscured and revealed on the surface. Wiseman’s film subtly traces his invisible presence within the National Gallery, sometimes floating like an unseen voyeur, other times pausing like a mute docent. The resulting audio-visual palimpsests form the film’s calming yet intriguing investigation of the museum’s public and private machinations across three months.
For a conservative art-literate audience, the film will excite with behind-the-scenes protocols, from costing to selecting to crating to hanging to lighting to marketing to educating. It also reassures that the conservative scaffolding that Modernism fiercely sought to wrench asunder remains as firmly intact as the faux Greco architecture that encircles Trafalgar Square in London, where the National Gallery resides. By chance, the film covers the period of two blockbusters by da Vinci and Titian, and a retrospective of J.M.W. Turner. An Anglophiliac perspective on European Art frames all discourse: The Renaissance predictably is posed as a sublime nexus of religious dogma and social consciousness, and successive pre-Modern phases assume dependency on spirituality as a divining rod for artistic expression.
In a sense, Wiseman’s approach to long-haul production and long-form analysis is a precursor to Big Data in the current cloud-tabulating environment. National Gallery is literally a view of “walls with ears,” granting us privy to all manner of discussion within its corridors, porticos, boardrooms, and wings. Like Big Data, this information is coldly assembled and forwarded
This allows one to sift through the film’s Big Data and make connections to something hardly noted across its three hours: contemporary art. Might National Gallery not be an exemplar of everything contemporary art has flirted with over the past quarter-century? The film can be viewed as a soft yet incisive tabulation aligned with seminal institutional critique, from the social analyses of John Berger and Victor Burgin to the museographic interventions of Daniel Buren and Michael Asher. Viewed accordingly, National Gallery is a sharp consideration of how to navigate the problems of institutional critique by judiciously parsing significance to the multitude of voices heard within the National Gallery’s confines.
Notably, National Gallery is never condescending toward those people and apparatuses concerned with furnishing art’s discourse: docents, volunteers, didactic panels, or audio guides. If there is a problem with the film, it is one often shared by curators, critics, and artists alike: the impulse to signify narration, and solicit imagination. These banal modes of participatory reading are voiced time and again, as docents and curators urge us to imagine we’re back at the flickering light of Plato’s Cave, to consider the gallery’s collection as precursors to today’s cinema and its prescribed social relevance. It’s a clichéd ploy, regardless of political leanings, to reduce the act of looking to a mode of reading. (Wiseman’s film itself sometimes takes this recourse in its edited sequencing of cropped details of paintings (particularly showing faces in the act of looking).
But elsewhere, phantom ties to contemporary art are notable. One perversely enjoyable moment occurs when an installation crew rips up the walls and floors. Amidst the noise one could hear the jackhammers from Hans Haacke’s Germania from the 1993 Venice Biennale. The irony is that all institutions accommodate temporary site-specific intervention. A quarter of the film is devoted to such logistics of installation and maintenance. It even opens with a solitary man gliding across an empty gallery buffing its wooden floor. Its audiovisual contradistinction—droning industrial noise engulfing the silent beauty of invaluable works of art—evokes an effectively modern artistry. Opposite, when Greenpeace activists unfurl a banner atop the museum’s portico façade to protest oil drilling in the Arctic, the few late-night passersby seem bemused and nonplussed by the macho heroics.
The film closes with a short ballet choreographed to a grave quasi-liturgical string quartet. One is reminded of the sardonic anti-intellectualism of “dancing to architecture,” but this finale to National Gallery does suggest that the best way to discuss image-making is to transubstantiate it in another medium. It’s as good an argument as any: It keeps the conversation going, and that might be Wiseman’s core assessment of the museum’s purpose.