“The Sun and the Last Star Have Burned Out”

11/20/2011

Still from 'Black Trip'

The Black Art of Aldo Tambellini

For all the attention directed, in the medium of film, at that which is unexposed (emphasized in the work of a cinematographer like Gordon Willis), few filmmakers seem to take it as seriously as Cambridge, Massachusetts artist Aldo Tambellini. So dedicated is he to building with and manipulating the black side of black-and-white, that he often forsakes the process of photography altogether, or at least gives it backseat status behind the tactile, solid, and confrontingly textural. To him, black is not blank, and it does not represent a world of shadows – it is, simply, a blotting-out of everything else, and in a series of maximalist, abstract films he did in the 1960s, he boils down images, materials, poetry, to their black cores, and then continues to boil them before our eyes. Far from dour, his reduction frees the media he brings in to implode visually, becoming loud and hyperkinetic collages that pop out with an unusual intensity and expansiveness.

This is a case of aesthetic zeal over zealotry; the films speak to a sensibility that is at once caustic and celebratory, abstract and politically-engaged, irrepressibly catholic and furiously singleminded. Tambellini’s demeanor is far from that of a destruction-bent miscreant. He is an open, rather jolly and philosophical artist who has maintained beatnik energy since the early 1950s. He dresses in black and writes poems about space and black holes. A prominent force in 1960s East Village counterculture, he has worked in a great many media, and his influence spreads around him like a solar flare. The series of black films take the self-impoverished approach that minimalism has and forcibly funnels the kitchen sink through it. The results are compacted, extremely bracing sequences of spilled ink and slung-together detritus. He tries to commune with an underlying infinity but is sure to avoid blanking out the real and physical debris (which, consequently, makes its way into and onto the film), embracing it in a way minimalist artists of his day did not do. What is the universe, after all, but the amassing of stray particles, endlessly recycled?

Still from 'Black Is'

Black Is (1965)

Black Is and Blackout both bear the proud emblem “made without the use of the camera”. The artist Hugues de Montalembert, in Gary Tarn’s film Black Sun (2005), talks about life in the initial months after being blinded, and how his brain, starved for imagery, would generate its own, albeit distorted and disturbing, but nonetheless connected to what he was experiencing with the remaining senses. If the camera is the eye, the direct animations in Black Is give a glimpse into the mind’s creation of a picture, representing a birth of sorts, one that begins blind, improvising on external cues to create images that rely on an internal visual sensibility. Circles forming, expanding, and exploding are a perpetual motif – varied imaginings of the sun, multiplied and undone, intimated only by their penumbras. The negative (scratches, etchings, abrasions, ulcers, etc.) are positive here, appearing as light smears and metallic streaks that have cold, hollow mass. This is not about simple inversion, however, but kinetic, plastic physicality from that which is negated. The black (thick, sometimes cracked layers of paint and emulsion) is the surrounding atmosphere, something impossible to see or breathe through, an opaque, industrial-age protoplast, to be pulled and reformed in a way that is as much sculptural as it is flattening, abbreviating, synthesizing.

To Tambellini, black is not an absolute negativity (existential absence) or absolute positivity (the pooling of all colors, whose aggregate creates no color whatever), but a sort of absolute contrast, a way of conceptualizing vision that reacts to the artist’s world, tracing a relief of all that lies between black and white. It is a culmination of opposition, a perversely filling and excising light. In the initial few films at least, grays are relatively rare – everything is a thick, total, toner-black, encrusted with paint daubs and circular runes. Light plays a part – there are exposed images not unlike in some of Man Ray’s contact films, but rather than leaking a defined silhouette onto the film strip, they blow outward like solar Rorschach explosions inside black caverns.

Still from 'Blackout'

Blackout (1965)

Blackout makes prominent use of double strips of film. Composed images shudder into view but only last a frame, their obliteration more emphasized than their creation. What is the black made of? It could be any number of media spilled or attached to the film’s surface. The contrast is so total that it eradicates many of the cues as to what they may be. Here black isn’t darkness or obscurity though; it is meant as sharp jolts, cup after cup of icy water hurled into the viewer’s face. Unlike colors, shades, it doesn’t need to be motivated or explicable. Black is, truly, because it exists – more powerful, more primordial than light, which can always vanish in an instant. The sound here is of cracked and abused electronics, repeated bleats and whines textured into hives of rough silage, lines and fields of distorted punctures. What we are seeing – the fruit of improvisatory action of hands – gets translated through the sound as well (hands touching circuits to create noise).

In Black Trip photographic images push through the piled layers of blackness; turbines spinning, liquid metal churning, images of faces waved into a steel, horizontal blur. And Black Plus X feels the closest of the cycle to a documentary – we see fast-framed images of people on the street, or on carnival rides, calling to mind Jonas Mekas’ Notes on the Circus (1962). Sounds of the street rattle over insistent, distorted, waves of jackhammer noise. Slippery tape manipulations run through on a layer of their own, as do the laughter and shouts of children. Sharp images get superimposed, piercing and spinning one another in a melee of bleached light. We are at a carnival next to an airport or nuclear testing ground. Americans live intense, sheltered, celebratory lives laced with vague notions of obliteration stinging their narrow horizons. People walk along a beach, still underpinned by the industrial droning, and the revolutions of the merry-go-round speed up, become more chopped-up, closer to mechanical failure. This is interspersed with meditatively slow negatives. The title refers both to the film stock and also to a sort of equation – mass comingled with the absence of mass (black + X), matter with antimatter, to become its own negation.

Still from 'Black Trip'

Black Trip (1965)

The movements of boys playing in the waves become warlike pictures of heroic leaps, explosions, and dying. Children chant “bang-bang, beep-beep, black power!” A baby stares into space. It is an amazing evocation of warfare (not an artistic recreation but rather, a bluster of shrapnel done through an angry, politicized viewfinder), skimmed from the surface of innocent situations, from fun. The black people in New York City, whom we see in the film, are out in public, on leisure time and doing leisure activities, but are also the closest ones in the country to Vietnam, both in the way that they live and, in disproportionate numbers, among the young men being sent over there. Their existence – crisscrossing oppositional forces, external conflict becoming internalized strife – correlates with Tambellini’s existence as an artist, and feeling attacked by mass media, the government, the war.

Black Trip 2, which feels more like a postscript to Black Plus X (but no matter) is the most coherently rhythmic, succinct and fluid of all of the films, exulting in its rapid outpouring of palimpsest and shape-juxtaposing. The soundtrack is children chanting “black is beautiful” over ebullient drums. Corroded photos (along with direct animation, images of armies marching, weapons being molded, dear old Lenin) get fused together into a pyroplastic flow of activity, of continuous motion. He is building an image of fear, the march up to war, and the preparation for carnage.

Thus far Tambellini has only been mimicking the thoughtless hemmoraging of imagery that flows from network news broadcasts, but in Black TV, that becomes the literal material with which he is working. A film for dual projections, it shows two hovering images of television side by side. They often have the same subject going on, but shown at different rates, flickering bars that run out of synch; CBS News, the dead eyes of Robert Kennedy, waves of bright interference; faces in stupefaction, deformities of war, wonderment, terror. Belligerent ripples of noise are followed by menacing, low electronic tones. Horrific images stream from the television sets as though a normality sluice has been opened. And that seems very much like what the late ’60s, for many people, must have felt like. We hear the looped audio of the news announcer saying “Senator Kennedy has been shot – is that possible?” while people shriek and jabber around him, dumbfounded. Tambellini crumples this moment of political terror tightly and drives it into the viewer’s heart, capturing the personal fear and sadness that people on the scene are feeling. He animates the image in time with his own perception, flickering, bleeding and rolling within its glass encasement. The speed and aggressiveness of the television are distilled to a Turkish-coffee sludge, unable to break free from the hardened, obsidian morass, with waves of violent light indistinguishable, the dead, the dying, and the living faces all with the same frozen looks of fear.

Still from 'Black Plus X'

Black Plus X (1966)

Static has replaced scaliness as the main texture, paint supplanted by tattered beams of kinescope signal. Whereas the earliest black films are all born from the artist’s hands and processes, Black TV is about powerlessness, about helplessly having agression thrown into our eyes and ears, that which makes us keyed-in, overstimulated, the pictures free of context and content. It is about the gradual transition (or degradation, in a sense) from textual/verbal culture to a visual one, and then to one of pure violence and energy. Slogans, devastation, and station IDs: they blotch together, coalesce, and smolder away in an instant. Death is death – in black or white; it makes no difference – frenzy and outrage become the sound that masks it. Television aspires to a world of clean kill, but Tambellini holds a black light up to its bloodstained, disordered truth. And the only truth to it is that there is no truth, only pure, natural fear, covering up decay and in turn soaked with it. Through the electronic snowstorm, the fields of ash, the blasted earth and charred cities, black is, ultimately, the only form of matter.

In spite of taking the form of films, the works in the black series have more in common with painting than with cinema. They are like gestural paintings for celluloid, bringing to mind Richard Serra’s lead-throw action sculptures, the freezing of muscular, instantaneous motions rather than deliberate, drawn-out realizations. Tambellini’s films give a strong sense of impasto, something that one rarely gets so powerfully from Brakhage’s films. There is no way that Brakhage could not have seen (and loved) Tambellini’s films. While Brakhage’s work (particularly the most abstract work, and paradoxically, the painted work) is making an attempt at a pure and total cinematic form, Tambellini, who was and is primarily a painter, does films that are infected by outside processes.

Still from 'Black Trip 2'

Black Trip 2 (1967)

Tambellini’s varied artistic practices get folded in to his films’ heavy batter, including painting (layering things onto the film), sculpture (scratching away at it) and poetry (in sound and imagery, the films become eclectic slogans of a sort). Processes that impose indeterminacy (burning the film, exposing it to flashes of light and incorporating television broadcast) as well as those bringing the tightly-controlled or hermetic (etching shapes and patterns, building accretion, showing chopped home movie documents and found footage) all find their way into what becomes a coarse agglomeration. Like Nam June Paik, with whom he collaborated closely, Tambellini adopted video technology early on (in the form of the Sony Portapak), using it for multimedia performances, both as a multiplier of imagery and for its capability as an unmoored camera/projector. Just as Paik’s Demagnetizer (1965) does, Tambellini seems enamored, in Black TV, of the way that broadcasting can dissect the image, shred meaning and reconfigure it as freefloating ions. In keeping with his work on celluloid, the surface on which we view the pictures is integral to the pictures themselves, supplanting and assimilating them altogether. In Black Gate, a multimedia program Tambellini developed in 1967 with Otto Piene, the room and all its objects were used as projection surfaces, becoming broadcast media in their own right.

While an overload of motion, in cinema, is often associated with either a lack of rigor or an unchecked compulsiveness, in Tambellini’s case it speaks more of the diversity of ideas and materials that he incorporates, distilling all of them into an acrid essence. Everything turns black or becomes a shimmer on the surface of black. The speed in the films is a result of that distillation, and its violence is not arrived at by accident. Nonetheless the films have a remarkable flow and timing to them, resembling delicate gestures, which are seen in the way that shapes merge into one another, and in the elegant movement of nitrate as it collects and then rarifies again. It is as though Tambellini is performing a very precise trepanation on the viewer with an intentionally blunt drill.

The films are most satisfying and intelligible when viewed together; they do not seem like they would be as effective on a bill with the work of other filmmakers. For the ink-stained documentarian of material culture (and the void that whirls beyond it) black provides an ideological basis for a focus on that which is eternal, irreducible – a pneuma that is not identifiable in our world but is internalized into everything we do, periodically rising to the surface. Tambellini is starting with that as his foundation, and riffing on everything he can possibly incorporate into its expression. Black is his one an only medium. Imagery and language filter through, but come out covered in tar. Words leak together to become disruptive streams of newsprint. The air is reactive in these sumptuous, energizing films, which introduce and destroy forms at the speed of synapses.

Still from 'Black TV'

Black TV (1968)

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4 Responses to ““The Sun and the Last Star Have Burned Out””

  1. Anna Salmaone said

    I have been working with Aldo Tambellini over for 10 years and have rarely found anyone with the understanding of Aldo’s films, the meaning he finds in BLACK, the inensity with which he approaches ART as you demonstrate in your piece. Your essay is very well written, extremely on target in your descriptions and possesses a real insight and knowledge of Aldo Tambellini and how and why he creates.
    You will be happy to know that we have just discovered another 13 films which were stored and unedited. Some of these will be shown at the Pompiduo in Paris along wiht his Black Film Series and some videos in the beginning of January. Please contact Mr. Tambellini for further information
    atambellini01@aol.com

    • chaiwalla said

      Wow – that is excellent news indeed; unearthed film work from him is an exciting prospect. Hopefully we can see a screening stateside in the near future. I’ll certainly have to keep my eyes and ears open for such an event. Tambellini is a fascinating artist about whom I’d love to learn more.
      I really appreciate your comment and I’m glad you enjoyed the post. It’s high praise coming from such a close associate of Mr. Tambellini’s, who must be intimately acquainted with the films and with his creative processes. Thanks for reading, Anna.

      • anna salamone said

        Hello Chaiwalla,
        I do not know if you are in the States but wanted to inform you that Aldo’s films, some video work and some of his unedited films will be screened at the Pomipou, Paris in the beginning fo January 2012. One of the his newly discovered films, which was a documentary of the Public School Arts’ Programs in New York State, is something to see. This film was shot by Aldo but edited with the help of George Kuchar who showed many films in Aldo’s Theater, The Gate, in New York’s Lower East Side in the 60’s. You may keep up with his works at his website: aldotambellini.com. where you will be able to read more about his extensive work in the Arts and go through some of his writings. At some point, Aldo, said he would like to thank you personally for such a well written analysis of his work. He will be happy to engage in a conversation with you about his ART better on the telephone as he is not so computer literate at the age of 81. He lives in Cambridge, MA and is listed in the directory. By the way, he wanted to inform you that the film, Black +X was shot all in Conney Island, NY. Thank you again,
        Anna

        • chaiwalla said

          Hi Anna,
          yes I’m in the states – Boston, as a matter of fact, and I grew up in Cambridge. I’m intrigued by the documentary you mentioned. When did he film it? I actually had no idea that Aldo worked with George Kuchar, so that makes it sound all the more interesting to me. That 60’s scene in New York in general, particularly in regards to underground cinema, seems to keep giving us a treasure trove of great and innovative art, doesn’t it? I’m so pleased and flattered that Aldo also liked the piece about the ‘Black’ films, and would absolutely love to engage him in a conversation in the future, perhaps something I could transcribe and put up as an addition to the article. Although I haven’t gotten a chance yet to check out the info on his website, I’ll be sure to do that and learn more about some of his activities. Thanks again for sharing some of the details on those newly-found works.

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