Review: Black Drop

Specially commissioned by Modern Art Oxford and Oxford University, Black Drop is a new film by Turner Prize winning artist Simon Starling. Tracking the transit of Venus and its relationship to film and moving picture technology, the film captured not only the history of this astrological phenomenon but also the intricacies of film making.

A stunning spiral staircase consisting of almost one hundred steps lead up to the small Tower Room of the Radcliffe Observatory, the beautiful and apt location for the film concentrating on the various crossings of Venus over the years; Modern Art Oxford describe the project as ‘Responding to the origins of the Radcliffe Observatory.’ The tower was designed by James Wyatt at the suggestion of astronomer Dr Thomas Hornsby, who had previously observed the transit of Venus across the sun’s disc in 1769. A transit of Venus is the direct passing of the planet between the Earth and the Sun, and can be seen as a small black disk moving across the face of the Sun. Predictions of such movements can only be seen from specific places (such as Tahiti, Hawaii and other areas in the mid-Pacific), and are among the rarest of astronomical phenomena. Sightings of the transits included those in 1769, 1874, and 2012 but the next transit is predicted to take place in 2117, making the 2012 transit the last to be seen in our lifetime.

Starling travelled to Hawaii and Tahiti to visit the points that had filmed previous transits and, using the same 35mm film technology, to film the 2012 occurrence. Black Drop contains Starling’s own footage of the crossing seen from a volcano in Hawaii, as well as following the history of legendary explorer and discoverer Captain James Cook who not only discovered Australia, New Zealand and the Hawaiian Islands but was also the first to record the transit of Venus from the island of Tahiti in 1769. The film also focuses heavily on the French astronomer Pierre-Jules-César Janssen who brings the study of astronomy and the medium of film together, just as Starling has. He travelled to Japan in 1874 to record and observe Venus’ passage across the Sun using a chronophotographic device/photographic revolver (of his own making) to record this phenomenon; a device which is recognised as the precursor to modern cinematography and is used by Starling in Black Drop.

Whilst the subject and story was a little dry and dense for those who are not avid astrologers, and also a heavily ambitious history project to convey in just under thirty minutes, the film as a form of art was beautifully produced. The black-and-white picture allowed for a stunning simplicity, the use of close-ups on the inner workings of the camera showed a captivating attention to detail, and the way in which the film was cut, edited and produced gave it movement and fluidity. Starling jumps around and breaks conventional linear ideas of time and of space, producing a film which could seem to be just a jumble of ideas, stories and images, but instead here forms a remarkable collage of pictures and shorts which moves between those thoughts and ideas of astronomy and film.

E. Hill

For more information about Modern Art Oxford and their future projects, please visit their website.

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