Afternoon Dust

Jeremy Millar — Daphne

I’ve been a bit useless with sharing my thoughts about things I’ve seen over the summer, but a couple of things stuck in my mind long enough for me to finally get round to writing about them. Jeremy Millar’s 18-minute film Daphne (2013), seen at the Turner Contemporary’s summer exhibition, was one of those memorable things. The film was shot in the Photographic Collection at the Warburg Institute in London, and consists of numerous very long shots of filing cabinets, potted plants, whitewashed pillars, and piles of artworks stacked on tables or leaning against walls. Occasionally a cardiganed arm or the top of a head is glimpsed as members of the Institute’s staff sort prints into piles, or quietly discuss some aspect of how the Daphne of the film’s title, a minor figure in Greek mythology, has been represented in art over the centuries.

Having recently completed a degree in art history, I found the film’s depiction of art historians at work intensely moving: the room and its occupants seemed to inhabit another era, cut off from the world heard bustling outside the windows, as if the presence of computers displaying the venerable Windows XP desktop only served to emphasise how little had changed since the Institute relocated to London in 1933. The camera’s studied absorption in a framed photograph on a shelf or a row of antique filing cabinets powerfully evoked that of an academic engrossed in a seventeenth-century engraving. Was this meant to imply the retreat of art history from an ever-increasingly rationalised commodity society, an escape into a sheltered realm of myth and filing systems, Daphne transformed into a laurel tree to save her from the amorous clutches of Apollo? Or could the multi-generational meditation upon questions of artistic representation be understood as a powerful form of resistance to today’s profit-driven insta-culture-lite? I’m not sure, and my suspicion is that the artist isn’t either, though I can hardly claim to have read his mind. At any rate, this ambivalence contributed significantly to my emotional response to the film.

Through his pace of editing, avoidance of the academics’ faces, and his use of diagetic sound (mostly silence) as if it were a sound effect, Millar made me believe in an art historical practice that drank deeply from the streams of multiple civilisations. I could watch this film over and over again.