Frederick Wiseman’s films are art installations, meant to be viewed, absorbed and contemplated on for hours on end, a necessity he makes inescapable for his audiences by having them often run for hours on end. A four-hour documentary about U.C. Berkeley still feels like a pretty daunting, neck-deep immersion point for me, but the more time I’ve spent with last year’s At Berkeley, the more palatable it seems as an ideal entry point for even everyday audiences. That movie plays for roughly the same stretch of time as a seminar-style class, and calls us to intellectually respond to it in a similar way. It makes it clear that Wiseman’s films require patience, but also that the invested viewer will find themselves consistently engaged with the rigor of the material.
But Wiseman’s films also work as portraits of people, not merely portraits of places or organizations. Less time is spent during his films figuring out the physical geography, calling us to pay attention to what people are doing in those spaces. That act of portraying people and organizations in equal motion has never been more self-reflexive than in National Gallery, an in-depth portrait of the London museum which, like most museums, prohibits photography. It’s an art emporium that viewers this side of the Atlantic likely won’t have a chance to see in person, making Wiseman’s film practical as “a tourist attraction”, a disgusting term even the staff abhor using in reference to their facility. It’s a place where people can tune in and, having sated their basic visual interests, tune out without corresponding with the pieces any deeper.
At least, that’s the takeaway response the National Gallery is determined to stop. As though he knows that simply looking at images won’t convey their meaning, through the simple act of filming and theatrically expediting them, Wiseman calls viewers to consider the portraits through a theoretical framework. What does a subject looking into the viewer’s eyes convey? A knowledge? An accusation? What does a subject looking off frame imply? Greater scope? Something unknowable? Most of all, are these assignments of meaning exclusive to the paintings? Wiseman casts his eyes upon portraits and their spectators in equal measure, begging us to consider the role of the janitor waxing the floors, the beleaguered, barely interested students wandering about, or the countless individuals listening to headphones, guiding them through the gallery in the absence of experienced humans.
Wiseman is compelled by the idea of reputation and presentation, how artists and individuals intend themselves to impress upon others, but National Gallery sees him specifically turning his attention to representation. For several hours a day, the staff labors over that agonizing concept, how were things meant to be seen? Were they meant to be displayed with shadows casting down upon them? Were they made to fit into frames embroidered in gold foil? Were they meant to age, showing signs of decay and deterioration. The artists are all dead now, so it’s anybody’s guess, but the staff at the gallery are ardently in the corner of preservation, but also education. These portraits have a history and a meaning attached to that, even beyond what’s seen. In one of many long-played scenes, an X-ray reveals the pre-existing version of an art piece being arduously preserved, implying a deeper meaning to be parsed out by intellectuals.
Interpretation of these pictures is of seminal importance to the staff, but so is preservation of their own reputation. In typical Wiseman fashion, we lay witness to a lengthy business meeting debating whether or not a marathon should end in front of the gallery, questioning whether the establishment should be viewed from that context, by that audience. They don’t always get a choice over what demographics they’ll be seen by, as in a short scene of Greenpeace vigilantes hanging an environmentally conscious banner – “It’s no oil painting. #SavetheArctic” – single-handedly showing their (and our own) resistance to cheeky puns of the social-media generation. Needless to say, it’s gone the next morning, but the distraction endures in memory.
When they do put on an intentional event, such as their packed Leonardo da Vinci exhibition, it’s bound to be misunderstood by those of media influence. During a lengthy interview with one patron of the exhibit, it becomes increasingly clear that a news team sound recorder is hogging most of the frame. Wiseman is aware as ever of the distractions keeping us from embedding art in our memory, and it’s something the film itself engages with at times. Fascinated as we are with discussions about works of art by Stubbs and J.M.W. Turner, they won’t all hold enduringly in our minds.
They may well endure, though, in the concrete artwork. The film is very streamlined in the transition between acts, as we shift from interpretation to the process of creation, from there to technique of preservation, from there to its intentional presentation. While the museum’s presentations are mounted in a very concrete set of ethics, Wiseman’s flourishes are curiously allowed to wander, down to a concluding dance sequence that exists entirely disjointed from the museum staff in a way that makes it feel like a very intentional Wiseman imposition. No audience. No applause. It’s a work of art that exists seemingly for nobody at all, yet it exists for us. In this and other ways, National Gallery cements itself as a meaningful piece of art separate from the gallery itself, and significant for even those acutely aware of the art and the establishment on display.