Tilda Swinton is already an icon. More precisely, she is an actress who can metamorphose into a whole range of icons, as is clear from the spectrum of characters she has already inhabited in movies like Orlando, Thumbsucker, The Deep End and Technolust. In her most Hollywood role to date, she played the Ice Queen in The Chronicles of Narnia.
The San Francisco photographer Lucy Gray began taking pictures of Swinton on the set of Thumbsucker (2005). The images in "Big Tilda," as the series is named, are not your typical production stills or glamour shots. Rather, Gray has made dreamy digital collages, combining her color images in a manner that’s more Magritte than Warhol, with a hint of the "occult" trickery that’s always haunted and seduced photographers.
In one photo, Swinton’s visage fills a column of smoke, while in another, her profile mirrors a primitive rock face. In Fun Fair, a human eye stares out at the viewer from the side of a carnival tent, while in Celebrity, the figure of the actress is completely shrouded by vines. Gray repeatedly casts Swinton as but a blurred shadow on an urban or country scene, a photographer’s retort to Gerhard Richter’s postmodernist smearing of his photorealist paintings.
"Big Tilda" comes to life this week, Apr. 25-29, 2006, as more than a dozen of the images are projected onto the north and south walls of San Francisco’s City Hall. The project is part of the 49th San Francisco International Film Festival, where Swinton also gave this year’s "State of the Cinema" address. With Austrian-made Pani projectors throwing light from more than 100 yards away, Gray’s portraits covered the building and took on the texture of its windows and exterior molding, giving the photographs still another layer of reference.
Large-format photography is now a commonplace, but Gray’s project gives the images a special radiance, not to mention the satirical kick of putting the famously androgynous Swinton on the face of an urban Mount Rushmore -- especially since this City Hall is one that flaunts gay marriage like a badge (or boa) of honor.
The building, feminized like a model in this cross-dressing town, becomes something similar to an actress who assumes a role or tries on costumes. Using the building’s existing wall textures, Lucy Gray seems to be suggesting that there’s no such thing as a blank canvas.
One more thing --- the semiotics here are anything but brazen. The act of placing the image of an actress, larger than life, on the walls of the seat of power shouldn’t be seen as anything revolutionary in the state that voted actors like the Great Communicator and the Governator into office. No word yet on whether Swinton sees this projection as an audition for a political job.
Images from Gray’s "Big Tilda" project can also be seen online at the website of Audis Husar Fine Art in Los Angeles.
DAVID D’ARCY is a correspondent for the Art Newspaper, a contributing editor at Art & Auction and a regular critic on the "Front Row" program on BBC Radio.