Interview: James Benning

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of speaking with filmmaker James Benning about Two Cabins (A.R.T. Press), his remarkable new artist’s book. As its title suggests, the publication documents two cabins Benning constructed on property he owns in California. One is an exact replica of the cabin Henry David Thoreau built in the mid-1840s, memorialized in his book Walden. The other is an exact replica of the cabin Theodore Kaczynski built in the early 1980s, and is where he lived while creating mail bombs (as the Unabomber) and writing his extensive anti-technology treatise.

James Benning, Henry David Thoreau Cabin, constructed July 2007-January 2008

The interview is published in as-told-to format. Here is an excerpt:

I had bought a “turnkey” property in the mountains, and as soon as I got my hands on it I worked for months to make it mine. I got addicted to construction, to solving the problems inherent in taking something apart and putting it back together again. I added a guest room. When I was finished, I was confronted with the anxiety of needing something to work on. I began copying Bill Traylor paintings, at first because I couldn’t afford them, but then because the process was teaching me a lot about painting and composition. Yet I still had a bug in me to do more construction. I thought, “I’ve never built a house, why don’t I build a house?” Recognizing that as too ambitious, I settled upon building a small one—and Thoreau’s cabin, the quintessential small house, came to mind. I learned what I could about its details, built it, and began filling it with my copies of paintings by obsessive artists—Traylor, Mose Tolliver, Henry Darger, Martín Ramírez.

It seemed too cute, though, like a miniature art gallery; it needed a counterpoint. When I decided to build another cabin, I immediately thought of Ted Kaczynski’s.

To read the rest of the interview, click here.

“The Black Power Mixtape, 1967-75″

Published on on October 4, 2011. The exhibition was on view at Third Streaming, New York, from September 8 to October 15, 2011.

Angela Davis, still from The Black Power Mixtape, 1967-75

Angela Davis, still from The Black Power Mixtape, 1967-75

During the past fifteen years, scholars have dramatically revised our understanding of the American civil rights and Black Power movements, proposing answers to questions such as: When did each begin and end? What traits, if any, do they share? What is the relative importance of acknowledged leaders and lesser-known participants? Historians including Charles Payne, Martha Biondi, Thomas Sugrue, and Peniel Joseph have crafted nuanced portraits of both movements’ protest dynamics and the merits of the gains each made. The visual record of the era, however, has not been given an equivalent boost, which makes the recent discovery of hours of documentary footage captured by Swedish television journalists all the more special. That material has been transformed into The Black Power Mixtape 1967–1975 (2011), the feature-length documentary on which this exhibition of film stills, related footage, and ephemera is based.

The images selected for stills focus primarily on Black Power leaders. We see Angela Davis as a glamorous antihero, two dour officers at her elbows; Bobby Seale and Stokely Carmichael coolly addressing unseen gatherings; and Kathleen Cleaver next to a typewriter, taking a break from crafting revolution’s message to pensively drag on a cigarette. A small monitor displaying unused film footage contrasts this hero worship with images of children carousing in unkempt streets, cops cruising down sweltering avenues, and little boys in suits marching out of a school building.

There is, perhaps surprisingly, a precedent for the Swedish investigation of American social problems. Economist and sociologist Gunnar Myrdal’s 1944 study of American race relations, An American Dilemma, permanently inflected the conversation on civil rights and was even cited by the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education. While The Black Power Mixtape doesn’t aspire to the same influence, it is nonetheless a welcome addition to the body of evidence documenting a turbulent period in our recent past, one whose meaning is still up for revaluation.

Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind

In recent weeks I’ve found myself thinking frequently about Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind, an experimental 2008 documentary by filmmaker John Gianvito. I saw it that summer at Anthology Film Archives, and was happy to learn that this hour-long plaintive meditation on radical American history—and how it has been encoded in the country’s landscape—is available as a free online stream at SnagFilms. As A.O. Scott noted in the New York Times, “The calling of birds and the rustle of trees provide most of the commentary, and the effect is somehow to make history more mysteriously distant and more concrete—a matter of stone and weathered plaques inscribed with the records of half-forgotten deeds.” Here is a longer meditation on two of Gianvito’s films by Jonathan Rosenbaum, who compares the film to those by Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet. Rosenbaum says, “Gianvito’s various ways of approaching the graves, memorials, and shrines through the surrounding landscapes that nestle and sometimes hide these largely unremarked sites is every bit as important as their inscriptions.” I highly recommend the film.

“Dance with Camera”

Published in Aperture 198, spring 2010. The exhibition remains on view at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia until March 21, and then travels to the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, where it will be on view from August 7 to October 17. See also this post on a wonderful Hilary Harris film included in the exhibition.

Joachim Koester, Tarantism, 2007, still from a silent 16-mm film.

Many variables structure the exchange between cameras and dancers, including whether the lens captures a still image or motion, whether the camera itself is static or moving, whether the performers acknowledge the camera’s presence, and whether the camera aims for a synoptic overview or fragmented details. The small first gallery of “Dance with Camera,” an exhibition and screening program organized by Jenelle Porter for Philadelphia’s Institute of Contemporary Art, includes work that vary these characteristics like reels in a slot machine. In the process they offer a succinct introduction to the show’s catholic approach to its subject. Elegantly composed photographs by Christopher Williams and Kelly Nipper suggest the passage of time from mobile and fixed vantage points, respectively. A video of Eleanor Antin’s ungainly attempts to assume ballet poses for a male photographer belies the elegance of his pictures of her, which hang on the wall nearby. Mike Kelley’s static eight-and-a-half-minute video of two dancers performing on a laboratory-like stage set seems like unmanned CCTV footage. In contrast, Charles Atlas’s Fractions I (1977) alternates black-and-white and color footage of Merce Cunningham’s company dancing a work that was intended to be recorded: as each camera tracks the performers, it passes before monitors displaying what other cameras are recording, creating a kind of picture-within-a-picture.

Round the corner into the museum’s main spaces and Cunningham himself appears, in another Atlas recording (included in a “video kiosk” highlighting inspirations for the show) and in a 2007 film by Tacita Dean in which he gives a majestically reserved performance of John Cage’s 4’33”. Yet “Dance with Camera” is by no means limited to artists recording professional dancers. A pair of recent videos by Oliver Herring document the stout painter Joyce Pensanto acting out choreographic fantasies with younger male partners. Two generations earlier, Bruce Nauman tapped his way around a square marked off on his studio floor, and Bruce Conner captured Toni Basil’s delirious gyrations against a black backdrop, a piece that rhymes nicely with Joachim Koester’s 2007 film Tarantism, in which a group of young men and women convulse uncontrollably in a similarly featureless environment. In his 2007 film Untitled (Agon), Elad Lassry deployed suggestions outlined in Doris Humphrey’s 1958 book The Art of Making Dances to position his cameras for the documentation of the pas de deux from George Balanchine’s 1957 ballet Agon. Lassry’s film is one of the few included here to offer not only exquisite compositions but also, with its close-up views of the dancers’ faces in between performances, some sense of just who is in front of the camera.

The plethora of filmic components in this presentation inevitably creates minor problems, such as sound bleed and distractions in one’s peripheral vision. But unlike many surveys that rely on time-based media, “Dance with Camera” is admirably well programmed with works that are varied in their approach but of relatively short duration. A two-hour visit neither exhausts a viewer’s patience nor leaves one with the sinking feeling of having missed great swaths of what was on offer. The exhibition successfully presents dance as a profitable frame of reference through which to understand anew collaboration, narrative propulsion, the body, and other topics artists wrestle with today.

Installation view. From left: Tacita Dean, Merce (Manchester), 2007; Elad Lassry, Untitled (Agon), 2007. Photo: Aaron Igler.

Two other notes: First, the catalogue for the exhibition, designed by Conny Purtill of the Purtill Family Business, is wonderfully put together. Not only does it feature an impressive (and impressively long) essay by Porter, but it includes choice reprints that span several decades. These texts reflect upon both specific artworks in the exhibition and the general issues it raises. It’s a lovely object, one well worth having in your library if the issues addressed by the exhibition interest you. Second, as my interest in photography grows it has been a pleasure to contribute to Aperture, and this issue includes a plethora of articles I’m looking forward to reading, including Geoffrey Batch’s review of “The Pictures Generation,” Tim Davis’s review of the new “New Topographics” exhibition, and my talented friend Alan Gilbert’s essay on Walid Raad’s art.

Michael Ned Holte on James Benning’s Ruhr

I’m jealous of my friend Michael Ned Holte, a talented art critic and film enthusiast, for he has seen James Benning’s Ruhr (2009), the filmmaker’s newest work and first foray into high-definition video. Thankfully, he has also written about it, for, and in the process has offered a thoughtful meditation on some of the differences between digital and celluloid images. It’s “not simply the difference between the ‘purity’ or indexicality of photographic grain versus cold, clinical pixels: Ruhr suggests that, for Benning, the true promise of HD is in its capacity to capture images at durations that push the limits of the viewer’s attention toward an almost-inhuman scale of time—albeit in a physical way that an all-too-human viewer, seated in the theater, will surely register.” Ruhr receives its US premiere at REDCAT in Los Angeles on January 11. To read the rest of Holte’s piece, click here.

Tacita Dean Interview

My friend and former colleague David Velasco has interviewed Tacita Dean, one of my favorite working artists, about her new film Craneway Event, which premieres next week as part of PERFORMA 09. (If you haven’t looked yet at the PERFORMA calendar, you should—there are many outstanding events on the docket.) Dean has worked with Cunningham before, producing a series of six 16-mm films that I discussed when they were presented at Dia Beacon last year. Now she has filmed the rehearsals for a Cunningham “event” that took place in a former Ford factory in northern California; the still reproduced on the Artforum website looks amazing. Here is some of Dean’s description: “Merce told me I didn’t have to be faithful to the chronology of the dance, which was very liberating but, in the end, I was quite faithful. The Event had three stages on which the dancers dance simultaneously, so as a viewer you never have a composite view, which is the same in my film: no single perspective. The actual Event is always broken up.”

Hilary Harris, Nine Variations on a Dance Theme

Last Wednesday I traveled to Philadelphia to see the exhibition “Dance with Camera,” on view through March 21 at the Institute of Contemporary Art. My review will arrive on newsstands several months from now, but in the meantime I wanted to share my newfound enthusiasm for Hilary Harris, a now little-known documentary filmmaker whose exquisite short film Nine Variations on a Dance Theme (1966) is included in the show. Harris’s thirteen-minute film of dancer Bettie de Jong dissects a short composition she performs nine times. With each iteration, he films her in a different style, revealing new details—such as the way her muscles quiver as she holds a difficult pose—that add up to a surprisingly nuanced portrait of a human body in motion. For further description of the film (and stills), see this post in the “Films I Love” series on the blog Only the Cinema. To watch Nine Variations, as well as three other shorts by Harris, including Organism, his celebrated portrait of New York City, click here.

New James Benning Short Viewable Online

The annual Viennale festival has commissioned James Benning to create its “festival trailer,” and the resultant one-minute film, Fire & Rain, is available for viewing online. From the festival website: “Benning shot the work process in a steelworks in the Ruhr area. On a kind of conveyor belt, a glowing piece of steel flits across the screen and disappears only to reappear again as a blazing, shining material. Finally, artificial rain falls onto the glowing metal, shrouding the whole image in a cloud of steam and making it disappear.” As Daniel Kasman at The Auteurs notes, this looks to be a fragment from Benning’s first digitally shot work, Ruhr.

Mark Lewis in Canadian Art

The summer issue of Canadian Art features a cover story on artist Mark Lewis, a very talented filmmaker who is currently representing Canada at the Venice Biennale. “Lewis works with film as if it were a sculptural material,” writes Nancy Tousley. “He demonstrates its inherent difference from other kinds of picture-making and shows how it works. […] Lewis courts the impression of reality to show it off as an invention, to show to a spectator what he has seen, to revive the surprise and wonder experienced by the audiences of early film.” Beginning September 8, the art gallery at the University of Toronto will present the three films Lewis created for the Venice pavilion, and on the next day the Art Gallery of Ontario opens the exhibition “Beautiful Fictions,” which includes three other Lewis films. I reviewed an exhibition Lewis presented in New York four years ago, and the artist maintains a very useful website with low-res versions of his films and related information.

Al Reinert, For All Mankind

Al Reinert, For All Mankind, 1989, (detail), still from a color film, 79 minutes.

Al Reinert, For All Mankind, 1989, (detail), still from a color film, 79 minutes.

Published as “Step Children” on on July 12, 2009. To see the review in context, click here.

In the spring of 1961, President John F. Kennedy announced that the United States would send a man to the moon by the end of the decade. It was an act of hubris: When he spoke, the country’s astronauts had logged only twenty minutes in outer space. Billions of dollars and a little more than eight years later, on July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong hopped off a lunar module nicknamed Eagle and pronounced the occasion “one small step for man; one giant leap for mankind.” Live television images beamed back to Earth’s surface transfixed the nation, momentarily stitching together a public torn apart by the Vietnam War, violent inner-city unrest, campus protests, and much else besides. The achievement seemed not only a victory in the country’s war-by-any-means-but-war with the Soviet Union—the USSR’s own unmanned lunar explorer crashed into the moon while Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were there, asleep in their landing module—but also to augur a grand age of space exploration and scientific breakthroughs. Yet the last human to set foot on our moon’s pockmarked surface, Eugene Cernan, did so less than five years later, at the end of 1972.

The fortieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission offers an opportunity for reconsideration of the Apollo program; even Aldrin has gotten into the act, publishing Magnificent Desolation, his second memoir. Criterion has contributed to the effort by releasing on DVD and Blu-Ray Al Reinert’s magnificent 1989 documentary For All Mankind. To make the film, Reinert, a journalist with no prior filmmaking experience, trolled through millions of feet of official Apollo 16-mm footage, then combined his selections with audio recordings extracted from hundreds of hours of interviews with astronauts. The lunar missions are collapsed into one epic journey, from pre-flight training to command module splashdown, narrated in the southern drawls and flat Midwestern accents of the men who rocketed out of Earth’s orbit.

The figures onscreen and those recounting their experiences are never properly identified, a decision that aims to emphasize the communal nature of the entire lunar enterprise. This directorial sleight-of-hand ensures that the focus remains on the images, which cannot be matched by the descriptions offered by those who captured them. But it also effaces the huge effort required to make the footage possible. Not only were there ten Apollo missions prior to Armstrong’s fateful steps, but also hundreds of men and women who worked at the command center in Houston, and thousands more that dedicated millions of hours of labor to create, ex nihilo, the physical infrastructure necessary to get Armstrong and Aldrin to the moon’s ash-colored surface. For All Mankind, then, is hampered by its narrow focus. But what magnificent footage it presents! There is the slow-motion infernal blaze of engines propelling rockets into the air and the still uncanny sight of flashlights, slices of bread, and other everyday items floating languidly in zero gravity. There is the Earth seen from a distance and rising above the moon’s horizon, an image that helped spark a nascent environmental movement; there are the astronauts themselves, snow-white Michelin men bouncing and stumbling giddily across the knobby, lifeless gray expanse.

Many people, reflecting on the dubious Cold War inspiration for NASA, or lamenting its ratio of cost to demonstrable benefit, or chastising the always malfunctioning, dangerous shuttles that arrived in Apollo’s wake, will use this anniversary to criticize the entire enterprise. Their claims are often legitimate. But the velvet blank amplitude of outer space, the backdrop for most of the film, reminds viewers of one Apollo program legacy still to be puzzled out. The inky, airless expanse that is so palpable a presence in For All Mankind is an indication of the deep ontological shift represented by traveling so far into the unknown. Irrespective of politics or science, forty years later, the mind still stutters when trying to grasp precisely what it means to have been to the moon and back.

For more information on For All Mankind, click here to visit the Criterion Collection’s website. To read Caryn James’s 1990 New York Times review of the film, click here. To read a 1973 essay by Al Reinert on the space center in Houston, Texas, click here (free registration required).

Jia Zhang-ke, 24 City

Jia Zhang-ke, 24 City, 2008, still from a color film in 35 mm, 112 minutes.

Jia Zhang-ke, 24 City, 2008, still from a color film in 35 mm, 112 minutes.

From afar, it is easy to imagine the spectacular economic gains in capitalist China as being created ex nihilo, the cumulative effect of a magical reserve—millions of laboring bodies. How else to explain the recent double-digit GDP growth, year after year? Yet as both history and everyday life remind us, with every gain there is a concurrent loss. It is one of the virtues of Jia Zhang-ke’s recent film 24 City (2008) that he focuses on particular losses: the psychological and physical wounds inflicted upon the employees of Factory 420 in Chengdu, first under Mao’s regime in the 1960s and 1970s, and then during the shift from a planned economy to a market economy, the effects of which are still being felt today. The factory, recently purchased by a real-estate development company that will replace the warren of brick structures with gleaming high-rise condominium towers, is the nucleus for diverse lives, many marked by quiet tragedies.

As the complex’s buildings are emptied of their machines, stripped for copper wire and other materials, and finally demolished, a handful of workers—chosen from among the 130 Jia interviewed—tell their often painful stories. Unflagging dedication to the Factory 420 enterprise seems invariably to conflict with personal ambitions, leading to the separation of family members and the frustration of efforts to find love. It may be difficult for Western audiences to understand the seemingly extreme sacrifices made by these people. But the employees of Factory 420 forge and repair aircraft parts used by the military, and the exigencies of national defense—first against Chiang Kai-Shek, then during the brief Sino-Vietnamese war in 1979—compel submission. (The film’s opening shot is telling: Heated ingots of steel, glowing orange, are one by one pounded into shape.) Job security is not necessarily offered in return: Wartime needs slacken, the factory shifts to the production of consumer goods, and one middle-age woman recounts being laid off in 1994 despite never missing a day on the floor.

Jia has deliberately woven fictional narratives into his documentary structure as an acknowledgment of the imprecision of memory and the instability of any “truth”—whether state-mandated or private and emotional. This is an unacknowledged point in the film itself, and the plausibility of the fictional monologues and the restrained performances of his hired actors render it fairly moot. 24 City does not seem primarily a commentary on the mutability of history; that is only one of its themes. Here I agree with Kevin B. Lee’s assessment in Slant: “What emerges in 24 City is a moving three-fold meditation: on the many stories of a bygone era, both epic and banal, that are bound to be left untold and forgotten; the many fictions woven—whether by the media, by our ancestors, or by ourselves—into our understanding of reality; and a dying ideology’s legacy on how its people tell their stories.” That the coming order, no more than a shake of the kaleidoscope, is bound to produce its own difficult stories and complex legacy is apparent in the monologues delivered by two characters—a television news presenter and a personal shopper—representing a younger generation.

Jia Zhang-ke, 24 City, 2008, still from a color film in 35 mm, 112 minutes. Hao Dali (Lv Liping).

Jia Zhang-ke, 24 City, 2008, still from a color film in 35 mm, 112 minutes. Hao Dali (Lv Liping).

This is all communicated with commendable formal control: Jia intermingles lovingly framed slow tracking shots of the factory buildings and Screen Test–style silent portraits of anonymous  workers with his talking-head interviews. The images of the disheveled environment linger just long enough to communicate pathos without becoming treacly; the additional silent protagonists radiate dignity and imply all the other stories for which Jia’s interviewees stand in as representative examples. (The soundtrack, too, is relatively discreet: two brief compositions—one for a solo trumpet and another, more plaintive one, for strings—recur throughout.) 24 City does justice to the particular histories of a few individuals without forfeiting an important larger narrative about the country’s experiences under its various political and economic regimes. This is no small feat in so giddily unsettled an environment as twenty-first-century China.

For additional reviews, see David Hudson’s roundup at The Daily. 24 City runs through June 18 at IFC Center in New York, and opens soon in Columbus, OH, Chicago, Denver, San Francisco, Boston, and elsewhere. Click here for more information and to watch the trailer.

Steve McQueen’s Giardini

My severest disappointment in not attending this year’s Venice Biennale is missing the premiere of Steve McQueen’s new film Giardini. McQueen, to my mind one of the best artists of his generation, shot the half-hour-long film in the public garden that houses the national pavilions used during the Biennale. What he depicts, though, is the period of their disuse, those misty February days in which the miniature monuments are boarded up, dogs wander through the moist grass, and a woman pushing a shopping cart daily scatters bread to a fleet of birds. This description, of course, is derived only from seeing excerpts (in this video interview with the artist) and stills, and from reading about the film. (David Hudson has a media round-up at The Daily.)

Steve McQueen, still from Giardini, 2009

Steve McQueen, still from Giardini, 2009

Though it appears already to be a favorite among people who broadcast their immediate opinions to the world, perhaps McQueen’s film will be accused of being merely “charming.” (After the engaged, ongoing installation Queen and Country and the lacerating feature film Hunger, of course, I think McQueen has earned the right to a moment of “mere” aesthetic revelry.) But for those coming in to the British Pavilion out of the social imbroglio that is the Biennale’s preview, Giardini’s attentiveness to the small beauties of a timeless, hushed city might feel like a rebuke. Why travel to Venice in early June, when the city abounds with tourists and professional colleagues, when the opposite end of the calendar offers such tranquil beauty (and weather that better suits a romantic temperament)? Why rush about in a four-day frenzy, seeing hundreds of rooms full of art, when the slow roving over one small patch of land turns up such graces?

Reading about McQueen’s film prompted me to pull off the shelf Joseph Brodsky’s Watermark, a lovely small book about wintertime Venice. I read it not long after my own first visit to the city, in August of 2003. (I avoided the art crowd, but not the tourists.) The film still above brought to mind this passage from very early in the book: “The backdrop was all in dark silhouettes of church cupolas and rooftops; a bridge arching over a body of water’s black curve, both ends of which were clipped off by infinity. At night, infinity in foreign realms arrives with the last lamppost.” Here is another, unrelated passage that I marked at the time:

In winter you wake up in this city, especially on Sundays, to the chiming of its innumerable bells, as though behind your gauze curtains a gigantic china teaset were vibrating on a silver tray in the pearl-gray sky. You fling the window open and the room is instantly flooded with this outer, peal-laden haze, which is part damp oxygen, part coffee and prayers.

Herb & Dorothy

Published as “Collecting Class” on on June 1, 2009. To see the review in context, click here.

Artist Lawrence Weirner in Herb & Dorothy.

Artist Lawrence Weiner in Herb & Dorothy.

“Every culture needs its Vogels,” says Lawrence Weiner near the end of the documentary Herb and Dorothy (2008). “They’re friend collectors, not collector collectors,” clarifies another artist. Not long after they purchased a small, untitled sculpture by John Chamberlain in 1962, the pint-size duo recognized that what they were buying was better than what they themselves were making as “wannabe artists.” So they lived frugally on her librarian’s salary, bought art with his earnings at the post office, and spent all their time in artists’ studios, galleries, and museums.

The Vogels aren’t chatty subjects, so first-time director Megumi Sasaki interviews a cavalcade of those they’ve collected over the years, including Sylvia Plimack and Robert Mangold, Chuck Close, Robert Barry, Lynda Benglis, and Richard Tuttle. All testify to the intensity of Herb’s looking and his insatiability, and to Dorothy’s sensible handling of finances—the couple always worked on the installment plan and rarely missed a payment. Their rules? The work had to be affordable, and it had to fit into their rent-controlled Manhattan one-bedroom apartment. By the time the National Gallery of Art, as a gesture of courtship, trucked everything to DC to be inventoried, the art crammed into that space filled five full-size moving vans.

It’s clear from the film’s structure and its B-roll footage that Sasaki isn’t familiar with the art world, so art-savvy audiences who know the Vogels’ story will focus on piquant details: Dorothy kept a small Carl Andre copper sculpture in a chocolate box; the couple made weekly phone calls to the artists they were close with; they often paid in cash and left with their purchases tucked under their arms. Yet fascinating stories lurk just beneath the surface. One answers the first question invariably asked by journalists: “How could they afford to be major collectors on government salaries?” In the ’60s, when no one else was buying art by young Minimal and Conceptual artists, the Vogels supported them with their (relatively inexpensive) purchases. After the market drove prices up, it seems, artists supported the Vogels, discounting their work to civil-servant prices. This is acknowledged implicitly when, during a visit to James Siena’s studio, everyone decorously agrees to discuss prices off-camera, and it’s acknowledged explicitly in a comment Dorothy makes: “The collection was built on the generosity of artists.”

In an age of speculative purchases via JPEG image, the rapport such generosity implies is cause for nostalgia. And, of course, it paid off. The Vogels understood themselves as caretakers of the art they owned, conscientiously draping their framed, light-sensitive drawings with blankets and then, in 1992, donating several thousand works to the National Gallery. The museum, to thank them, set up an annuity to supplement their retirement income. What have they done with it? Bought more art, of course.

Herb and Dorothy opens June 5 at Cinema Village in New York and July 10 at Landmark Nuart in Los Angeles. Click here to visit the film’s website.

Malls R Us

Published as “It’s a Mall World” on March 18, 2009. Here is a YouTube link to the film’s trailer.

A shopping mall is “a place where idealism, passion, and greed can come together, all under one roof,” intones the voice-over narrator near the outset of Canadian filmmaker Helen Klodawsky’s Malls R Us (2008), her latest work. The seventy-eight-minute documentary chronicles what these feelings provoke in a diverse cast of characters: megalomaniacal ambition in real estate developers, utopian fantasies of behavior engineering in corporate architects, slightly smug moralizing in critics of consumerism, and rousing antimall activism in environmentalists and labor activists. Klodawsky’s cameras alight on one luxury megadevelopment after another. Some are still in the making, whether being built by hundreds of workmen or existing solely in artists’ renderings; some are gleaming and overrun with glassy-eyed shoppers; a few older examples are kept alive by a handful of lingering tenants, like patients in a terminal ward. The film suggests that the geographic trend in mall development is toward the Middle East, India, and Asia. It also suggests that the lifespan of these projects, despite the billions of dollars and the thousands of hours of labor that go into them, is approximately thirty years.

Helene Klodawsky, still from Malls R Us, 2008.

Helene Klodawsky, still from Malls R Us, 2008.

Though Malls R Us dexterously balances seduction and repulsion, it’s not necessarily due to Klodawsky’s attempts at neutrality. One senses that her fascination is morbid and her intent exhortative, not least in a scene in which Canadian developer Rubin Stahl is caught, in an outsize sporting-goods chain store he hopes will anchor his new project, holding an automatic weapon that an off-camera store employee informs him is “meant for humans.” Yikes! The moment precedes a crescendo of crosscuts that juxtapose starkly the cross purposes of Stahl; Eric Kuhne, a London-based American architect at work on a million-square-foot project in Dubai; and Vikram Soni, an Indian environmental activist attempting to halt a development that will trample the Delhi Ridge Wilderness Preserve.

Nonetheless, at the end of the film there remains something to the claim made at the outset that the mall is a kind of sacred place. This is partly because of the lovely cinematography of François Dagenais, with whom Klodawsky worked on her 2005 film No More Tears Sister, about a Sri Lankan human rights activist. His images of privileged, contented young women among the seventy thousand trees planted on the roof of an Osaka megamall and of the dramatic, angular spaces enclosed with glass in Jon Jerde’s Zlote Tarasy (Golden Terraces) development in Warsaw evoke a Pavlovian response in the viewer. One almost doesn’t begrudge the young Japanese mother who blithely announces, “To be around people with the same background makes me feel at ease.”

What undergirds this ongoing romance with shopping malls, even among those whose critical faculties lead them to acknowledge the enormous fiscal, social, and environmental costs of building and maintaining them? Jerde and the writer Ray Bradbury suspect it has something to do with the mall’s ability to foster community as the downtown promenades in small American cities once did. Aurelie, a makeup-counter salesgirl at Forum des Halles in Paris, believes it’s because the shopping mall is a place where people are gratified to be on display. The elderly women who stride purposefully around a near-empty mall in Middle America, unable to imagine what they’ll do if it closes, benefit from the consistency it affords their exercise routine. One of this film’s virtues is Klodawsky’s ability, despite her own inclinations, to let viewers empathize—to some degree—with each of these positions.

Notebook: New Sharon Lockhart film

Sharon Lockhart, Lunch Break, 2008, production still from a color film in 35 mm transferred to HD, 83 minutes.

Sharon Lockhart, Lunch Break, 2008, production still from a color film in 35 mm transferred to HD, 83 minutes.

My review of Sharon Lockhart’s new film Lunch Break (2008), which will be presented this weekend at the Sundance Film Festival, has just been published on In a nod to the detailed “notebook” posts Caleb Crain publishes at his (consistently excellent) blog, which offer notes and background information on his essays and reviews, I’ll try here to present some context for my comments on the film. What follows will make more sense if you click on the phrase “my review” at the outset of this post and read it first.

The first thing that should be taken into consideration is that Lunch Break is part of a larger project that includes another, shorter film, titled Exit (2008), and several series of photographs. In order to write this review, I watched the two films but did not have access to images of the photographs.

The second thing to note is that my review is based on watching a DVD copy of the film at home, and that very few people who endeavor to see Lunch Break—whether in a cinema setting, as at Sundance, or in a gallery—will see it as I did. When the film was premiered recently, at Secession in Vienna, it was housed in a custom-designed hallway-like cinema created by the Los Angeles–based architecture firm Escher GuneWardena. Click here to see installation views from and read about that exhibition. Lockhart has collaborated with this firm on the design of past installations, examples of which can be found at the firm’s website.

In preparation for writing, I re-read several reviews of and essays about Lockhart’s work. One that is available online was written by my friend Michael Ned Holte on the occasion of Lockhart’s last film-and-photograph project, Pine Flat (2005). His essay can be found here. Pine Flat was generally well-received, and I enjoyed it both in a gallery environment (at Barbara Gladstone in New York) and in a cinema setting (at the Museum of Modern Art). For a dissenting view, read this review by Jerry Saltz, which was originally published in the Village Voice.

In my review of Lunch Break, I mention recent films by Tacita Dean, Mark Lewis, and James Benning. A web-quality clip of Dean’s film Kodak (2006) is available online at [Thanks to Martin Herbert for pointing out the link.] A handful of stills, however, are available at Kultureflash. James Quandt discussed the film in a November 2006 review of Dean’s exhibition at Schaulager in Basel, Switzerland, and I wrote about the film, which I saw at the Guggenheim Museum in 2007, in the premiere issue of the magazine Paper Monument. Lewis’s film Children’s Games, Heygate Estate (2002) is available (in a web-quality version) at his personal website. I saw that film in an exhibition at Bard College’s Center for Curatorial Studies circa 2002 or 2003, and later reviewed Lewis’s first New York solo show for Artforum. Lastly, I saw James Benning’s RR (2007) at a New York Film Festival press screening and other recent films of his at a screening last September at Dia Beacon, where the filmmaker also spoke before an audience with curator Lynne Cooke. There is an avalanche of commentary on this film available online, much of it capably rounded up by David Hudson at GreenCine Daily, his former blog. Cinema Scope magazine has also made available online a long interview with Benning.

Lastly, the film is a study of the workers at the Bath Iron Works, in Bath, Maine. The company website is located here, but even more information about it, including a list of the ships it has built (primarily for the US Navy), is available at this Wikipedia page.

I’m unsure where and when Lockhart’s recent series will appear in New York, but I’ll update this post whenever I find out.

Sharon Lockart, Lunch Break

Published as “Parts and Labor” on on January 15, 2009. To see the review in context, click here.

Sharon Lockhart’s latest films depict employees at the Bath Iron Works in Bath, Maine. Lunch Break (2008), the longer of the two, is notable first for the artist’s decision to set the camera in motion, something she has not done in any of her previous films. (Exit [2008], a related, forty-one-minute study of repetition and difference that depicts workers leaving the facility on five consecutive days, maintains a fixed camera position.) In a long, uninterrupted tracking shot, the camera in Lunch Break traverses at midday what appears to be the spinal cord of the shipyard—a long, uninterrupted passageway—as several dozen employees eat, read the newspaper, and talk in small groups. Most of the workers (all but one are men) do not engage with the camera, perhaps a result of the fact that, as with Pine Flat (2005), Lockhart’s study of children in a small California town, the artist spent considerable time conducting quasi-ethnographic research to familiarize herself with the “community” of shipbuilders, electricians, welders, and pipefitters before capturing it on film.

Sharon Lockhart, still from Lunch Break, 2008.

Sharon Lockhart, still from Lunch Break, 2008.

Though the camera moved, the footage it gathered has been slowed down dramatically: Six minutes pass before the first figure is beyond the frame, and another seven elapse before the camera reaches the next trio of relaxing employees. As it progresses, every detail of the claustrophobically hemmed-in environment is revealed in sharp focus: dented garbage cans and putty-colored lockers, some adorned with stickers; olive-green tool chests and brightly colored plastic coolers; gauges that cling to pipes stretching from floor to ceiling; and tubes and hoses that extend every which way, all beneath drab, uniform fluorescent light. The dilatory pace emphasizes the sheer amount of material (and visual detail) packed in to this place, and highlights how successfully 35-mm film can capture that plenitude. But the unhurriedness also imparts a monumental solemnity to each of the workers’ gestures, which can undercut the film’s tight structure in both negative and positive ways. A man sitting to the left of the aisle with a water bottle in hand, momentarily looking at the floor, becomes, when slowed down, a despondent ruminator seemingly lifted from one of Bill Viola’s histrionic video installations. On the other hand, when, midway through the film, another man reaching above the lockers pulls a bag of popcorn out of an unseen microwave, the humor of his banal action deflates the portentousness that can cloud such snail-paced scrutiny.

Lockhart’s deadpan gaze, it should be noted, is in fact far removed from Viola’s schmaltzy recent work. Lunch Break is more closely related to films such as Tacita Dean’s Kodak (2006), a poker-faced threnody that memorializes the last days in the factory in France where Dean’s preferred film stock was made, or Mark Lewis’s Children’s Games, Heygate Estate (2002), in which the camera glides seamlessly along an elevated walkway through a south London housing project, capturing children at play on the sidewalks below. All three infuse sharply delineated formal parameters with content extraneous to that structure. (As Michael Ned Holte has noted elsewhere, Lockhart does not make strictly structuralist films; the same can be said about Dean and Lewis’s rigorous work.) Lunch Break is described as part of Lockhart’s new series “about the present state of US labor,” but the film discloses little concerning this ambitious remit. (For example, nowhere is it explained that the Bath Iron Workers’ labor is put to very particular ends: The company is part of the General Dynamics conglomerate and a major supplier of destroyers to the US Navy.) The employees’ idleness might be seen as a metaphor for the way in which our economy has ground to a halt, but Lockhart remains a better portraitist and formalist than analyst or polemicist.

The same can be said of James Benning, who is perhaps the single greatest influence on Lockhart’s moving-image corpus and who edited Lunch Break and helped supervise its sound. (For example, RR [2007], his wondrous latest film, is diminished somewhat by its didactic sound track selections.) He has, with composer Becky Allen, given Lunch Break a deep, consistent, ambient industrial drone (similar to Dean’s Kodak) that is punctuated occasionally by the clang of metal against metal. Snippets of conversation and, at one point, a Led Zeppelin song bubble up to the surface of the mix as the camera passes by plausible sources for the sounds. The disjunction between edited sounds seemingly played at normal speed and a slowed-down image helps articulate the constructed nature of Lockhart’s elegant, if seemingly transitional, film.

Rene Daalder, Here Is Always Somewhere Else: The Disappearance of Bas Jan Ader

Published as “Lost, Not Found” on on December 3, 2008. To see the review in context, click here.

The Dutch artist Bas Jan Ader arrived in California in the late 1960s, created a small, potent body of lyric artworks, and then was lost at sea in 1975. He has received increasing attention in recent years, yet he remains a mystery. Rene Daalder’s documentary, Here Is Always Somewhere Else: The Disappearance of Bas Jan Ader (2007), is a useful if pedestrian addition to the spate of exhibitions and publications honoring the artist, and its flaws highlight why we may never come close to understanding Ader’s fateful decision to sail across the Atlantic in the Ocean Wave (a twelve-and-a-half-foot sailboat).

First and foremost, the romance of Ader’s disappearance has seduced Daalder into inserting himself more forcefully into the narrative than his association with Ader would seem to invite. (The already brief sixty-six-minute documentary would be half as long if it focused solely on its ostensible subject.) Second, most of the interviewees—Mary Sue Ader-Anderson, the artist’s widow; Ader’s classmates and students; younger artists influenced by his work—offer little insight into his practice or legacy; only artist Tacita Dean, who made a film about the amateur sailor Donald Crowhurst, who also died at sea, speaks eloquently about Ader’s importance to younger practitioners. The film likewise neglects to situate Ader fully within his artistic context, references to Chris Burden and “macho” American artists notwithstanding.

The documentary, created at the behest of Ader-Andersen, dutifully traces the artist’s early life in the Netherlands, his passage to the United States as the only crew member on a sailboat from Morocco, his student days and marriage (and, irritatingly, Daalder’s simultaneous B-movie work in Hollywood), the travails of his short career, and, of course, In Search of the Miraculous, the three-part artwork of which his solo voyage across the sea was one part. With only this biographical material as ballast, it seems inevitable that Daalder would posit Ader’s early life as the greatest influence on his art, and indeed a children’s book written by his mother and an impromptu bicycle journey to Jerusalem taken by his pastor father are, to the filmmaker, what animated Ader’s practice and ill-fated final adventure.

It is no doubt difficult to see past Ader’s untimely disappearance to the milieu in which he worked while alive, and the temptation to see Ader’s entire career as inexorably leading to In Search of the Miraculous must be great. But working with the full support of Ader-Andersen and the artist’s estate, one would expect that Daalder could have come up with more. He presents some previously unseen footage, and the DVD edition possesses the unequivocal benefit of including several of Ader’s film works on a second disc. As it stands, though, should another filmmaker ever gain equal access to the artist’s archives, colleagues, and artistic inheritors, much remains to be explored.

Rene Daalder’s Here Is Always Somewhere Else

Not long after I moved to New York in 2001, I was hired by a gallery on far west Twenty-second Street. At the time the curator (and now Greene Naftali Gallery director) Jay Sanders and the artist Richard Aldrich were working on the same block, and we comprised an unofficial Bas Jan Ader fan club. We passed photocopies of essays about him back and forth like contraband and eagerly discussing the finer points of his art and its interpretation. In the intervening years Ader has been definitively taken up by the art world at large. (I recognize, of course, that that process was well under way when I first discovered his work.) In 2005, as part of PERFORMA, Jay organized a screening of Rene Daalder’s then in-progress documentary about the artist. Unfortunately I missed the event, but that film, Here Is Always Somewhere Else: The Disappearance of Bas Jan Ader, was completed last year and has now been released on DVD. Unfortunately it is rather disappointing, as my review (just published on makes fairly clear, though its faults are instructive. It was tempting to go on at length about Ader in this review, but eventually I decided that this wasn’t the appropriate venue. I still harbor the desire, somewhere deep down, to write at length about Ader’s work—or, rather, Ader’s work itself and the experience of encountering it directly after imbibing the myth that now surrounds him.

Matteo Garrone’s Gomorrah


Matteo Gorrone, <i>Gomorrah</i>, 2008, still from a color film in 35 mm, 137 minutes. Marco (Marco Macor) and Ciro (Ciro Petrone).

Matteo Garrone, Gomorrah, 2008, still from a color film in 35 mm, 137 minutes. Marco (Marco Macor) and Ciro (Ciro Petrone).

Last Thursday afternoon I had the pleasure of seeing Gomorrah, director Matteo Garrone’s sixth feature film and winner of the Grand Prize at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival. It plunges viewers directly into the vicious lives of the Neapolitan mafia (the Camorra) as they unfold in and around an oversize, crumbling modernist apartment block. The Camorra, with its tentacles reaching into in every aspect of Naples’s social and economic life, exerts a gravitational pull on the several youths whose stories Garrone chronicles—among them Totò (Salvatore Abruzzese), who delivers groceries for his mother’s market before being initiated into one faction of the underworld, and Ciro (Ciro Petrone) and Marco (Marco Macor), teens who hope to turn their petty crimes into an independent fiefdom of their own. (Interestingly, at several points in the film Marco acts out scenes from Scarface, evidence that cinematic myths are now inextricably entwined with the figures’ hard-knock lives.) As if to emphasize how encompassing the Camorra really is, the film also focuses on the elderly Don Ciro (Gianfelice Imparato), a longtime payoff delivery man who is distraught by the nameless centrifugal forces pulling apart his world.

The story was adapted by a handful of sreenwriters from Roberto Saviano’s journalistic exposé of the same name, which received much attention when it was published, first in Italy (causing Saviano to go into hiding) and then in English. Perhaps because of this multi-author adaptation, narrative clarity is difficult to come by in the film: one never truly understands which factions are battling and why, who is in charge of the cocaine trade that underpins much of the activity, or how these groups interact with that (perhaps narrow) slice of the population not directly involved with illegal activities. Perhaps this can be seen as paralleling the chaotic jumble of shifting alliances that marks the characters’ lives. It took a while to adjust to the lack of broader context, but the two-and-a-quarter-hour film more than makes up in excitement and visual beauty for what it lacks in narrative cohesion. (A favorite shot, one of the few to offer a broader perspective on the film’s relentless violent assault, depicts youths playing in a small plastic swimming pool on a balcony while thugs patrol the rooftop just above them.)

GreenCine Daily has two posts with roundups from Cannes and the New York Film Festival. One of the critical comments, by John Magary, sums up my feelings about the film fairly well: “There’s no Don Corleone here, no Family to pin. There’s just terminal disease.” From a piece in The Guardian: “In casting his film, Garrone made a point of using local people as extras, adding an unpolished intensity to his documentary-style camerawork. We are always uncomfortably close to the action, like another member of the crowd; in the dimly lit corridors and cramped kitchens, we are not granted the privilege of seeing what’s about to happen. Garrone said he wanted to film Gomorrah like a war report, because that is, essentially, what it is.” Click here for the trailer. It opens in New York at the IFC Center in February.

Interview: Lance Hammer

Director Lance Hammer’s debut feature film, Ballast, won awards for dramatic directing and excellence in cinematography at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival. It opened on October 1, 2008, at Film Forum in New York and on October 17 in selected theaters nationwide. Interview, in the subject’s voice, published on on October 1, 2008. To see the interview in context, click here.

Prior to making Ballast, I wrote another feature script that was called Alluvial. It was a Delta story as well, and my first attempt to write a story in the place I had grown to love. I shot short scenes excerpted from the script in order to raise financing, and that loosely cohesive presentation was akin to a short. It taught me two things. First, that Alluvial was not the story I wanted to tell. I loved the Delta region so much that I tried to speak with too much specificity about the place; the work proved to be too obvious for my taste. The second lesson was technical—I received my education as a filmmaker working on Alluvial. I didn’t go to film school; I was an architect by training. Exploring the mechanics of filmmaking—working with lights, using a dolly—gave me the confidence to discover that I actually hated them and could abandon them when I made Ballast. And I did; in Ballast, I had a completely different approach to recording both images and sound. What the two have in common, though, is the fact that they deal with mortality. Freud said he thought everything was about sex and only eventually discovered it was all about death.

I’m of the belief that if you can use one note to communicate something, why use three? One note resonating over the space where three notes should have occurred has more power, and that is how I now would approach any work. It appears particularly suited to the Mississippi Delta, where the pace of life is so different from New York or Los Angeles. More than anything else, I tried in Ballast to communicate with as much accuracy as possible what it feels like to be in the Delta during winter. Narrative was always secondary to that. In fact, I don’t like dialogue in films—or, rather, it’s tough to do really well. I’m not the Coen brothers; I don’t think I can write as well as they can. I’m much more interested in image, sound, and conveying tone, communicating something uncommunicable. Music and language would intrude on what is uncommunicable about the Delta.

I understand that to some extent this is an aesthetic construct, but I also believe that one’s personal aesthetic is a reflection of one’s life experience. I believe that life is very difficult—which has been my experience, certainly. I value persistence and think that one of the only avenues of hope in the darkest moments of life comes when you are making art. I’ve struggled with a sense of futility—not least with trying to get films off the ground. But nothing dims my strong desire to make them, and in a sense, the writing of the script for Ballast manifested hope. I think the story reflects this.

The interesting thing, then, was to give up on following the script closely once we were shooting. I’m a control freak; I confess to that readily, and I was expecting problems with not giving my actors dialogue to follow. But I wanted to bring real people’s words to the project and to watch those words be elevated and hopefully transformed through the process of filming them. In the rehearsal process, when I first saw that happen, I knew nearly immediately that there was a lot of power in giving parameters or instructions and letting the actors respond. I provided skeletons; they provided living tissue. When I saw them do that, there were magic moments for me. I admit to having no authorship and am satisfied by that as an artist. I realized I was incapable of doing what I wanted to do alone. The actors, and also Lol Crowley, my cinematographer, completed the work. It was a joy to behold.

When we were done shooting, I spent two years cutting the film. I tried everything—every iteration of every scene. I tried to turn my intellect off and use my intuition. The geese at the opening of the film, for example: I was unconsciously aware of a desire to start from chaos, to have a reflection of that in the form itself, and then have a slow progress toward stability. I’d like to say it was a conscious way of thinking about the film, but it was actually a filmmaker friend, Chris Gorak, who suggested I open with that shot. In a way, though, broad questions about intentionality are unanswerable.

Now that the film is done and has been seen by audiences, I can understand why people have grouped it with other recent films as offering a kind of “new American realism” or an “American regionalism.” I’ve seen Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy, and it is certainly a joy to watch. There are affinities between the works—a reverence for subtlety, an appreciation of the power of small and ambiguous moments. But as much as anything else, perhaps this is a reaction to Hollywood. Speaking only for myself, I had a difficult time existing in the Hollywood system toward the end of my time there because I can’t stand its dominant narrative forms. The assumption in Hollywood is that audiences are stupid or need to have everything hammered into their heads. I think art is ambiguous. If we were still in the days when you could sell a film and make a lot of money for it, then perhaps that would tempt me. But for now I have nothing to lose. The only thing to be gained is from making something I can believe in.

–As told to Brian Sholis

Interview: Sara VanDerBeek

Artist Sara VanDerBeek, who, with her brother, Johannes VanDerBeek, and Anya Kielar, owns Guild & Greyshkul gallery, is the daughter of experimental filmmaker and animator Stan VanDerBeek, who died in 1984. Guild & Greyshkul presents an exhibition of Stan VanDerBeek’s work from September 13 to October 18. Interview, in the artist’s voice, published on on September 14, 2008. To see the interview in context, click here.

The process of organizing our father’s estate and putting together this exhibition has been intensely emotional and very exciting for both Johannes and me. When he passed away in 1984, only a few months after an initial diagnosis of cancer, there were no instructions regarding how his artworks should be cared for or organized. Everything was piled up in his office, and it was eventually split up among various family members. Only recently, as the administrative aspects of handling the estate have become too difficult for our mother, and as our father’s first wife asked us to handle the artworks in her possession, have we realized the scope of what he kept. It turns out that much of what went into making the films and multimedia installations remains extant, but not much has been done to organize it. We spread everything out in the empty gallery this summer and began to piece it together, a process made difficult by the fact that sometimes only photographic documentation remains to guide us in reconstructing moving-image and three-dimensional artworks. To that end, I describe some of these works as “approximations.”

Johannes and I initially decided to present an overview of our father’s career, but now that we’ve installed the exhibition, we realize that it focuses on his involvement with language—in particular his desire to create a means of universal communication using images. There are many early works, from the 1950s and early ’60s, some of which an audience familiar with his work might not know. The show includes a twelve-part series of paintings from around 1956 that combines small images with words and seems to us to mark the beginning of his experimentation with animation. With certain works like the fax mural and Violence Sonata [1969], the show touches on his experiments with then-new technologies, which occurred with increasing frequency from the late ’60s until his death, but which we realized could constitute another show in itself.

One challenge is presenting this work in a gallery context. While he was collegial with a wide range of people—from scientists and computer programmers at places like MIT and Bell Labs to artists like Claes Oldenberg and Jim Dine, who is the main performer in a film we’re exhibiting—he remained most closely involved with the experimental-film, -media, and -animation communities. He never worked with a commercial art gallery during his lifetime, and the majority of the items he chose for his CV were performances, screenings, multimedia events, and residencies. This is, like everything else, a problem compounded by the facts that we’re his children and that we have very different ideas about how to present the work than he might have had. Finding that balance has been both a challenge and a pleasure.

Some decisions were easier than others. For example, we’re presenting a whole wall of collages, most of which our father signed and dated, which indicates to us that despite the fact that he used them in animations, they are themselves finished artworks. Making his animations was such a time- and work-intensive process that I can’t imagine many such collages survived, and he would want to present the ones that did, whether as artworks or as concrete documentation of that process. Something I really enjoy about seeing these works together with the films is the shift in scale: They are all quite small, especially in comparison with how large the images become when projected onto a wall.

All this, of course, bears on my own art. Earlier this summer, I went away from New York and came up with an idea for a large multipart photographic work. When I returned and was laying out one of my father’s fax murals, I realized that the gathering of different framed images that I had imagined must have been directly influenced by him. The re-presentation of images from his archive that I had done in earlier photographs of mine also crops up in his work: He not only used found imagery but reappropriated images from his earlier work in later pieces. Symbols and themes—hammers that hit people on the head in comical ways, forks flying through the air and poking people in the eye, using images of eyes to direct viewers’ attention—recur through his films.

We hope that the way we’ve organized the exhibition will allow artists working today to connect with our father’s practice. He was also an incredible writer, and we’re presenting some of that material, along with drawings, on tables in the gallery. His utopian desires—the Movie-Drome [1963–65], the fact that he lived for some time on a piece of land owned by an artists’ cooperative—and his wry take on contemporary politics seem particularly relevant today.

—As told to Brian Sholis

Tacita Dean

Published on on August 12, 2008. To see the review in context, click here.

Tacita Dean, Merce Cunningham performs STILLNESS (in three movements) to John Cage's composition 4'33" with Trevor Carlson, New York City, 28 April 2007 (six performances; six films), 2008.

Tacita Dean, Merce Cunningham performs STILLNESS (in three movements) to John Cage's composition 4'33" with Trevor Carlson, New York City, 28 April 2007 (six performances; six films), 2008.

Much of Tacita Dean’s recent work in film has been portraiture, and her scrupulous attention has brought forth a range of engrossing characters, many of them older men. Poet and translator Michael Hamburger gave Dean a chatty tour of his apple orchard and storerooms in a film exhibited in London last year. In this exhibition, dancer-choreographer Merce Cunningham is seated, and silent, in his nearly empty studio. Merce Cunningham performs STILLNESS (in three movements) to John Cage’s composition 4’33” with Trevor Carlson, New York City, 28 April 2007 (six performances; six films), 2008, the unwieldy title of the installation, conveys everything and nothing about the films projected onto screens scattered throughout Dia:Beacon’s colonnaded lower level. In static, one-take shots, Cunningham, on Carlson’s cues, looks to his right, or straight ahead, or rests his chin on one hand to mark the three movements of his longtime partner’s infamous score. The simplicity and directness of the choreography, like that of the filmmaking, belie the affective power of the homage. Like the beatific quietude of artist Mario Merz in Dean’s sun-dappled 2002 film, Cunningham’s calmness makes him a repository for viewers’ assumptions; one can’t help but imagine the experiences and emotions compressed into his stony performance. The downward tug of melancholic sentiment, one of Dean’s trademarks, seems at odds with the principle of chance operations that guided Cage and Cunningham—and, for that matter, Bruce Nauman’s multichannel Cagean exercise that was on view until recently in this space. But the tension is remarkable.

Matthew Buckingham

Published in Artforum, May 2008.

“Someone with historical sense sees reality differently: in four dimensions,” notes historian Gordon S. Wood. “If it is self-identity that we want, then history deepens and complicates that identity by showing us how it has developed through time.” Artist Matthew Buckingham clearly possesses this historical sense, and his nuanced understanding of time has informed a decade’s worth of installations that use time-based media (film, video, and slide projection) to imaginatively conflate past and present. Buckingham’s alignments of story and image, whether anchored in dry historical fact or conjured from evocative fragments, are palimpsests that instruct and entertain, expanding viewers’ sense of identity. This exhibition featured two recent installations, one of which ranks with A Man of the Crowd, 2003, as among the artist’s best to date.

Matthew Buckingham, still from False Future, 2007.

Matthew Buckingham, still from False Future, 2007.

False Future, 2007, resurrects the little-known life story of Louis Le Prince, the French inventory who is now credited with discovering how to record motion pictures onto film several years before the better-known Lumière brothers. The narrator of Buckingham’s ten-minute 16-mm film, speaking in French subtitled in English, describes Le Prince’s late-1880s experiments with recording technology and relates his mysterious disappearance from a Dijon-Paris train in September 1890, just prior to a trip to the United States on which he was to promote his camera. Among the items discovered after his vanishing was a twenty-frame (one-second) fragment of footage shot at the Leeds Bridge in England in October 1888. Buckingham’s film was shot from the same spot, and depicts pedestrians and white double-decker buses—substitutes for the horse-drawn carriages and strollers in Le Prince’s fragment—crossing the bridge in slanting late-afternoon light. The image, projected onto a white sheet strung diagonally across the middle of the gallery, likewise echoes the work of the earlier inventor, who is said to have tested his films at night in his Leeds workshop in a similar manner.

As the work’s title implies, however, Buckingham is not interested solely in an act of historical exhumation, but also in what can be imagined of an alternative protohistory of cinema. What if Le Prince had survived, and his camera gone on to document the Dreyfus affair, or the 1893 overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy, or the anomalous nine-inch snowfall in New Orleans in February 1895? Such questions, posed by the narrator, are rhetorical, but images inevitably arise in the mind. The enormity of such a possibility is brought home by the end of the narrative, which offers close analysis of what is depicted in Le Prince’s fragment. Noting the number of buggies, men tipping their haits to acknowledge friends, and other stray details, the sound track instructs the viewer in how to look at the seemingly simple image Buckingham has recorded just before the film loops and begins again.

Everything I Need, 2007, a two-screen video projection on view in another room, presents an autobiographical narrative by the pioneering psychologist, writer, and early advocate of gay and lesbian rights, Charlotte Wolff, whose life in Germany and England spanned revolutionary changes in social attitudes toward women and homosexuals. The installation juxtaposes images of a 1970s-era commercial airplane interior with reminiscences occasioned in part by Wolff’s return to Berlin, in 1978, to speak to a new generation of feminist and lesbian activists. While the installation engages in a dialectical playo f image and text similar to that of False Future (and, for that matter, much of Buckingham’s corpus), it doesn’t manage to provoke that work’s tantalizing sense of latent possibility.

Steve McQueen

Published on Artforum.con on October 22, 2007.

Steve McQueen’s Gravesend, 2007, which premiered at this year’s Venice Biennale and is currently on view at the Renaissance Society, charts a return of the repressed: Capitalist economies may have moved into an “information age,” but this seventeen-minute 35-mm film proves that their machinations still make demands on the earth and on the laborers who work it. Gravesend lyrically (if abstractly) shows that, whereas nineteenth-century colonial powers sought diamonds and other traditional resources, our current appetite is for coltan, a dull black mineral used in capacitors, which are vital components in mobile phones, laptops, and other electronics. What is to be inferred from the gorgeously composed, monumentally scaled high-definition projection is that greed for this material has contributed to the political instability and the military occupation of the Congo, an area that has seen uninterrupted conflict since well before its 1960 liberation from Belgian rule. Juxtaposing an animated fly-by of the Congo River with footage of workers sifting through dark earth and robots processing the procured material in a pristine, brightly lit laboratory, the film’s disjunctions allegorize the very real economic, social, and physical distance this material traverses as it moves from the third to the first world. Its final sequence, a time-lapse shot of a sun setting behind smokestacks, brings everything full circle, rendering visual a scene described at the outset of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Unexploded, 2007, shown on a nearby monitor, is a minute-long film documenting the damage wrought by an unexploded bomb that fell on a building in Basra, Iraq. It unexpectedly calls to mind Gordon Matta-Clark’s Conical Intersect, 1975, which makes the viewer squeamish about drawing aesthetic connections in the face of real-world violence.

McQueen has two concurrent exhibitions in London. At the Imperial War Museum is Queen and Country, 2007, his much-discussed and critically acclaimed response to the war in Iraq. Commissioned by the museum and the Manchester International Festival, the work’s simple sculptural form—a cabinet with sliding drawers that contain mock-ups of stamp sheets bearing images, overlaid with a silhouette of the queen’s profile, of each British soldier who has died in the conflict and whose family agreed to participate—achieves the potent sobriety of other recent war memorials without lapsing into the abstraction that has marked most of them since the unveiling of Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial in 1982. The installation also contains a large painting by John Singer Sargent that dramatizes the distance between soldiers’ sacrifice and the barely interrupted nature of citizen life, a disconnect that has grown only wider in the ninety years since the canvas was painted.

Steve McQueen, still from Running Thunder, 2007.

Steve McQueen, still from Running Thunder, 2007.

At Thomas Dane Gallery, McQueen presents a new 16-mm film, Running Thunder, 2007. A horse with a somewhat distended belly lies on its side, its glassy, lifeless black eye pointed directly at the camera lens. It is an image of such transfixing stillness that only the point at which the film loops, returning to the scene the sunlight that has imperceptibly faded over the course of ten minutes, reminds one that time has not paused on the animal’s behalf. The fallen beast calls to mind the beatific donkey in Robert Bresson’s classic film Au hasard Balthazar (1966) and the quintessentially British canvases of late-eighteenth-century painter George Stubbs. Seen in the context of Unexploded and Queen and Country, one can’t help but think of this fallen beast as a foil to the heroism the animal’s presence in art frequently implies. McQueen’s seductive yet unflinching examinations of the complex, often contradictory impulses of our present moment are nearly unmatched and to be both savored and contemplated.

Tacita Dean

Published in Paper Monument issue one, September 2007.

There is no establishing shot. Kodak begins with an image of four elegantly curved metal ducts, from which extend cables sheathed in accordion-fold sleeves. The film unfurls from there.

Ribbons of semitransparent blue film stock scroll left-to-right, fluttering like small waves or sheaves of wheat buffeted by wind. Men in white jumpsuits—part scientist, part mechanic—inhabit futuristic rooms, ensuring the smooth operation of the machinery that surrounds them. Black-and-white shots are punctuated with richly hued color images: blushes of pink, cobalt blue, receding lines of red fluorescent tubes like contrasting stitching on dark fabric. Rolls of film stock unspool and then coil around giant drums. At one point, test paper interrupts the smooth run of pinkish celluloid through the machines, blocking out the light that had passed so gracefully through the mutable stock . . .

* * *

In recent years, Tacita Dean has reduced her investigations to their most potent essence. The films made five to ten years ago—featuring lighthouses, dilapidated buildings, sunsets, antiquated or outsized military listening devices, or the city of Berlin seen from the rotating restaurant on top of its infamous TV tower—gave way first to simpler portraits of artists and writers and, finally, in Kodak, to a meditation on the material conditions of the double-sprocketed 16mm film stock she prizes so highly.

Yet Kodak does not impart a coherent sense of the processes involved in creating this cherished material. It is more ethnographic field recording than preservationist instruction sheet. Despite the objectivity implicit in the medium, the film’s insistent abstract compositions and other close-ups impair one’s ability to understand precisely what one is looking at. Important details—the factory’s location in Chalôn-sur-Soane, France; its role as one of the few producers of 16mm film stock; the crucial fact that it was soon to close forever—are only revealed through outside reading. While the film’s gradual crescendo and decrescendo of activity seems meant to narrate one day in the life of the factory, the document is not very documentary. Atmosphere reigns.

Tacita Dean, still from Kodak, 2006.

Tacita Dean, still from Kodak, 2006.

The nostalgia that gives rise to a meditation like Kodak has recently been given an extensive theoretical workout. Philosophers and critics from Avishai Margalit, Paul Ricoeur, and Andreas Huyssen to David Gross, Svetlana Boym, and Clive James have examined collective remembering. But there is nothing systematic, acutely penetrating, or overtly philosophical about Kodak. Dean chooses to show rather than to tell, and her film’s lyricism provides a sensuous counterpoint to the tenor of these writers’ investigations. With its sharp, deep focus and pools of luscious color, Kodak is a convincing if imperfect advertisement for the disappearing medium’s capabilities.

Perhaps the closest correlative to Kodak’s intended elegiac tenderness is to be found in William Basinski’s The Disintegration Loops I-IV (2003). The five-hour audio composition was created with analog, reel-to-reel tapes that were never to be played again. Finding a trove of personal recordings made in the early ’80s, Basinski discovered that oxidization had set upon the tapes, and that as he created a digital copy of their contents, the corrosion, run across the magnetic tape heads of the player, ruined the originals. A faltering digital echo of the original material, which warbles and is compromised by patches of static and complete silence, is all that remains. Each playback is a performance of the sound source’s obliteration.

Dean only allows her films to be presented publicly in their original formats, and, just as the available reserve of her preferred film stock is now disappearing, so too will her films finally disintegrate, despite attempts at preservation. Dean’s ideally attentive audience members are likely to be haunted by this finality.

Noir et Blanc, a 16mm black-and-white film also presented at the Guggenheim, literalizes this sense of reaching an endpoint: The four-and-a-half-minute, fully abstract variation on Kodak‘s theme was created using the few remaining rolls of double-sprocketed black-and-white film the artist could source. There are now apparently none left in the world. This prompts the question: Where does Dean go from here?

* * *

Kodak‘s penultimate scene, depicting the broken furniture, unkempt wires, mangled signs, and trash-strewn surfaces of the abandoned film-packaging section of the plant, is more harshly lit, such that Kodak abruptly takes on the heavy-industry-in-ruins aesthetic of post-apocalyptic cinema. Lulled by the found, abstract beauty of the film’s first thirty-five minutes, the sudden melodrama of the factory’s disassembly comes as a surprise. Is this meant to provoke indignation over the eclipse of Dean’s preferred medium? Are we meant to intervene?

But nostalgia is more paralyzing than stirring, a kind of sentimental amber encasing the objects of its adoration. In Kodak, film is both the amber and the fossilized specimen. One could wish that, faced with the prospect of making the final film on this stock, an artist would simply aim for the most achingly perfect creation the medium allows, confident that its beauty was argument enough against its extinction.

* * *

The workers move with practiced precision, fulfilling their duties calmly. Only one Kodak logo appears—as a patch on the jumpsuit of an employee, reversed by reflection. Two of them wrap a roll of newly produced film in protective plastic sheeting, expertly taping down the excess material before moving it with a hydraulic lift to a staging ground. Upon completing their shifts, they are seen in silhouette at the end of a dimly lit long hallway as they prepare to exit the building.

Yang Fudong

Published on on September 14, 2006. To see the review in context, click here.

Those who have seen this Chinese artist’s earlier films will find familiar imagery scattered throughout No Snow on the Broken Bridge, 2006: a freeze-frame tableau in which seven young men and women, dressed in a haberdasher’s finest, look outward from a rocky outcrop; boats slowly drifting across placid waters; lush, unpopulated landscapes dominated by mountains. This eleven-minute black-and-white work, which premiered last spring at Parasol Unit in London, is Fudong’s inaugural foray into multichannel presentation. A viewer’s slightly antic attempt to take in images from eight screens, here hung in a seamless semicircle, marginally diminishes the arrested-moment quality that characterizes all his films—it’s plain he trained as a painter—but Fudong aids the viewer by occasionally letting objects slide from one screen to the next or by nestling similar images side by side (ants threading through rivulets of bark; men hiking a narrow path up a hill). Like all of Fudong’s work, the narrative is loosely structured, favoring centripetal forces over linear paths. Here, glamorous young men and women are slowly pulled together as, alone or in pairs and quartets, they wend their way toward the eponymous bridge to catch a last glimpse of winter snow; the rabbits, parrots, and stubborn goats on leashes that accompany them hint at the dandyish excess of a bygone era. Some women make their way, in heels, along flat boulders set in a babbling brook; others wear suits and painted mustaches. A man in a trilby puffs contemplatively on a pipe while being conveyed across open water. Not much of significance transpires, but in a film this beautiful, this suffused with atmosphere, not much needs to.

The Life Aquatic with Matthew Barney

Still from Matthew Barney’s Drawing Restraint 9.

There is little new to be said about Matthew Barney’s Drawing Restraint 9, which was released a few weeks ago and is now screening at the IFC Center in the West Village. There were, of course, reviews in all of the major media outlets—the New York Times and the Village Voice, among many others—as well as numerous posts on blogs. (Girish’s comments were among the earliest and remain among the most well thought out.) As is to be expected, there is little impartial commentary; like all extremely ambitious artists, Matthew Barney seems only to draw fulsome praise or withering criticism, and the film, loaded with visual cues referencing the Cremaster series with which he made his name, will convert few critics and dissuade few fans. Overwrought pageantry and meticulously observed ritual, a fetishist’s appreciation of elaborate costuming, and all manner of viscous semiliquid materials figure prominently.

I enjoyed the film. A few brief comments:

– I agree with those who criticize Barney’s editing skills, as the film seems like an endless succession of eight- to ten-second takes; were it not for the Björk’s evocative soundtrack, there would be even less narrative thrust than can now be discerned. The film’s action hovers somewhere between nonnarrative and narrative states, and it suffers some for it.

– While there are plenty of striking moments, there is no single image in Drawing Restraint 9 as beautiful as individual scenes in his Cremaster films. (I’m thinking specifically of the use of the Chrysler building as a maypole in Cremaster 3 or the scene in which Barney jumps off a bridge into the Danube in Cremaster 5.)

– The ending seems tacked on, as if Barney had extra visual material—the kabuki clown, the woman vomiting pearls into the sea, etc.—that he wanted to include but couldn’t otherwise fit.

– Some commentators have glossed the reference to Douglas MacArthur in the beginning of the film, but I’m surprised that none yet have reached back to Matthew C. Perry, the original “Occidental Guest.” I know that the coincidence of their first names is just that, but it is a suggestive one nonetheless.

Mark Lewis

Published in Artforum, May 2005. For more information, visit the artist’s website.

London-based artist Mark Lewis distills complex ruminations—on film as a medium; on the social and economic character of specific places; on the relationship between observer and observed—into deceptively simple films that marry Hollywood’s high-end production values to Andy Warhol’s dazed gaze. These reflexive works—unedited, often silent, and never more than ten minutes long—usually pair an isolated cinematic or technical convention with some sort of outwardly unexceptional activity. In the three 35-mm films (transferred to DVD) in this exhibition (Lewis’s first solo outing in New York), the artist employs a slow zoom, a slower pan, and a static shot, respectively, to document scenes in Toronto and Algonquin Park, in eastern Ontario.

The majority of Algonquin Park: September, 2001, consists of a static view of a grove of evergreens on an island seen across a mist-covered lake. The heroic scale (each projection is approximately ten by fifteen feet), promontory viewpoint, and lack of movement give the work the aura of a Hudson River School canvas. Yet Lewis soon undermines this impression of a static structure by reintroducing film’s inherent temporal dimension: A canoe, propelled by two figures, emerges from the mist and slowly moves from right to left across the water’s surface. Before it reaches the left-hand edge of the frame, the film ends abruptly and the loop begins again. Algonquin Park: Early March, 2002, achieves an even greater sense of destabilization, playing a cat-and-mouse game with our cognitive abilities by pitting the eye against the mind. The film opens with a pure white screen that appears to be the sky, an intuition confirmed by the appearance of two treetops that eventually pierce the bottom edge of the frame. As they push slowly upward, it appears that Lewis is panning downward, until another stand of trees appears from the upper right as if floating in the sky. Finally it becomes clear that the two belong to the same visual field, and we realize that Lewis has not been panning but rather zooming out from a snow-covered patch of frozen lake. The last, blandly pretty shot is of a group of skaters gliding across a rectangular section of ice. Again, almost as soon as we understand what has transpired, the film stops and begins again.

Thus it seems that nothing should be taken for granted in these two pastoral scenes, which is precisely why the seemingly innocuous Off Leash, 2004, is odd to the point of being uncanny. A straight description of the action couldn’t be simpler: The roughly four-minute film depicts people, seen from above through bare tree branches, playing with their dogs in what appears to be the “off-leash” section of a park. But small details belie the apparent realism of what at first appears to be a happened-upon scene. The vantage point seems impossible, the mechanically smooth panning complicates our natural tendency to equate the camera and the human eye, and the fact that no one on screen acknowledges that the camera must be mounted on a crane (they are actors hired by Lewis) introduces an unavoidable staginess. The overall effect is akin to the famous “Hitchcock zoom,” used in Vertigo (1958), wherein the camera’s role in the construction of an image is temporarily made visible. (The tree, acting as a screen through which we view the scene, is an instance of this mediation in the film itself.) Mainstream narrative cinema strives to hide these effects; without sacrificing beauty, Lewis’s absorbing films about film successfully update the critical engagement that characterized ’60s Structuralism and regain some of the wonderment of the Lumière Brothers’ early-twentieth-century vignettes.

Matthew Buckingham

Published on on November 25, 2003. To see the review in context, click here.

Matthew Buckingham’s A Man of the Crowd, 2003, is a formally elegant, conceptually rich 16 mm film installation that mimics the structure of Edgar Allan Poe’s similarly titled short story of 1840. Poe’s London is now contemporary Vienna; Buckingham’s camera tracks a young man obsessively trailing a slightly shabby older fellow through the city streets. The camera itself, ducking behind a tree or column as if to avoid being seen, unaccountably yet delightfully becomes a third protagonist. The noirish black-and-white film, shot in dramatic natural light, is projected through a small hole in the wall that separates the gallery from the office and onto a semitransparent two-way mirror in the middle of the room. The result is a set of twin projections—often rigorously symmetrical—“bookending” an almost empty gallery. Viewers are brought into the space of the film as their own reflections on the mirror mingle with the images of pursuer and pursued. Like Buckingham’s other works, A Man of the Crowd is filled with subtle cultural references. The nameless protagonists lead the camera down a street traveled by Orson Welles in The Third Man and through arcades described in Walter Benjamin’s book-length study. Poe’s story is central to much scholarship on the flaneur, including Benjamin’s; and Buckingham’s film is both an engaging visual corollary to this written corpus and a deftly realized project of its own.