“Let’s hope that artists who are featured in documentaries don’t feel like hostages.”
Yesterday’s panel discussion at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto posed the question, should—or how should—documentarians incorporate an artist’s life into a film without detracting from his or her art? In films like The Art Star and the Sudanese Twins: Vanessa Beecroft's Controversial Art, the interplay between personal and artistic life can be overwhelming. In this case, her marriage becomes jeopardized by her ongoing attempt to adopt twins from Darfur whom she met while doing research for an art installation at the 2004 Venice Biennale. The panel discussion was about similarly gripping characters—some equally outlandish and others more reserved. Panel moderator and film critic Marc Glassman commented, “The biographical question intrigues me…you have to somehow create a balance” between who an artist is and their practice.
The panel was co-hosted by Point of View magazine and Reel Artists, the Canadian Art Foundation Film Festival (and the only one of its kind in North America). It featured filmmakers Larry Weinstein, Matthew Akers, and Roz Owen. Weinstein, whose films portray music composers, feels that some biographical details are more pertinent than others. For instance, he believes that it is useful to know about Toulouse-Lautrec’s dwarfism to appreciate the low angles of his paintings, but that it is less critical to know that an elderly Renoir attached brushes to his wrists because of a debilitating illness. He’s qualified to make this judgment, having depicted an incredible end-of-life story already. In the film Ravel’s Brain, the composer struggles to write music after he develops aphasia, agrees to undergo risky brain surgery, and dies.
Perhaps relevance hinges on the extent to which the boundaries between art and life are blurred. Of artist Marina Abramović, Akers says, “Her art in a way is her.” As Abramović told Leah Sandals in a recent interview, in long-term performances, “You're doing life.” (1) This is an artist who has invited viewers into her personal space so much that she has been referenced on Sex in the City as the woman who is fasting at 3 am in a gallery loft for all to see. The performance on which that fictionalized account is based pales in comparison to her longest performance to date in terms of blending art and life. In The Artist is Present (which is also the name of Akers’ film), she is shown seated on a wooden chair across from interchangeable viewers, one at a time, six days a week during the MoMA’s hours of operation. I saw this piece performed three times during its three-month run, but I didn’t appreciate its duration until I saw a film clip showing her tallying yet another week on the wall only half way through its run. Witness the skill of filmmakers to help us see what we do not.
On the other end of the spectrum of spectacle is the artist-activist couple, Carole Condé and Karl Beveridge. Roz Owen’s film, Portrait of Resistance, revisits, among other projects, their 1976 exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario, which revealed the realities of artist life while insisting on artists’ political responsibility. Even though they have exposed this element, they remain private. Condé, for example, did not want personal details about her in the film. Owen noted that this worked out because she is such a present person that it came through in the film. Beveridge was more open to including details. The fact that his parents were communists certainly sheds light on their community-based social justice work. Ultimately, though, they wanted the film to be about the many people they have worked with and resisted the idea of it being about them lest it glorify them. That contrasts Abramović, for whom Akers says there is a lot of reverence. Her willingness to allow 700 hours of footage to be shot for the documentary doesn't exactly fight against this reverence.
Just as the boundaries between life and art entered the discussion, so did the boundaries between filmmaker and subject. Weinstein tends to represent dead composers in his films, but when they are alive he pretends otherwise to gain focus. He keeps his own voice out of the film whereas Owen, a friend of Condé and Beveridge, asks questions of her subjects openly because it feels honest and natural. Akers did not include his voice and he maintained a distance during Abramović’s performance. He feels that because the public completes the piece, he too represented the public, but he admits that there is no such thing as being the fly on the wall. The term ‘Stockholm syndrome’ was tossed around between the panel and the audience but more than mimicking hostages who empathize with their kidnappers, this filmic phenomenon seems closer related to the Hawthorne effect (in which the very act of being studied affects the behaviour of a subject). Let’s hope that artists who are featured in documentaries don’t feel like hostages. Akers said that the trick is to tell as a story as you see it, not as the subject wants it to be told. In speaking about artists he's worked with like John Cage, who are masters of constructing their identity, Weinstein says that the more you look at their art, the more you see its worth. Akers went to great lengths for answers. For instance, he flew to Naples to interview a gallerist to determine if photographs from Abramović’s Rhythm 0, in which she provided the audience with objects that caused pleasure or pain, were staged or real (as the legend goes, one audience member held a loaded gun to her head.) His question, “Where does the truth lie?” functions as a double entendre in this situation.
Akers states, “Every artist has a myth they create or that has been created for them.” The challenge, aside from paying tribute to an artist’s work and making an entertaining film, is to cut through that myth and portray them honestly. By including footage that makes Abramović seem superficial or, as Weinstein says, banal, he makes her seem normal and thus relatable. Such is the case with a scene in which Condé and Beveridge restage a photograph taken 34 years prior. He makes a joke about the couch they’re sitting on holding up better than themselves, and his wife retorts with an expletive.
Sandals, Leah. Marina Abramović: The Gifts of the Present. February 23, 2012, ¶14.