The Brilliant and Dedicated
By Mark Amery
One clear aim of public broadcasting is to explore the stories behind some of the most relevant events of the day. In a time in New Zealand when such free broadcasting is found wanting, the New Zealand International Film Festival plays a surrogate role, albeit at a cost in money and time many can’t afford.
Arguably the two most significant public artworks in terms of reach of 2009 and 2010 respectively feature in this festival’s programme.
For ‘The Artist is Present’ artist Marina Abramovic sat silently on display for every opening hour of her exhibition’s three month run in New York’s Museum of Modern Art . Viewed apparently by an astounding 750,000, she eyeballed every one of those who queued endlessly to sit before her, for as long as they liked. Produced for HBO, the documentary of the same name casts an intimate eye over the performance, marking the American Beatlesque hysterical adoration that gathered – testament itself to the work’s resonance as a disturbing statement of our need to adore ourselves in the absence of faith in a God.
Better still here is the job done in showing what thick-skinned determination and soldier-like discipline Abramovic has had in putting her provocative self into the centre of the art world and developed a bewitching identity.
She is at all times the consummate performer. Hardcore is an understatement. Abramovic revels in the documentary crew being given access to her life: from her bedside, as she suffers a cold (bedecked in red PJs and sheets), to a kooky boot camp for a group of young artists who will perform naked a selection of her works (she wafts maternally around them with a basket divesting her charges of their cellphones). If it weren’t real this would be the visual art equivalent of Spinal Tap.
The second work is Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s eight million hand-painted sunflower seeds in the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern, one of a number of works filmmaker Alison Klayman is there for the construction of.
Klayman’s is not the most distinctive of films but she happened to start filming, and be allowed to continue filming, at an extraordinary compelling time as Ai Weiwei suffers a police beating, continued to craftily bate authorities, and ended up under house arrest, his support and renown growing exponentially.
Nothing if not brave, Ai Weiwei makes a stand for the greater good, but as a conceptualist plays it all out, as he says, like a chess game. He comes across as a fascinatingly wily character, letting few close. While we see his strong use of the credo ‘be the media’, we don’t get as close to his art as I would have liked.
The must see of this film festival for me however is Dan Salmon’s sensitive portrait of Auckland artist Susan King, Pictures of Susan.
A brilliant, dedicated figurative drawer from a young age, King stopped talking at age four and instead let her pencil do the expressing. It is full of compressed fine rebellious energy, humanity streaming, dancing, pushing and tugging in patterns across whatever scraps of paper she could find. King showed the kind of talent at a young age the likes of Rob McLeod, Philip Trusttum and Kushana Bush (of whose work I’m reminded) took years to evolve.
Sent to IHC school and then into sheltered workshops, she tragically stopped drawing for 20 years but has begun again with gusto. Her family hold about 10,000 of her drawings and the film is not only our introduction to a major New Zealand artist, but also the difficult current machinations around how her work should be best looked after.
On today, Michael Heath presents a beautiful sequel to his film biography of Edith Collier, Village by the Sea, travelling to the Irish village when Collier produced some of her best work. She captured the place so well she has become a local treasure. Gorgeous painting after painting is reproduced, in a duet with the slow exquisite soaking up of the landscape of Stephen Latty’s camera. Both of these films should be on your television sets, but I’m not holding my breath.
Coming up I’m looking forward to a series of short films and the first feature by British artist Ben Rivers, playing in that rich contemporary ground between documentary and fiction.
I can also attest to the rich pickings in a programme of brand new New Zealand artists’ short films, The Artists Cinema, on the closing weekend. They include the entertaining, poignant whimsy of Gabriel White’s alternative travelogue around Belgium, where he finds art and performance in the mundane, and an excellent new work by Simon Denny, Envisaging Vocational Rehabilitation which fruitfully explores the way over the decades we have designed the provision of information and have treated the employment potential of people with disabilities.
The Artists Cinema clearly aims to explore a diverse range of fresh ways the cinema screen may be approached. It also serves as a big screen introduction to the wonderful bit of public broadcasting curator Mark Williams is offering for all online - a treasure trove of moving image artwork.
- Village by the Sea, 2 August; Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present, 2-5 August; Pictures of Susan, 5-7 August; Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, 7-11 August; The Artists Cinema, 11 August at New Zealand International Arts Festival