Monday, August 8, 2011

Art about art that's also a form of performance art: Sophie Fiennes' odd OVER YOUR CITIES GRASS WILL GROW

Better come right out and tell your readers, TM: If you find yourself sitting in the dark, watching the new documentary, OVER YOUR CITIES GRASS WILL GROW and growing very antsy, do not get up and leave. Stick it out for around 20 minutes and your rewards -- if you appreciate art, film, artists and filmmakers -- will accrue. Up until that time, however, your patience may wear thin. Mine certainly did. The film begins with a title card that tells us that, in 1993 German artist Anselm Kiefer left his native land for La Ribaute, a derelict silk factory near Barjac in Southern France. From 2000, he began a series of elaborate constructions there -- everything from sculpture to tunnels, bridges, amphitheater, lake, towers and buildings (47 of 'em). Immediately, one wonders, why?

You will be able to answer that question (and a number of others you may not have even asked) by the time the film ends, some hour and 45 minutes later. But initially, with no dialog, explanation or further title cards, the film's director Sophie Fiennes, at left, simply takes her camera into what we can only presume must be this strange area where the artist has built his constructions. We wend our way down passages, into and out of rooms, hallways and strange spaces, with an amazing array of shapes and textures on display. Not much color, though -- mostly off-white to gray with a little blue and maybe some browns thrown in. "Well, this must be art," you think to yourself, and the experience of moving with the camera into these spaces may remind you of that of Werner Herzog's current Cave of Forgotten Dreams, but without the nitwit narration and with some 30,000 years spanning the work of the artists on display. (Fiennes' film also provides much better camerawork and visuals -- which is not a fair comparison, of course, as Herzog was somewhat stymied by all the rules and regulations of the Chauvet Cave, together with his decision to use 3D cameras).

For the first twelve minutes, the only motion, other than the constant forward movement of the camera, is suddenly provided by shards of falling glass -- a mirror, maybe? -- that descends onto a pile of what looks like more of the same. Fiennes' manner here is to have us simply stumble upon the place and then take an unguided tour, so that we must make of it what we will. She doesn't even translate Into English the various captions on the art. You will probably be able to figure out Les femmes de la révolution, the name of the series that presents what looks like a group of dark, combination beds/bathtubs representing women such as Charlotte Corday, but others, not so easily.

You'll have noticed that somewhere along the line, early on as I recall, music -- much of it by György Ligeti -- kicks in, making our tour a little more dramatic. At fifteen minutes or so, the music stops and ambient sound appears. Just about the time our patience is thinning noticeably, we see someworkmen, and perhaps the artist himself. Snippets of dialog between them occur as they work, and the movie suddenly becomes a kind of performance art about art. Look -- there's a cat! And children! Whose are they? We don't learn the answers to these questions, but around 45 minutes in, the artist begins to explain his work to a visitor -- perhaps a journalist -- and, boy do things pick up considerably.

From Kiefer's thoughts (the artist is shown gazing at a nearly finished piece, above) on evolution and where this fits into his art ("We are essentially water, we come from the sea.  This is the warm sea, to which we want to return, that takes us back to a single cell being in the ocean...") and how his art is filtered through his own psychology ("I fundamentally believe that through my work I can fill an empty room created in my childhoood -- a room which was devoid of things from the outside, as we had no internet nor television.") Then there's some philosophy, such as this, on the important of boredom: "You don't experience yourself when you are not bored, and thus begins consciousness of one's own existence. How incomplete I am and know nothing. We all are. But I can't reach the core, the law that keeps the world together."

I apologize if I am misquoting to some extent -- trying to scribble fast as I watched and listened -- but from this talk comes enormous understanding of what Kiefer's art means and why he engages in it. There is real, thoughtful philosophizing going on here, and, circle-like, art leads to it and comes from it. We could easily be that questioner/journalist, and Kiefer is both brave and kind in trying to answer our probably rather typical questions. (The artist's job, after all, is to create not explain.)

At around 55 minutes, we experience another ten minutes or so of following the camera and just looking, once again -- with music, and then more workmen, and another project, this one to do with liquifying some kind of metal into the ground (below), followed by a burst of flame (the movie's big "special effect"), cement filling up a large hole and...  are those giant, sculpted teeth? Yes.

Another project (or maybe it's part of the same one) offers ugliness, pain and jagged glass, with a child's slicker and glass protruding from its pockets.  During this section, we learn that Kiefer is swapping his Barjac headquarters for a studio in Paris. (The film should certainly make you want to visit Barjac in person!) Then we're on to the final project, below, inspired by The Bible, the artist explains, and by Lilith, who lived in ruins.

This series of towers, above, is certainly the film's most impressive creation (to my mind, at least), and the movie ends with more slow camera movement over and around the art as the music -- discordant yet somehow beautiful -- swells.

Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow offers the creation of art -- sculpture, architecture -- before our eyes, along with our understanding of how that art arrives. One does not experience something like this film at all often, which is reason enough for folk of a certain mindset to seek it out. (That's the artist, with Fiennes, above.) The documentary opens, via Alive Mind Cinema and Kino Lorber, this Wednesday for a two-week run at Film Forum in New York City. (You can find the FF screening times here.)  To learn where else Fiennes' film will be playing -- with cities, dates and theaters -- click here.

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