At the 29th festival of films about art, Festival International du Film sur l’Art (FIFA), DOX’s Kjetil Røed writes from different angles: psychological, conceptual, distortions of the real and intermedia reconsidered. But was the festival itself missing a historical and theoretical context?

Kjetil Røed
Røed is an art critic based in Oslo.

FIFA in Montreal, in the Quebec province of Canada, is perhaps the most extensive international festival featuring only films on art – not just the fine arts, but literature, dance, music and theatre. In the enormous amount of cinematic works presented one can find short films, cinematic essays, more experimental studies of artistic method and techniques, and a few ephemeral flicks like Monsterland – a documentary on monsters in Japanese sci-fi films over the last 50 years.

The stone sculptor Izumi Masatoshi. Right: The sculptor Izumi masatoshi at work

The festival’s crowd of participants, and the way it was managed, also made it clear during my five days in Montreal that FIFA not only wanted to screen quality documentaries, but was striving to strengthen connections between professionals in the film industry – directors, producers, distributors, actors, critics (like me) et al. To me this was not so much a problem in itself as a syndrome of the lack of resolve concerning the festival’s identity: is it supposed to show films or act as a medium for meeting colleagues and new people to team up with? Another thing which puzzled me a bit was why there were so few new films – more than half of the featured films were quite old and some of them easily available online or on DVD. Another problem with FIFA is the lack of any real historical and theoretical context. When you arrange a film festival on the arts, one is almost obliged, I’m inclined to think, to make available at least some material on the films shown, and their broader contexts – a book of essays on the relation between cinema and other forms of art, perhaps, or a series of lectures? Some additional material would make the whole thing a lot more interesting to the international crowd of artgeeks and cinephiles. Perhaps we will see more of this in the future.

Psychological portraits. Nevertheless, from the circa 25 films I got the chance to see, the most interesting were, without doubt, the documentaries that drew on, or directly addressed, fine art or practising visual artists. The most touching film, emotionally, was the new film about the afro-American painter Basquiat – directed by Frenchman Jean Michel Vecchiet. A lot of footage from the early years of the artist is made available – when he did graffiti in the streets of New York before becoming a star. The film uses the interview as a productive vehicle for painting a convincing, although very bleak, portrait of the destiny of Basquiat. Still the film is more a story about the hubris and tragedy of a man than it is an analysis of his philosophy about art, or his method of working. Of course, this is not a problem and the film brilliantly conveys the complex mind of the artist – but it really doesn’t tell us anything new about the art. And art was, after all, what I wanted to learn something more about at FIFA, something new, hopefully.

Artist Anette Messenger: Wooden sculptures

Conceptual montage. This is where a film like Sol Le Witt: Wall drawings gives you everything you desire. Le Witt has always been somewhat puzzling to me – although I did, of course, notice the historical connections with both minimal art and conceptualism (and even Fluxus). Le Witt is apparently not an artist who touches you, at least not in an outright emotional manner. But the strict, dry principles of repetition comprised a life-long commitment for him and, while devoid of any human feeling or psychological content, still works on the mind, and has a more indirect impact. This film made clear to me the connections between the serial rows of frames made by Muybridge at the end of the 19th century, woven together with the genealogy of Le Witt’s historical roots in the art of the late sixties. This kind of conceptual montage does not, in fact, try to tell us the story of an artist, or even give us a broad view of the way he worked or his historical importance. What it does is present an unprecedented analysis of an aspect of two ways of working with seriality and a sequence of images. A fragmentary way of working on an artist, to be sure, but a juxtaposition of fragments which makes something essentially clear – and creates a space to think about the standardized history of art literally from another perspective.
Distortion of the real. Besides the Le Witt film there were some other interesting portraits of artists as well: the film on the Japanese sculptor Masatoshi Isumi, for instance, or the meditation on the art of Anette Messenger.

«a visual space where bursts, or splinters, from the contemporary spectacle of the real might suddenly appear»

The film on William Kentridge is also worth mentioning. But all these films make an effort to convey, as far as possible, the totality of an artist’s oeuvre – they are, more or less, an introduction, or an overview, of a career and a body of work. Nothing wrong with that of course, but I missed more detail-oriented and radical approaches like the one at work in Sol Le Witt: Wall drawings.

Wall Drawing.All Combinations of Arcs from Corners and Sides.

Of these portrait films, the one on Anish Kapoor nevertheless stand out. It does, somehow, think in a more apparent way than the other films mentioned, especially when it opens a discussion with Kapoor himself. His sculptures, he insists, are not really mimetic; they don’t imitate anything. Rather, they are interventions in the logic of what already is; a distortion of the fabric of reality. His enormous sculptures often use polished mirrors that contradict the surrounding space – by bending the surface, Kapoor unhinges the world, or, in other words, retells it as an image that breaks open the logic of what is mirrored. This film, and its portrait of Kapoor, comes close to the riddle of art in its most basic form: does art make us see things anew? And if it does, how?
Intermedia reconsidered. The films that get closest to the core of what art and cinema are about are the short films by the Italian director Luciano Emmer. His films are not new – actually most of them are among the oldest at FIFA 2011. But they are the most conceptually intriguing, in a simple, straightforward manner. His method is that of “ekphrasis”, the trope already known in classical antiquity – the art of describing a work of art in another medium. Emmer’s object of research is painting and his tool is the camera. His camera-eye glides, curiously, across the canvas, back and forth, developing new narrative lines between the different parts of the work as he goes along. The works being “retold” are legion – he made an immense amount of films, from the early 1940s until his death in 2009.
Of the most interesting ones are La paix et la guerre on Goya’s works on “the horrors of war” and Allegoria della primavera, which uses Sandro Botticelli’s Primavera as vessel for telling us a previously a visual space where bursts, or splinters, from the contemporary spectacle of the real might suddenly appear unknown story based on the painting we thought we knew.

Sandro Botticelli’s Primavera

By making fresh narrative mappings of essential paintings from the history of art, Emmer not only revives them efficiently and visually, but exposes the interface between cinema and painting. Intermittently he also makes use of sequences from other films, as well, or even documentary footage from newsreels. His films are, in this sense, not only meditations on painting, but a visual space where bursts, or splinters, from the contemporary spectacle of the real might suddenly appear. These fragments make sure that the “ekphrastic” narratives don’t close in on themselves, but are kept open, linked to the world outside cinema through captions, or an irreversible insistence that cinema is not an entirely separate entity.

Luciano Emmer.

Cinematic thinking. Thinking about cinema, other media, and the world outside the moving image, Emmer’s work brings to my mind the conceptual artist Marcel Broodthaers’ A Voyage on the North Sea where he, like Emmer, revisits a painting by way of the flexible, storytelling, capabilities of the camera. The interesting thing here is the expansion of cinema, as an enclosed visual space, performed in real-time – the way different media are hinged together in a mutually analytic sequence revisiting both the image in question and the media involved. As Rosalind Krauss wrote about Broodthaers’ film: “[It is an] impossible attempt to transform succession into stasis, or a chain of parts into a whole.” The same thing could be said about Emmer. The point here, which sums up the relationship between cinema and other forms of art, is that the sequentiality of all media cannot be stopped but goes on – in another medium which, in the end, is the consciousness of the viewer. That is where, to be sure, the most important cinema is being played out. While FIFA is a great festival, some more work could have been put into reflecting on these questions.


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