An almost lifesize sculpture of Walt Disney’s Pinocchio floated face down in a pool of what appeared to be water during the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum’s 2008 exhibit titled theanyspacewhatever. Pinocchio, the boy who yearned to be real all his narrative life, was portrayed dead, only to be silently pronounced dead several times by museum visitors. Titled Daddy, Daddy, this sculpture by Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan was interpreted and reinterpreted several times by art critics and the general public. In 2016, a documentary on the artist titled Be Right Back, revealed that the artist meant for the sculpture to be a veiled self-portrait, and is one of his several bodies of work that explores death and insecurity. The film also happens to be showing at the Design Film Festival in Singapore mid-October.
Sometimes, art evades us. The internal nature of art-making and the relationship of an artwork with its artist is often not understood by the public. Created by one artist, it is probably best understood by another. Filmmakers are able to capture the essence of visual artists accurately. Through films, the public can understand their position as an onlooker better, along with experiencing the unsettling power of art and becoming aware of the intent of an artist.
Here is a list of films one should watch to understand the mind of an artist and his/her genre of art better:
Directed by Colin Day, this documentary about the most famous street artist today analyses not only Banksy’s work, but also the weight that the entire genre of street art carries. It questions who public art belongs to and establishes that not all art is meant to end up in a gallery/museum setting or an art fair. The documentary juxtaposes art collector Brian Greif, who is looking for a museum to put the original Banksy piece in, with art dealer Stephan Keszler, who excavates Banksy’s work from different sites and profits from the sales. The title ‘Saving Banksy’ almost alludes to saving street art in general.
Ways of Seeing is a four-part BBC television series hosted by artist John Berger. In it he teaches his audience how one is meant to look at visuals - photographs, oil paintings, advertisements or even a scene out of your window. Berger also touches on essential subjects in art such as nudity, the male gaze and reproduction of art. Because he was a painter, critical thinker and writer, his documentary blends the essential notions to consider when looking at art. This 1972 documentary series which precedes a book of the same title was revolutionary for its time and is still relevant today. Episode 1 - 4 of Ways of Seeing is available on YouTube.
Basquiat, an artist who died too young at 27 is celebrated today as a genius and this documentary offers insight into the mysteries of his life. His work is an example of how graffiti-based counter-culture work could be celebrated as ‘high art’ and in a sense, he stands as an icon of this neo-expressionist movement. At a time when Minimalism in art was rife, Basquiat brought bold lines, human figures and African-American influences into the scene. This documentary helps one in understanding not only Basquiat’s art, but also the cultural phenomenon of the 80s in New York City. It features actual interviews with the artist from when the director, Tamra Davis met him in 1985.
A film about one of the most famous performance artists, Marina Abramovic, this part-documentary, part-video installation throws light on the limits of the human body in making art. It follows Abramovic’s journey through Brazil’s healing techniques to mend her broken heart having suffered from public break-ups in the past. In essence, the documentary is a performance art piece of sorts and allows new media to break the limitations of physical space that this form of bodily art was once bound by.
To understand the artists work further however, perhaps this isn’t a film to begin with. The Artist is Present (2012) offers a comprehensive introduction into performance art as it documents an actual art piece Marina Abramovic constructed in 2012. It involved her sitting at the Modern Museum of Art in New York for 750 hours in total (over 3 months), gazing ahead into the eyes of whichever museum patron decided to sit in front of her. The intention? For the audience and artist to experience the mental and physical strength it takes to be present in the 21st century.
Frida captures the true and tragic story of Mexican painter, Frida Kahlo and her muralist husband, Diego Rivera. One of 20th century’s best known artists, her dystopian art was a product of her physical pain and suffering. The film is a biography of her life, and is both entertaining and insightful. It invites sympathy for Frida Kahlo as a human being before her as an artist and allows one to look into the true meaning behind her body of work.
In a world where replicas are almost as good (or even better) than the real deal, F for Fake builds on documentary material shot by Francois Reichenbach about the notorious art forger, Elmyr de Hory. Directed by Orson Welles, the avant-garde mockumentary features accounts of high profile frauds by Elmyr de Hory himself, who agreed to be filmed while painting imitations of Picasso and Matisse. Elmyr’s story itself makes for a fascinating watch - he built his career on forging famous artists and enjoyed fooling museums and galleries. Apparently, according to Collette Loll, an art-fraud expert, 30 - 40% of the artwork sold to collectors, galleries and museums likely consists of fakes and forgeries. Watch the trailer for F for Fake here.
The National Gallery Singapore is hosting a festival of films on art in October. For more information on tickets and schedules, visit their website.
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