In this series NYC film-journalist, Dana Knight speaks with filmmakers about their work in the context of the wider world
For this edition of Filmmakers and Their Global Lens, The Independent’s special contributor Dana Knight speaks with the artist Matthu Placek about Moving Portraits. Knight initially spoke with Placek at the Toronto International Film Festival 2014.
Dana Knight (DK): Will you please give us a background to your work and introduce the very special short film that you presented at TIFF 2014.
Matthu Placek: I’m a photographer by origins and I’ve been making films for about five years. This short film is the first in an ongoing body of work of moving portraits. I’m actually making them as artworks in addition to other artworks that have been shown in site-specific installations where they are placed into pieces of architecture that relate to the architecture used in the film.
The title of the film is 130919 • A Portrait of Marina Abramovic. The number is the date that it was made and it is also an archive number. I’m really an archivist, in a lot of ways, as a portraitist and in my need to memorize relationships and events and time and catalog them. Everything in my archive is placed in that sequence: year, month, day. Since I was a kid. And if you dive into my artwork, those numbers exist in everything. This is not my film debut but it’s my first moving portrait that I’ve finished, it’s one take and in 3D.
DK: Why one take?
Placek: As someone who’s not trained as a filmmaker, when I approached film I wanted to do it in the same manner in which I do photography, which is very planned and well thought-out images. Then it’s about putting all the pieces together and making it with all the right people who can make that happen. When I approached film, I wanted to do something similar, but not only to learn at the same pace and keep the same thought process, but also to have respect for a medium that I’m not trained in. So I said “I’m going to do this in one take, in a studio, in black and white”. That being said, it’s not simple. […] It was really challenging and I didn’t think I would be able to keep people’s attention but I actually did. And I thought “This is really kind of great”. And for someone who’s really immersed in performance, my social circle and my own personal interests and growing up with dancing, that’s always been a part of it, the performative aspect. I realized I’m getting these really intimate performances from people since there’s no interruption.
DK: Was there a need for many takes?
Placek: We did seven takes but that’s the first take. It’s usually the first take and it’s always seven takes, everyone I’ve ever done. And before films I made music videos, also with people that I’m close to. But one take is really complicated and I don’t do it just to drive everyone crazy and put everyone through hell […]. I’m incredibly demanding and if I showed you the previous realizations I made for the film, it’s exactly the same thing.
DK: The film looks incredibly sophisticated and it works amazingly well with the music. What challenges have you encountered in the making of it?
Placek: I was really blessed to have the budget to work with all the right people who do what they do very well. But they weren’t used to doing a one-take film so I encountered a lot of challenges. First it would be “OK, no problem”. Then “No, I can’t do it like that, the camera will pass into the light and there will be a shadow”. So we have to rethink where the camera goes, we can’t move the camera so we have to remove the light but I can’t have the light to the right because it’s not going to look good. So there’s going to be a shadow on each side of the face, you’re going to have to fill it in. One thing after another. So everybody had to think really hard. And I would compromise on occasion but usually no, unless someone has a very good reason. I’d listen to everybody but in the end if my concept is done, it’s done. So we had to work really hard to make it happen.
DK: This is a film about an artist, made by an artist. Two artistic subjectivities colliding. Was this project collaborative in any way or it is entirely your concept?
Placek: In my opinion all portraits are a collaboration no matter what. But the way I make portraits is very selfish, because I’m making these with people that I have a relationship with. I have known Marina and worked with her since 2006. The reason I wanted to make a portrait of her is because she has shown me who she is, and I believe her and I respect that. She’s one of the most sincere people I have ever met. […] We’ve been working together on this but I had the concept. It was initially in a different location and when she told me about the institute that she was building in Hudson, New York, I thought we needed to do it there. This was 3 years ago. So in that way it’s like me learning more about her, and her giving me that valuable time to know these things in order to say: this completes the story, this is your legacy, this is your future, because I’m trying to make a portrait of someone’s past, present and future. So yes it is absolutely a collaboration. But in the end this is my artwork and my interpretation of her in this dramatic way.
DK: The space is very important in your artworks. I assume the location you chose for your film is Marina Abramovic’s studio?
Placek: Yes. The architecture in my still images has always been as important as the subjects in them. The space tells the story as much as they do. So with Marina who is 68, at this stage in her life, she’s looking to what she’s going to leave behind, I can assume. I’m 34 now, I can’t imagine what 35 is like until I get there. So to think about what 68 is, I have no idea but I’m drawn to those people because they’ve figured it out.
Marina bought this raw space in a town that’s close to where she lives in order to build a site for long durational performance research and a residency program for performance artists in a space that doesn’t exist anywhere in the world. This is also a place where her prolific 50 year career and everything she’s done to prepare for performances can live and be taught and explored. This is her future, her legacy, this piece of architecture.
Even the lighting and the color temperature of the light is there to tell the story. Her body, which is literally her body of work, is cold and white in the center of this space. And the space is warm and rich, like an amniotic fluid, So there’s this transition, transfer of energy and attention from performance into the institute.
DK: I think you managed to capture that brilliantly, there’s a unique atmosphere to the film. Why did you choose to shoot it in 3D and is it the first time you use 3D technology?
Placek: First time, yes. 3D because it is literally a portrait of her body of work and I want the audience or viewer to be present with that body and for the body to be tangible and touchable. As someone who tries to resist technology as much as I can, I love it. And I also hate it because it brings us further apart. But it can also bring us closer together.
In these site-specific public installations, in the way that I show these to the public, the 3D is as essential as the person. I’m trying to give people a new experience of portraiture, a new way of being introduced to someone.
DK: The musical score is very striking, this is obviously an original score that you commissioned specifically for the film.
Placek: Yes. I wanted to use a piece of music from this brilliant composer William Basinski called The Desintegration Loops. The film’s soundtrack is a piece of music that had […] a historical piece of Balkan music over William Basinski’s score. And that music was used for Robert Wilson’s opera The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic, which I came to Toronto last year to see in order to hear the music, because that was what I initially was going to use. But Marina said “No, that’s for my funeral”. And she said “Why don’t you use this, where I’m singing or speaking”. So I came to see the opera which is fantastic but I didn’t like the piece of music she suggested. It was great but it wasn’t appropriate, it had a negative connotation. My film is about life and death, growth and transformation, and that being a positive thing. And this song had like an ending to it. So I didn’t want that. And I was afraid she might say no because she really wanted that piece of music. And I also didn’t want it to be a trailer for the opera.
So I didn’t use that but in Toronto I met Svetlana Spajić who is the singer and writer of the lyrics and the music. She’s this amazing Serbian woman who is quite close with Marina, a very strong woman who’s a historian of Balkan folk music. So I wrote her this long letter saying “You won’t remember me but I met you in Toronto and I’d be so honored if you worked with me on this to make an original score. I’m hoping there is a Balkan piece of music that you can think of, that speaks of death and rebirth in a positive way”. And she wrote back immediately and we skyped and she agreed to do it. She was so intuitive.
So I asked a good friend Thomas Bartlett, who’s a producer and brilliant musician, if he would produce the music with Svetlana. He agreed so Svetlana came over from Belgrade and they worked in the studio one afternoon with this brilliant violinist, and they made this piece of music. I really wanted a meditative drone for a chant. And they did it and I was really proud of it.
When it’s put in site-specific installation, there’s a similar piece of music that is ten minutes long. That is for the introduction in the space where people can explore the architecture before they see the film with that music.
DK: What was Marina’s reaction when she saw the film?
Placek: She loves it. The only person I need to please is the subject. She didn’t see it until I presented it at Art Basel Miami Beach in Florida. And that speaks a lot of her as someone who is supportive of young artists whom she trusts. And I feel that she trusted me but not until she actually saw the film.
So I first presented the film as a site-specific installation at Art Basel Miami Beach and it was in this big strained-glass building, the old Bacardi headquarter, a beautiful piece of Brazilian architecture. And during the art fair, the film screened to groups of 15 people, every 15 minutes, from 9pm till 3am. And it’s quite a way from the beach so you really had to make a decisive decision, “I’m going to do this at night during party-time”. So it was an alternative and I wanted people to slow down and explore this piece of architecture that is being transitioned into artists studios and it’s never before been shown to the public in that way. So people would walk up three flights of stairs with the sound installation I told you about, that builds and mounts and becomes bigger. And I lit the building from the exterior so the inside was very cathedral-like without having religious connotations to it. And after 10 minutes of exploring the space they sat down to see the film.
So Marina came for that opening and then we had a salon discussion at the YoungArts Foundation about the project. Just before the discussion Marina asked “Can I see it now?” and I said “Yes but I just want to see this with you alone”. So we went in and watched it alone. And afterwards she turned to me, she took her glasses off and she was crying and she said “Baby, you did it right, this is what’s going on right now, you’ve sealed it in, this is where I’m at and I approve”.
DK: You collaborated with a lot of other artists in the past, could you mention a few of them?
Placek: I love to work with performance artists. Vanessa Beecroft was one of the first. And the eternal problem with that is: how can you sell performance art? To make a living they have to sell something that looks expensive and that is representative of the performance. So photography is probably the most direct way, they often come to me (or vice-versa, I came to Marina) and say “I need you to make an expensive-looking picture of this”. And then we make a picture. And it’s great fun because I’m also compensated well for it because they own the image, the copyright is no longer mine. So it’s a great way to make a living without doing advertising which I enjoy as well.
So I worked with Vanessa Beecroft, Terence Koh. Then lots and lot of portraits that aren’t commissioned work, Brice Marden, Kiki Smith, Yoko Ono, Richard Prince and Marc Jacobs. A lot of younger ones, Kristen Baker, Jonah Bokaer. I really focus on contemporary artists, those are the people I really love taking portraits of.
130919 • A Portrait of Marina Abramovic was shown at TIFF 2014.