Art Stars of Sundance

Glen Helfand January 25, 2008

There’s nothing all that groundbreaking about the idea that visual artists and filmmakers can share similar practices and tools. It’s been happening since the early 20th century, from the Dadaists to Andy Warhol. A far more interesting dynamic emerged from the edgier portions of Sundance 08, that being a sense that a broad swath of features, docs, installations, and projected art shared similar socio-political concerns, which they grappled with via well-honed aesthetic filters.

Coming at the festival from an art world perspective, I was thrilled to do a Yarrow lobby interview with Vanessa Beecroft, she of performance-based installations that have often involved groups of nude women standing for long periods of time in public places, such as the Guggenheim Museum. On opening day, she was supporting “The Art Star and the Sudanese Twins,” a doc following her attempt to adopt African babies, a cause popularized by powerful female celebrities who have faced waves of deserved criticism.

The film, richly textured both visually and thematically — and one of my favorites of the fest — will most likely generate some dialog, as it depicts a controversial artist engaging in a problematic, seemingly impulsive quest.

Part of what made this film, directed by New Zealander Pietra Brettkelly, so compelling is the way that it tracks a paradigm shift in Beecroft’s work. It shows a transition from her signature installations — performances that seemed more directly commenting on fashion and gender — to more charged gray areas surrounding the ethics of humanitarian aid, cross cultural adoption, and genocide, with degrees of abstraction. Beecroft is a troublesome character, and her actions raise serious questions that Brettkelly allows to hang in the air. The artist cedes the film to the director, yet both inform each other. In the Q&A after a Salt Lake City screening, the director, who more often has addressed political topics, noted that she hadn’t heard of Beecroft, or been involved with the art world, which she portrays with an even hand — the art dealer utterings only sound mildly pretentious.

Surveillance is a prevalent art-world topic, so it was wonderful to see examples of notable artworks used as illustrations in Secrecy, a suitably disturbing documentary by Peter Galison and Robb Moss. The structure is fairly conventional — talking heads, archival footage — but during voiceover interviews with intelligence officers, a Washington Post reporter, legal counsel for Guantanamo Bay prisoners, the directors cut to footage of The Listening Post, an installation a curtain of LEDs that stream internet activity. The piece, by Mark Hansen and Ben Rubin, has become a contemporary classic that debuted at the Whitney Museum, was intended to be a visual manifestation of the web, but stands alone as an insidiously beautiful object. A recent Jenny Holzer projection of redacted government documents of the misinformation leading to the Iraq war is deployed in a similar manner. These works are not explained, they speak for themselves as another way the film’s themes filter into the world. The directors also hired artists to create created their own dynamic visual motifs of shredding paper and atmospheric animations.

The festival’s designated art program, New Frontiers, comprises ticketed screenings as well as a gallery-like space, New Frontiers on Main, that showcases installations, projections, and a ‘micro cinema’ for single channel videos and performances. Senior programmer Shari Frilot curated this venue as a social space in which to experience expanded forms of viewing the moving image. The lounge-like place, in the basement of a mall on Main Street, features works by big name new media artists such as Jennifer Steinkamp, Jim Campbell, and Doug Aitken, (who engage subjects of nature and artificiality, memory, and urban life, respectively) as well as more emerging makers such as the Bay Area-based @ause Collective, whose digital mosaic expressing the diverse residents of Oakland is also on view for the next couple of years on a giant wall screen at the Southwest baggage claim at the Oakland Airport. They showed a slightly reworked version of the piece, at reduced scale. Aitken also provided a revised, single screen version of “Sleepwalkers,” a multi-channel piece that also looks at city dwellers portrayed by actual movie stars — indie queen Oscar nominee Tilda Swinton and Donald Sutherland among them, attesting to his use of Hollywood gloss. It was originally projected on the exterior of New York’s Museum of Modern Art (where it received mixed reviews). At Sundance, it seemed to be scoring well for its beauty.

The space worked better for a double-bill live performance by Cory Arcangel and Paper Rad, media artists of the YouTube generation, and their project there had the feel of an underground endeavor — and in many senses echoed the digital DIY narrative of Michel Gondry’s “Be Kind Rewind,” also in the festival, and to my mind, a means of exerting some kind of personal vision in the world. An under the weather Arcangel addressed the crowd via webcam, offering a tour of his NY apartment and seemingly off the cuff, laptop based performances. Paper Rad provided showed their colorful, seemingly low tech, big pixel animations and later provided some live music. A few nights later, DJ Spooky performed a new work based on the sounds of Antarctica melting, in concept a piece that might function as an abstract, multi-screen complement to “An Inconvenient Truth.”

The cinema component of the New Frontiers program was mixed. I caught one segment of Chinese artist Yang Fudong’s “Seven Intellectuals in Bamboo Forest,” a five-part sequence of beautifully shot, 79-minute impressionistic update of an ancient legend. With actors costumed alternately in peasant fisherman garb and tweedy business suits, the piece evoked China’s rapidly changing identity. But I have to admit, it was hard to tell just what the hell was going on. Reversion, a LA-set, sci-fi feature, presented a lawless suburbia and a protagonist afflicted with some cockamamie time scrambling gene. There was much better word on “Sleep Dealers,” in its use of futuristic scenarios to address border anxieties and labor issues.

The highlight of the Frontier Shorts Program were two acid-hued animations by Kenneth Tin-Kin Hung, which could be likened to plugged in versions of John Heartfield’s incendiary WWII collages. Hung’s works brought an in your face, “South Park”-on-acid energy to commentaries on the global oil economy and the current presidential race. They both had verve to spare in their expression of a world overflowing with signifiers and political icons.

While not in New Frontiers, Yung Chang’s “Up the Yangtze” is a similarly enthralling mixture of political consciousness and visual sense — with the addition of captivating human stories. With crisply composed shots, the HD video tracks the social and environmental shift that accompanies the construction of the Three Gorges Dam project through the parallel experiences of two young people. It’s an epic subject that none of us are immune to — and one that’s frequently seen in contemporary art photography — and one that contains beauty as well as fear. For me, “Yangtze” and “Art Star” are works that will haunt me with images and ideas, as a great work of art — or film— should.