Artists on Film

Ann Jones reviews a summer of documentaries about artists

It’s not all that often that a documentary about an artist gets a cinema release so for there to be not one, not two but three films about artists doing the (albeit limited) rounds this summer, albeit on very limited releases, seems sufficiently unusual to be noteworthy. Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present and Eames: the Architect and the Painter are very different films about very different artists but there are plenty of common threads and each raises interesting questions about the nature of art practice and the role of the artist.

There is, of course, nothing inherently interesting or unusual about the lives of artists,  though Ai Weiwei and Marina Abramović are perhaps exceptions –  with their life and work being inseparable – and Charles and Ray Eames arguably played a major role in defining the look of post-war domestic spaces,  so that their work is tied to our lives before one even starts to unpick their relationship. But though in all cases there are aspects of the artists’ lives that could easily hold our attention, all three films rightly concentrate on the work to a greater or lesser extent, albeit in very different ways.

Alison Klayman, who made Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, arrived in China in 2006 as a new graduate with a degree in history and a desire to travel, learn a new language and perhaps become a journalist. A couple of years later, by now with a working knowledge of Mandarin, she was asked by a friend who was curating an show of Ai’s photographs if she’d like to make a video for the exhibition. From the start, the footage Klayman gathered went beyond what would be needed for the gallery video, with Ai talking about his blog – closed down by the Chinese authorities – his use of Twitter and his activism in response to the deaths of thousands of school children in the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan province and the government’s failure to investigate why so many school buildings collapsed. Klayman filmed Ai for over two years, travelling with him, interviewing him and those around him. This level of access – and perhaps the way Klayman drifted into the project – are what gives the film its power. Ai is an engaging, likeable character whose work is informed by, amongst other things, his childhood experiences (his father, the dissident poet Ai Qing, was sentenced to hard labour when Ai was a toddler and he grew up in the remote province of Xianjiang) and his time (initially studying) in New York where he gained an understanding of modern art, and in particular American modernist practices.

Asked by Klayman to describe his work, Ai responds that he is a chess player now waiting for his opponent to make the next move. Though Ai is referring to the Chinese authorities, this can also be read as reference to Marcel Duchamp (whose strategy of using readymades as art is one Ai  draws on), who gave up art for several years to play chess. Ai’s fascination with Warhol is also arguably evident in his factory approach to making art. It’s clear that Ai discusses ideas with his studio assistants but that ultimately the direction the work takes and the way in which it is made is down to him, indeed one of those assistants describes himself as a hired assassin, paid to implement Ai’s ideas without asking questions. This is said without apparent bitterness though, in contrast to some of the interviews with designers employed by the Eames Office in Eames: The Architect and The Painter. Of course, the Eames Office was primarily involved with design, where collaboration is more routine, rather than art but seeing the two films only a few days apart I was struck by the focus of several Eames staff on design credit and by the way a sense of different loyalties came across, with some staff only seeming to talk about Charles (the architect of the film’s title, though in fact he dropped out of architecture school without qualifying) while others were at pains to emphasise the contribution of Ray  (the painter, and of the two the one who understood colour and how different objects could be brought together).

Initially designs were generally credited in the name of Charles Eames rather than Charles and Ray, not unusual for the time certainly and a pattern that is played out in several artistic partnerships (Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Ilya and Emilia Kabakov and Ed and Nancy Kienholz) and the film includes excruciating footage of the Eameses interviewed on television by Arlene Francis with Ray brought on after Charles with the words ‘almost always when there is a successful man there is a very interesting and able woman behind him’. Certainly Charles was charismatic  and provided a confident public face for the Office, but theirs was clearly a collaborative practice and the work needed the input of both.

In this respect, Eames: the Architect and the Painter is a fascinating picture not just of a partnership that resulted in some of the most iconic pieces of furniture of the twentieth century, some of which have now been in production for sixty years or so, but also a picture of American post-war society with a new, relatively affluent generation exercising a strong desire not to live like its parents. Eames designs were modern and affordable and made using the latest materials and production processes; the aim was to make ‘the best for the least for the most’. Had the Eames Office just designed furniture this would be a rather less interesting film; but with Ray’s background as a painter and Charles’s love of ideas, their practice was much broader than furniture design.

Though Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present is primarily about the artist’s 2010 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the new work, The Artist is Present, she created for it, discussion of collaborative art practice runs through this film too. For twelve years, from 1976 to 1988, Abramović lived and worked with Ulay (Uwe Laysiepen), a West German performance artist who Abramović met in Amsterdam after leaving Yugoslavia. In the run up to the MoMa exhibition, the couple meet again and Ulay is interviewed separately for the film. Abramović is clearly a formidable presence and, having forged a highly successful career in her own right and having made some extraordinary performance works before she met Ulay, is widely seen as the grandmother of performance art. But theirs is not the only collaboration here: the MoMA exhibition is performance based, with Abramović making a new work – in which she sat at a table opposite visitors to the museum for extended periods – and earlier works being performed by others; we see Abramović staging a workshop for the young artists who have been recruited to do this. For someone so firmly in control as Abramović, the idea of entrusting her work to others to perform is a challenging one, especially as she largely didn’t see their performances.

During the time Klayman filmed Ai, he was beaten by the Chinese police and subsequently needed surgery for a cerebral haemorrhage while in Munich preparing for the exhibition So Sorry at the Haus der Kunst Museum, an exhibition for which he made the installation Remembering, a wall of coloured nylon backpacks, one for each of the children killed in the collapse of school buildings in the Sichuan earthquake. The different coloured backpacks were arranged to spell out a poignant quote from a bereaved mother: ‘She lived happily in this world for seven years.’ In much of the footage filmed at Ai’s home studio, the childrens’ names and details are visible on the wall in the background and it’s the way in which Ai’s mobilisation of a team of volunteers, to investigate and gather of the names of the children that drives the film. Ai is driven by an inexhaustible need to communicate; it’s very apparent from Klayman’s film that there is no real distinction to be drawn between the way he uses social media and gallery art to get the message out. He is also indefatigable when using the proper channels to complain about police brutality despite knowing it will prove futile. We repeatedly see the power of Twitter and other social media to mobilise support. When he posts about being in Chengdu to file a report with the authorities he mentions where he plans to eat that night; arriving at the restaurant, Ai’s party find people milling about in the street. They have come to eat with him, to publicly identify with him. We also see the police filming the party; one of Ai’s group films the police who are filming them. And of course, Klayman is there to film them both.

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry focuses on Ai’s work in whatever form it happens rather than on his personal life, though we do meet members of his family including his wife, and the young son he has by another woman. Towards the end there’s film of Ai being interviewed in London around the time of the opening of the Sunflower Seeds installation at Tate Modern. The interviewer starts to probe about this aspect of Ai’s life, asking something along the lines of whether there are different rules for artists. Ai’s response is that no, there aren’t and the situation isn’t ideal but it’s happened. I find myself wondering whether part of Ai’s evident embarrassment at this line of questioning is at least in part at the horribly clichéd idea of the nature of the artist that is being trotted out. I’m certainly embarrassed about it on his behalf. Towards the end of Eames: the Architect and the Painter we learn of Charles’s affair with art historian Judith Wechsler, for whom he wanted to leave Ray. The cinema wasn’t crowded but nonetheless there was an audible groan at that point; with the Eameses both dead, it is in an interview with Wechsler that this emerges. I found myself slightly outraged on Ray Eames’s behalf once again; here she’s not seen as the little woman behind the great man but as the injured party unable to put her own case as Wechsler says something along the lines of ‘in the end I just couldn’t do it to Ray.’

The subject of infidelity also raises its head in Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present but with both Abramović and Ulay able to tell their own side of the story. According to Ulay they both started affairs at about the same time and at least he didn’t start seeing one of their friends but Abramović talks only of Ulay getting involved with, and having a child with, the interpreter who helped him through the negotiations for their walk along the Great Wall of China. Though the two seem relaxed in each other’s company now, the acrimony of the end of their relationship is apparent in this brief section – but at least they are equally able to be heard.

In all three films, there’s a sense of what it is to be an artist in terms of everything that surrounds a successful studio practice. Abramović says at one point that she wants to show all the admin that surrounds making an exhibition and though in itself admin is hardly the stuff of a riveting documentary, it is fascinating to see her working relationships with her personal assistant, and curators and gallerists – the latter in the form of Sean Kelly, her New York gallerist, playing the important role of persuading Abramović that it would be a truly terrible idea to allow David Blaine to be involved in her MoMA performance, but also talking about how they made a gallery career for her by editioning photographs of performances –. Much of the film, though, is given over to the performance of The Artist is Present – we see many of those who sat facing Abramović and witness their responses. There are tears – some Abramović’s own – and quite a few visitors, seemingly unconsciously, put their hands over their hearts. There are those who try to make the performance their own before being bundled away by security. Many spend whole days in  the queue without ever getting to sit with Abramović; one has had the number of times he has sat with her – a staggering 21 – tattooed on his arm. Towards the end of the exhibition, people leave the gallery when it closes for the day having not reached the front of the line and immediately start to queue for the following day. A worn out Abramović doesn’t look amused when her assistant jokingly suggests extending the show for a fourth month to reach a round million visitors.

In Eames: the Architect and the Painter we get a real sense of the excitement of working at the Eames Office at a time when anything seemed possible for them as a design team who also made art and films and almost anything else that emerged from the exploration of a good idea.

The picture in Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry is somewhat different in that a lot of the day to day focus is on activism and working with volunteers to try to establish the degree to which poor construction of school buildings contributed to the high death toll in the Sichuan earthquake, but with no dividing lines between art, activism and life this too is all part of Ai’s work as an artist. And though both Ai and Abramović have a charisma that makes them incredibly watchable, whereas Abramović can be theatrical  it’s the grim reality of Ai’s day to day struggle to get some very real and very powerful messages disseminated both within and outside China and the fact that he lives under the constant threat that makes even the most mundane activity seem highly charged. Though Klayman had returned to the US by the time Ai was detained in April 2011, and remained there to continue editing the film and to speak out about Ai’s predicament, there is some footage from the time after his release. It’s at this point that the bravery of Ai’s anonymous supporters once again becomes apparent, with people leaving small amounts of money at his home studio to help him meet the fine imposed by the authorities.

Given that you could easily wait years for one documentary about art to appear in the cinema, it’s great that when three come along at once they all turn out to be well worth seeing.

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About Ann Jones

London-based artist and educator who somehow seldom gets time to actually make any work, who writes about art, somewhat irregularly, at ImageObjectText.com and occasionally contributes to MostlyFilm.com – writing about art, mostly.

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