The Vancouver International Film Festival kicks off today! I will continue to preview art related films periodically through the next two weeks.
Art history has not always done a good job of considering the site-specific histories of the places and cultures that fall away from the “canon” forming the core of the discipline. In fact, the recent conference I attended in Poland is part of a larger ongoing effort to re-think how the narratives of modernism, the avant-garde, and modern art have privileged a very narrow focus on Western European and North American art production. As Polish art historian Piotr Piotrowski questions in a consideration of the new “critical geography” that is attempting to recast art historical research, “We should wonder to what extent [critical geography], is aimed towards disclosing the centre of power—that is the West, and to what extent it rejects its dictatorship and—like feminist, postcolonial and other deconstructive practices—is based on a pluralistic and non-hierarchical concept of the subject.” While this approach is vital, it is clear that the limited access to remote archival information and visual materials, especially during the Cold War and up until only a few short decades ago, has prevented the kind of cross-cultural and cross-national research that is needed to broaden art history's often narrow scope.
Three films set to screen at the Vancouver International Film Festival, ANPO: Art x War, Thomas Mao, and Desert of Forbidden Art, provide recent examples of how site-specific histories and new concepts of the subject are emerging in the discourse. Linda Hoaglund’s ANPO: Art x Warexplores the tensions that have given shape in Japan over the presence of US operated military bases in the country over the last six decades. Utilizing provocative and often highly conceptual paintings, photographs, and film segments created by Japanese artists protesting the presence (you can learn more by checking the artist biographies on the film’s website), Hoaglund constructs a visual dialogue that works against the traditional narrative expected of a documentary film.
In a similar vein, award winning Chinese novelist and film director Zhu Wen explores the dynamics of culture shock and spatial dissonance in Thomas Mao, a film that follows the unexpected meeting of an American artist backpacker and a Chinese farmer on the Mongolian grassland during the summer of the 2008 Olympics (in Beijing). And while shot in a documentary style, the film navigates the humorous collision of two very different world views with innovative techniques. Reading the Hollywood Reporter’s review for this film, it is clear that Zhu Wen is stepping far out on a limb with both his visual and narrative approach: “Filled with as many laugh-out-loud farcical gags as high brow visual aesthetics, Thomas Mao is a refreshing aperitif for the artsy crowd yet relatively accessible to an open-minded western audience. Within China's current filmmaking trends, it juts out like a lone palm tree in a desert oasis. The majority audience will probably be festival audiences and China's art in-crowd.”
And finally, Desert of Forbidden Art examines the aftermath and stakes involved with recuperating and creating a museum for works of the Russian avant-garde that were criminalized during the period of the Soviet regime. The film focuses on the life of Igor Savitsky, a Russian painter, archaeologist and art collector whose own paintings were banned by the Soviets. But through an act of resistance and desire to create a space for the “forbidden” works of the Russian avant-garde, Savitsky quietly begins collecting thousands of banned art works over several decades (often covertly with state funds) and builds a museum in the remote desert of Uzbekistan. Today, the Nukus Museum houses one of the most important collections of Russian modern art, and in an ironic twist is now the target of Islamic Fundamentalists—all of which gives this film another critical dimension in terms of the complex cultural politics at play.
Thomas Mao will be running at VIFF on Monday, October 4th @ 6:45pm (Pacific Cinematheque) and Tuesday, October 5th @ 12:20pm (Granville 7)
ANPO: Art x War will be running at VIFF on Sunday, October 3rd @ 6:00pm (Granville 7) and Monday, October 4th @ 1:15pm (Pacific Cinematheque) The Desert of Forbidden Art will be running at VIFF on Saturday, October 9th @ 3:20pm (Granville 7), Sunday, October 10th @ 6:00pm, and Thursday, October 14th @ 10:45am (Pacific Cinematheque).