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Julie Mehretu & the Problem of Shooting Big

In our new column, On Location, Art21 Director of Production Nick Ravich breaks his silence and gives you the scoop on Art21’s production comings and goings including, among other things, straight-from-the-set reports on recent shoots and some (hopefully) enlightening discussions on those areas where television production and contemporary art collide. And if we’re lucky, Nick will expand his column to include some non-Art21 related musings, reviews, interviews, and other ephemera on the world of production and art in general. — Ed.

In a previous blog post, I had talked about a recent Art21 online video shoot with art teacher Lucia Vinograd’s rather amazing students at Besant Hill School in Ojai, California (Lucia is part of our Art21 Educators professional development initiative.)  At the time, I was only able to post a couple of screen grabs from the field footage, but now I’d love to give you an actual video sample. So below is a short but inspiring scene with Besant Hill School student Julie Yu painting with a very unconventional brush, assisted by fellow student Griffin Davis.

I’m also posting this short, unedited clip as a very informal way of inaugurating a new strand of Art21-produced video releases of (appropriately enough) more informal, off the cuff, backstage-revealing moments—stuff that’s a little less polished and structured than our Exclusive videos. After two plus years of diligently producing online-intended video content, the staff here was looking to create a regular home for these moments that, for whatever reason, sometimes don’t make the final cut.  Additionally, the hope is that these clips point, in some way, to the behind-the-scenes production process, while also previewing future video “Exclusive” releases.

Julie Mehretu. Art21 production still, 2009.

And in keeping with today’s theme of amuse bouche video, I’m posting an uncut clip from an ambitious web-only video shoot that I know I definitely haven’t mentioned. We had the very good fortune to shoot the installation and final painting of Julie Mehretu’s monumental ten panel work at the new Goldman Sachs building in lower Manhattan (the initial creation of this painting in Berlin was an extensive part of our original broadcast segment on Julie.)  Last fall, over the course of a month, Julie and a team of studio assistants and a professional installation crew uncrated, unrolled, stretched, hung, and further painted the work, on site, in the Goldman Sachs lobby. And we were able to shoot some key moments along the way. So below is a video of the painting fully hung, but not yet finished, from the unique bird’s eye view of a scissor lift.

Now, part of the reason I’m posting this is because, well, it’s just plain cool and I wanted to make sure our viewers saw it, as well give them a quick look at the kind of stuff they’ll be seeing in our soon-to-be-released “Exclusive” segments drawing on this footage. But the other reason is a little less self-promotional. This particular shot – a vertiginous, downward angled tracking shot on a 20-foot plus tall painting that elongates the top “foreground” painting elements but compresses the bottom “background” painting elements – points to a much bigger issue: the difficulty of fairly, accurately, faithfully shooting art on video. Part of Art21’s mission is not to just represent contemporary artists “in their own words” (i.e. in as unmediated way as possible) but to represent their artwork in as a similarly undistorted way as possible. For modestly scaled, easel-size works, this is a relatively easy thing to accomplish. But for works the size of Julie’s – in this case an 80 x 23 foot painting installed in a narrow corridor — it’s basically impossible. There’s literally no position we could put the camera in that would give us a wide shot of the full painting, and certainly not one that wouldn’t create the kind of classic edge distortion – key stoning effects where right angles seem to bend at the tape — that typically happens when shooting wide angle. Additionally, the graphic complexity and density of Julie’s imagery – the tremendous variety of line, shape, and color – wreak havoc with interlaced video’s sometimes crude ability to give a stable, color-uniform image.

So what to do?

Julie Mehretu’s studio. Art21 production still, 2009.

One way is to be as careful as possible and find that sweet spot of camera focal length and distance to the painting that gives us relatively undistorted close-up and medium-length shots. And we have to trust that the editing of those shots – in essence, a compositing in time – gives the viewer a more or less comprehensive view of the work. But there are other approaches you can take. We can come to terms with the fact that accurate representation is an impossibility and embrace the idea that an artist has created something that defies the camera abilities to record it (and the viewer’s ability to experience it.)  So that recording is necessarily subjective, piecemeal, limited. This frees us to come up with new solutions – in this case, the moving scissor lift shot.

And in a funny way, the painting itself embodies our little dilemma. Here’s a quote from Julie from the broadcast segment on her own conceptual struggles with the painting:

The large commission [the Goldman Sachs painting] has a really specific point of departure in terms of what it’s conceptually trying to deal with. If you’re going to make a picture of that scale and embed that and locate that in lower Manhattan, which is where it’s commissioned for, can you deal, then, with what lower Manhattan symbolizes? . . . What you’ve seen here is only the first layer of information, and that first layer of information is hopefully something that mimics early maps from the early Silk Road through the evolution of the marketplace. Can you actually make a picture that in some way maps and gives a picture of this history of the development of–you know, capitalist development, economic systems? Which is absurd.

As you’ll probably see in future posts, this issue is a particular preoccupation of mine. For my next post in Februrary, you can expect a couple more servings of Art21 video sherbet, as well as a review of a classic art documentary.

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