Matthu Placek’s 130919 • A Portrait of Marina Abramovic

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Matthu Placek moved to New York City at the age of 17 to study at the School for Visual Arts and to work with photographer David Lachappelle, initially as an intern and then as an assistant. But as Lachappelle shifted his practice and attention to Los Angeles, Placek found himself in need of employment and ended up working as a studio manager for architectural and portrait photographer Todd Eberlie. He describes this move as giving him an “incredibly directorial, dramatic and cinematic experience” of the craft.

His first job as a photographer was doing architecture, which required a very formalist approach to buildings and spaces but when Placek was asked to do a series of 18 portraits for a magazine shoot, Eberlie’s and Lachappelle’s influence, combined with his own vision allowed him to begin carving out a style of his own. He wanted to see “how people inhabit space” and he wanted to “tell a story, all without dialogue.”

In the studio, he is mostly austere. He often works in black and white against a plain backdrop. His subjects are often nude but “incredibly styled.” His environmental portraits are more flamboyant and show off a more playful side. He often photographs his subjects in and around their homes or workshops, with architecture playing as great a role in establishing character as the person being portrayed.

Placek is very much in demand. The luminaries of the New York arts and social scene, and major magazines, commission his portraits on a regular basis. And even though his considers these portraits to he his own images in his own style, he doesn’t consider them art, because he doesn’t feel that he has contributed anything new to portraiture.

His move into stereoscopic cinema is his way of breaking new ground and thus contributing to the art rather than the commerce of portraiture.

130919 • A Portrait of Marina Abramovic is the first of a series of moving portraits shot in 3D, a medium known mostly for high octane action films rather than for contemplative works of figurative art. This one-take film runs approximately seven minutes (with credits) and features a nude Abramovic in a derelict theatre in Hudson, New York, which she purchased three years ago, with a view to transforming it into a research centre for performance artists, and for which she has since been fundraising.

The film is a single crane shot that slowly reveals the space before it reveals the artist. It starts on four interior windows and a port hole, but as there is no immediate context, it is hard to to tell what they are. As the film progresses, we see that the gutted building is a cinema with its balconies and main floor stripped of seating. We then see Abramovic, exposed, her nude body painted white, her arms outstretched, palms forward, eyes facing downward.

Her body throws shadows to the left and right. Behind her are the three entrances to the main the theatre itself. They are spaces in the green wall where the doors used to be, and they allow us to see the golden hues of the lobby.

As the camera moves in for a close-up, Abramovic raises her head. The golden hued exit forms a square halo behind it. Tears well up in her open eyes.

The film unfolds to the accompaniment of an elegiac score by Thomas Bartlett featuring the vocals of Serbian folk singer Svetlana Spajic, This sonic palette underlies vulnerability of the exposed Abramovic.

Placek describes the piece as a portrait of Abramovic’s past, present and future. As a performance artist, her body, with all its infirmities, is her body of work, and therefore her past and her present. Because performance art is ephemeral, the institute is her legacy and therefore her past and her future.

Placek says that working on this portrait has changed his relationship with the mother of performance art, who now sees him as a younger contemporary. He recognizes that it not only required a lot of trust for the 68 year-old Abramovic to allow him to photograph her nude and admits that he thought, “I can’t be that bad if she trusts me enough.”

He also says that once Ambramovic saw the final film she not only got what he was trying to do but also indicated to him that it was more than she had anticipated.

Placek worked with a crew of forty. Using a crane meant unexpected complications like unwanted shadows and this meant negotiating with a crew to find lighting solutions that allowed him to maintain his vision while addressing the technical issues. He also praises director of photography Mike Berlucchi whom he describes as badass and a yes man in the best possible way. He says that that he’s never had anybody translate his lighting so well, thus rendering in images exactly what he sees in his head.

The film, which has screened at Sundance, the Vancouver and Toronto International Film Festivals and is currently screening at Montreal’s Festival du nouveau cinéma, has also been mounted as an installation at the Jewel Box in Miami during Art Basel and in recent weeks at Fort Jay on Governor’s Island at the tip of Manhattan. In both cases, the installation sites have echoed the setting of the film, insofar that they were both repurposed buildings. The Jewel Box, is a spectacular stained glass structure on a tiled pedestal was in the process of being renovated into a facility for the Young Arts Foundation and Fort Jay,  a former military installation is now part of a national park that is open to the public and is a commerce-free zone minutes away from New York City.

130919 • A Portrait of Marina Abramovic screens Friday October 17th at 3:15 at Cinéma du Parc 1 as part of the FNC Lab short films program at the Festival du nouveau cinéma. The filmmaker will be in attendance.

The video portrait is available in an edition of 6, and as a 45” x 60” C-print in an edition of 8.

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