Showing Nothing, Showing Everything

**Showing Nothing, Showing Everything
**

**Tommy Hartung’s Search for the Sublime
**

By Robert Enright

Tommy Hartung, the video artist, animator and sculptor who lives and works in Queens, New York, admits that as a child he wanted to be a writer and that his impulse has always been “to tell a story over the passage of time.” In Anna, the 20-minute-long HD video, which was recently purchased by MoMA in New York, we can see how complex is his way of telling stories. Anna is based on Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and Hartung’s loose retelling filters the original story through his own life experience, love of reading and political understanding. He insists that his is not a book-to-film project, nor is it a book-to-life transcription, but it does combine art and life in compelling and unsettling ways. Anna conflates the artist’s interest in agrarian social experiments practised by one of the characters in Tolstoy’s novel with his own farming background in western New York and links Anna’s suicide by train with the deaths of some of his childhood friends. “I’m interested in how little we need in a moving image to tell a story,” he says, and while the effect of his minimal inclusions can be confusing, they are consistently mesmerizing. Perhaps the most captivating of these scenes is a storm he created out of Cellophane, cotton batten and theatrical makeup. Components that should add up to a tour de farce are transformed, instead, into a tour de force.

Hartung is an artist of eccentric enthusiasms. His admiration for Jacob Bronowski’s 13-part television series called The Ascent of Man, 1973, was the provocation for his own video of the same name. In this case, his borrowings from the original source were more direct than they were in Anna. He incorporated a number of images or sequences from the television series and while the footage might be identical, what is especially intriguing is how he builds upon them in his own videos.

Hartung sees himself not as a dreamer or a fantasist but as a documentarian. In one sense, this is a contrary position. But he is clear about his reading of documentary; it is the truth achieved through an accurate presentation of the way things are and not the way we expect them to be. His use of dolls is a telling example of his understanding of the way we get to truth. In The Ascent of Man there is a scene in which a doll with green hair and ponytails stands in water that just nudges the tops of her thighs; she is an emblem of adolescent desire: buxom, perky butt, wearing only panties and a waist-hugging leather jacket. Suddenly a white rat breaks the surface of the flower-petalled water and slowly begins to climb onto the doll’s body, eventually ending up perched on top of her head.

It’s hard to pin down what about this image is so riveting, but there is something perverse about the water-sleek animal’s pink tail hanging in front of the doll’s face. The more you say about why this scene either attracts or repels you, the more you reveal about yourself. Hartung’s videos are the artist’s self-expression and the viewer’s self-awareness. They are not easy to fathom. “I want to set up situations where people will scratch their heads.”

It is important to say that no single scene in a Hartung video is arbitrary. The doll and rat episode extends a sequence that Hartung has liberally lifted from the Bronowski program on human sexuality, which combines an actual birth, a TV image of a crawling baby who eventually stands up, a terrarium and a dark jacket with a hand in only one sleeve that moves around the floor in awkward stop animation. It is a sequence that mixes the innocent and the grotesque, as if the Quay Brothers had been engaged to shoot a promotional image for The Family of Man.

The scene following the procreative sequence in Hartung’s *The Ascent of Man *acknowledges an earlier program in the television series on the subject of knowledge. In the program, Bronowski, wearing his shoes, steps into a puddle at Auschwitz and reaches down to cup some of the water in his hand. He says, “We have to touch.” In the next section of his video, Hartung lets his eyes do the touching. In the same aquarium where the rat had climbed onto the doll, we see a snail slowly floating away from a black leather shoe that sits on the surface of the water like a boat.

For Hartung, the scene is a tribute to Bronowski and his subjective and emotional presence in his series. As viewers, we are left with the perplexing and undeniably beautiful image of the snail’s slow drift to the bottom of the tank. Trying to locate specific meaning in Hartung’s videos is a difficult endeavour. His work is like poetry, in that meanings and connections are associative and rely on an imaginative logic, not a literal one. It is in this sense that his real world begins to read like a dream world, a realm which has its own rules, procedures and movements. “I devise a box and I suspect that something will happen within this box,” he says with characteristic candour, “but I am never quite sure what it will be.” So far all the activities that have happened within his boxed-in world have been utterly seductive, even if we don’t know what they mean, or what story they are actually telling. Tommy Hartung is the master of the unaccountable sublime.

The following interview was conducted by phone to Queens on June 29, 2012.

tommy hartung: I’ve always made movies. My BFA was in sculpture and my MFA in sculpture/new genre, but when I was in high school I was making short documentary films for an educational program on a cable-access channel. Through that process I started remixing footage and was making montages. But I was never interested in going to film school and being a filmmaker proper. I was more interested in subcultures, in the punk scene, in making fanzines, skate videos and playing in punk bands. When I got to undergrad a lot of modernist fine art institutions didn’t include experimental films, maybe in performance art, but not the kind of experimental narrative filmmaking that I do. Then I saw the films of Jan Švankmajer and everything came together for me; I could make sculpture and collage and have it all go towards one thing. As a child I wanted to be a writer. I would write and illustrate short stories and my artistic impulse has always been to tell a story over a passage of time.

border crossings: But the busts and animated objects that appear in your work are things that must have come out of your background in sculpture.
Yes and I also appropriate things and then modify them. The figures in Anna are all originally beauty practice mannequins for hair. They started out as female heads in my studio. I wanted to use a woman to tell a story–what Tolstoy was doing in Anna
Karenina–to literally use the tragedy of the female character as a sculpture. My practice is about filming my personal relationship to different material processes that have narrative content. So I take these female figures and force the ambiguity of
gender so that they end up looking like men and like females. You’re never totally sure. You don’t directly see that process in the film but that’s how those characters came about.

Do you want uncertainties about everything from gender to what it is that the viewer is actually seeing when they look at the films?
Yes, especially in Anna, which is my longest piece and the one in which I was trying to perfect that heightened sense of uncertainty. You’re not sure if you’re supposed to be watching this; you’re not sure what these people are doing. They’re not even people. It’s as if someone with a camera is acting out things that happened and these figures are stand-ins for a film. I don’t even like calling Anna a film or a video. It has a beginning, a middle and an end, but in some of my other pieces you’ll see a more pronounced narrative arc. With Anna I wanted to construct a narrative process showing the violence that occurs when you empty out that dramatic arc, when you empty out the sex and the romance that is in Anna Karenina. What is there when that’s all gone? It is just these people trying to use other people to say something. It could be something as grand as Tolstoy, or it could be the millions and millions of videos on YouTube, where someone is doing something in front of a web camera. They’re not doing something interesting; they’re not saying something; they’re just moving around like weird puppets. My theory is when we’re looking at those things, we’re thinking about ourselves, and I wanted to say something about that.

But there are residues of Anna Karenina?
Yes. Anna was a whole mix of things for me. As a teenager I had a couple of friends who jumped in front of trains and so for the novel to end with Anna’s suicide that same way was quite powerful. I wanted to give people pieces, like with Hansel and Gretel and the breadcrumbs. I leave behind little traces of that narrative with which people can identify.

Early on you have this Muybridge thing with the golden horse and then later a rider falls off another horse and is menaced by it. How are those scenes connected for you and for the viewer?
I’m not sure how many connections I want to make for people. When I make a piece I don’t use a storyboard; what I do is write a text. My pieces always start off with a poem, or a verse, or a short monologue. These monologues are new and about the different things I’m trying to reference with Anna Karenina, or instances where I’m trying to develop a personal relationship between myself and my materials.

Is that a reproduction of a Cézanne still life on the wall in the background?
Absolutely. In my reading, Cézanne represents Levin and his bourgeois escape. The reproduced painting is called Cupid and Cherub and is pasted to this fake-brick wall structure, so I’m using this romantic escape as urban graffiti. That simple gesture helps me process the narrative. I don’t care if the viewer gets the contradiction. That’s not so important; I’m interested in presenting a problem with each one of the scenes. But I’m not producing a book-to-movie remake of Anna Karenina. I am taking the book and trying to make satire out of it. But not postmodern satire. I’m trying to do it in the most disturbing or disgusting way or, if all else fails, in the most neutral way, where you don’t know what to think. So you’re confused. Satire, for me, is setting people up for this romantic love story, and then giving them a set of problems about the way we tell stories, about the way we talk about Anna Karenina. I’m more interested in the viewer’s response to nostalgia than I am in being nostalgic myself. I like creating atmospheres for viewers to respond to. At a certain point I believe you have to let people decide; that’s an ethical responsibility on my part. You have to keep things as free and as open as possible. The way I do that is by making the space engaging enough visually that people can inhabit it as I do. With Anna I spent hours and hours filming by myself in a very dark, gloomy basement and I wanted to bring people into that. So the point of view in this film is close to what I do on a regular basis in my studio. I will set up a scene, set up lights, and the different things I want to say, and I’ll move the camera around. I’ll practise that movement over and over until I get it right. So it has a performative element; the camera is a character performing for us and bringing life to this space.

To read the rest of the interview, pick up a copy of Issue No. 123, or subscribe here.

Volume 31, Number 3: Dreams and the Spaces In Between

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #123, published August 2012.

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