Trace Elements: Spring and Arnaud, directed by Marcia Connolly and Katherine Knight

Robert Rauschenberg famously said he wanted to operate in the gap between art and life. And it’s this intersection that Spring Hurlbut and Arnaud Maggs occupied as artists and life partners for over a quarter of a century. The Canadian artists met in 1986 and lived and worked together until Maggs died in November of last year. They shared a life in which every decision was carefully considered—from the objects gathered in their studio/living space to the food they ate. As Maggs says in _Spring and Arnaud_, the superb film portrait that celebrates their life together, “our art and life are indivisible.” What makes this film so compelling is that it is able to do three things at the same time; it tells the story of a wonderful love affair, from beginning to end; it intelligently explains how two very different artists make their work and what that work means, and it weaves together the stories of their art and love in a manner that is seamless and inspiring. 

This achievement is even more remarkable because hanging above its intersecting narrative is the shadow of loss and death. Rather than avoiding it, Connolly and Knight use it as the substance of their film. _Spring and Arnaud_ faces the subject straight on because both artists are unrelenting in the way they instrumentalize death and make it a catalytic force in their artmaking. Among the first things we hear Hurlbut say is that because of the substantial age difference between them, “I began mourning the loss of Arnaud before he died.” Maggs was diagnosed with cancer five years earlier, a fact that contributed another layer to her awareness of mortality.

Mortality is a big word and we are all aware of what it means. Immortality is an even bigger one because none of us experience it, but in its candour and unflinching look at what Spring calls “the fragility and precariousness of life,” the film achieves a sense of timelessness. It is about two people in love, accepting all the contradictions that come with that exhilarating and exacerbating state, and it is also about a pair of creative people who make things that render the art world and their place in it better and more comprehensible. 

_Spring and Arnaud_ demonstrates that the past can be made a living thing. Maggs says he likes his work to refer to the history of photography. In this he is acknowledging that all histories recognize that what is lost can be given new life in the present. Their work shares a quality of austerity, as if its formal economy could act as a counterbalance and a container for the emotional intensity of what it is actually about. Maggs deals with objects of remembrance (in “Repertoire,” 1997, his pages from Eugène Atget’s appointment book and “Notification i and ii,” 1996, his mourning letters); in her “Airborne” series, 2008, Spring deals with the actual substance of remembrance. These photographs began with her attempts to pay tribute to her father through his ashes (which her mother had given her) and grew into a project as friends asked her to create memorials for their lost and loved ones. She recalls that while making this work she wondered whether it could actually be called art. In the context of her previous rituals of remembrance through architectural fragments (_Sacrificial Ornament_, 1995), children’s cradles (_Le Jardin du sommeil_, 1998), and albino specimens (_The Final Sleep_, 2001), “Airborne” seems a logical development. All her work is concerned with how acts of accumulation and repetition search for a coherent way of framing death and objectifying the mourning that is its inevitable consequence. How do we measure death? What are its calibrations? Putting a ruler next to a bone shard is a physical measure, but what her work makes clear is that death’s most accurate measure is taken in, and through, the heart. 

It would be misleading to suggest that _Spring and Arnaud_ is only about darkness and anticipated loss. The film is delightfully buoyant and fun-filled. There is a ridiculous scene where they attempt to sing “It’s Only a Paper Moon” and completely lose control when Spring bungles the lyrics. Their enjoyment in one another is infectious. Spring often looks at Arnaud as if she were seeing him for the first time and her enchantment remains undiminished. The story of their courtship is told with a winning combination of wit and self-deprecation; Spring turns up, uninvited, at his birthday party and in checking her out, he says she “passed the test.” Initially, he didn’t pass hers and she decided to end the still nascent relationship on the second date. (He proposed on the third). Arnaud realizes that things had “gone to ratshit” and so he decides to try a final kiss. “I put everything I had ever learned into that kiss,” he says. “That was the real beginning, wasn’t it?” he asks and she agrees, saying, “It was goodbye/hello.” Then Spring articulates the qualities that have made their relationship so rewarding. “I remember thinking that your charm would evaporate, but it never has,” she tells him across the breakfast table in France. “You retain a certain charm and grace and thoughtfulness towards me that has never departed. I have always been waiting for the fall but have never experienced it.” Hers a profound declaration of enduring love. 

Maggs can be frisky as well. In one scene they are looking at a body of her work called the “Lingual Consoles,” one of many series in which she substituted cast animal parts for the detailing on architectural entablatures. In this case, she made consoles from cow tongues. Arnaud looks at one and remarks, “Dare I say it. It looks like it’s reaching for the G spot,” and then scuttles out of the room. “You say things, and then you run away,” Spring says, “ I know that. But I know how to catch you.” She literally catches him in a scene in the National Gallery in 2012, where they kiss on one of the viewing benches. He lies back, casting his arm behind him, a victim of staged ravishment. 

I mention these romantic scenes because the filmmakers, mirroring their subjects, see to it that when Eros enters the frame; Thanatos is never far behind. The kissing scene is echoed again in the National Gallery when Maggs lies down on the same viewing couch; he is resting, but with his hands folded across his chest he assumes the pose of a man laid out for burial. The complexity of the film’s sense of time and story is that all moments are declarations of being alive at the same time that they are reminders of the opposite. They are tableaux vivant and memento mori and they occupy both conditions with equal intensity. 
These connections are scrupulously presented. The kiss in the gallery is anticipated in the two preceding scenes where Arnaud reads an Emily Dickinson poem called “Departed to the Judgment.” He reads to her while she is in bed. “The flesh surrendered, cancelled / The bodiless begun; / Two worlds, like audiences, disperse / And leave the soul alone.” In the next sequence they are both sleeping. It is a scene of astonishing vulnerability and we are reminded of the little death of the bed, another poetic conceit. Lovers lying together in bed are at once romantic and tragic and both these notes are purely sustained throughout the film. (While on the subject of notes, the original score written by Justin Small and Ohad Benchetrit is extremely fine, as is the editing by Jared Raab).  

But the film is a looker. Nothing in _Spring and Arnaud_ is unnecessary and everything in it is shot with sumptuous restraint. Connolly has an artist’s eye and her cinematic gaze is omnivorous in turning everything it sees into art. There are images of absolute beauty; the initial long shot of their summer home in France and the evening sky above it, the misty panorama down the mountain valley, Arnaud’s arranging a collection of tin funnels in the magical early morning light. Even simple sequences have lovely resonances; when Arnaud stands in front of one of his grid pieces in the National Gallery in Ottawa he lifts his arms from his sides as if he were about to fly away. He does the same thing later in the film but its reiteration is connected to his ruminations on death and his wish that he be remembered by his work. In both instances, the gesture is a wanting after transcendence. The scenes are rehearsals, playful enactments of a weightier event to come. Much of what makes the film so compelling is the way in which the genial assumes the character of the gravid, the gentle act shifts the lighthearted into the heavy-hearted in an instant.     

No one watching _Spring and Arnaud_ is unaware of how much Spring lost when Arnaud died. In trying to describe how she feels, she is rendered speechless (the only other time in the film when she is without words is when she tells us how much being an artist means to her—art and love are once again intertwined). During the film, she situates herself “swinging between the two extremes of how life comes into the world and how we exit the world.” Her interest is “in what remains after death.” Maggs, too, was intrigued by what is left in the slipstream of a life. “I like the idea of leaving traces behind,” and he regards photography’s authority as emanating from the quality of that trace. Spring and Arnaud meet again in the gap: his traces are her remains. What this poignant and scrupulously-made double portrait shows us is the beauty and permanence of those remaining traces, sent from the dead for the love of the living. In _Spring and Arnaud_, all mourning letters are transformed into images of morning. 
Volume 32, Number 2: Special Venice Issue

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #126, published May 2013.

Border Crossings looks at contemporary art with interest, passion and thoroughness. Subscribe to Border Crossings today for as little as $24/year.