When the film Gravity was released last fall, Variety published a review by Scott Foundas titled, “Why Gravity Could Be the World’s Biggest Avant-Garde Movie.” The piece compared the weightless, roaming long takes of the Sandra Bullock-in-space blockbuster with Michael Snow’s 1971 La Région Centrale, a three-hour film in which a camera mounted on a robotic arm studies a mountainous Quebec landscape from a constantly shifting vantage point.
No one was more surprised by the sudden mainstream attention than Snow himself, who re-enacted his initial reaction last week in an office at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, rearing back in his chair with a bemused, incredulous “What?!”
Admitting that he hasn’t seen Gravity, Snow says that being unexpectedly linked to the popular and acclaimed film was “fantastic.” But, while the extended shots and floating camera of Gravity are chiefly concerned with sensation, Snow’s films have always been more focused on perception.
Snow’s most famous work, 1967’s seminal Wavelength, consists of a single 45-minute zoom (constructed through several edits) that moves through a room that is only occasionally populated, finally coming to rest on a postcard image of crashing waves.
Two pieces in the Art Museum’s new show “Michael Snow: Photo-Centric” explicitly call Wavelength to mind. One, Atlantic (1967), features a series of black-and-white photos of waves (from the same session that produced Wavelength’s concluding image) in a grid-like construction of metal boxes. The other, a diptych titled iris-IRIS (1979), pictures a postcard of the snow-capped Mont Blanc on a gray-painted square; beside it, the same postcard is mounted on a gray wall behind a rumpled bed, a cigarette burning in an ashtray on the end table.
“It’s a kind of stimulus for the spectator to think, ‘What went on here?’ or ‘Where is this?’ or other questions related to a crumpled bed,” Snow explains.
“I don’t think there’s any possibility of there being a particular narrative involved, but there’s a play bet-ween the shapes made by recent human activity and something that has nothing to do with human activity, but its representation is a human condensation,” he says. “It’s hard to put into words — fortunat-ely, because I think that’s one reason why it is what it is.”
“Photo-Centric” is the first exhibition in the U.S. in more than four decades solely devoted to Snow’s photographic work. Based in his native Toronto, Snow, 84, is best known in the States as a groundbreaking and influential experimental filmmaker and, to a lesser extent, as an improvising musician. His work in other mediums — painting, sculpture and photography — is better known in Canada, and is prominently featured in public installations at Toronto’s Eaton Centre (an upscale shopping mall) and Rogers Centre (formerly the SkyDome, home of the Toronto Blue Jays).
When curator Adelina Vlas arrived at the PMA in late 2007 from the National Gallery of Canada, the question of Snow’s lack of prominence in the U.S. kept arising. “I didn’t realize that was the case,” she recalls, “so Michael and I sort of walked together into the Philadelphia Museum of Art.”
The two have been working in close collaboration on the show for the last three years, finally deciding to present a broad overview of his work. “We’re trying to create dialogue between works that Michael made at different points in his career that deal with photography but address a lot of other things,” Vlas says. “Michael’s work speaks so well to the modern traditions represented in the museum’s collection, as well as the more conceptual traditions, particularly Duchamp.”
In at least one case, Snow’s images speak directly to the museum’s collection. Paris de jugement Le and/or State of the Arts (2003), the most recent piece in the exhibition, depicts three nude women with their backs to the camera looking at a reproduction of Cézanne’s Large Bathers — the original hangs in the opposite wing of the institution. “I thought that confronting his painted nudes with real nudes could set up a very interesting dialogue about what painting might be,” Snow says.
The show, which spans more than 40 years of work, features plenty of cross talk between the various mediums in which Snow works. Painting (Closing the Drum Book) (1978) is a floor-mounted image of a series of painted canvases which Snow stacked and photographed. Then he stacked the prints and reshot them, repeating the process until the final outcome is a riot of scale and colors. Midnight Blue (1973-74) is both a photograph and a sculpture, mounting the image of a candle on a wooden board with a drip of actual candle wax on the shelf below.
The art of photography is often concerned with the documentary image, an exact or interpretive picture of a distinct place or subject; Snow’s photo works, by contrast, are usually self-contained and self-referential objects. Authorization (1969) consists of a recursive series of Polaroid self-portraits, filmed in a mirror and then incorporated into the next image, finally mounted onto the mirror itself.
“I try to make work that is very contained, that doesn’t take you elsewhere,” Snow says. “In a lot of photography the reference is obviously to the subject, which usually is elsewhere. But it’s the now that I’m interested in, the contact with the spectator. I have not attempted to enter into a kind of capture-the-moment aesthetic like Cartier-Bresson. So even though something is made in the past, it has a kind of stop-time quality to it.”
That quality is evident even in Snow’s earliest photo work, Four to Five (1962). A collection of images shot on Toronto streets and subway stations, this piece is an extension of his Walking Woman works, a series of multimedia interpretations of a female silhouette. Having sculpted and painted the image in as many forms as he could imagine, Snow turned to photography, putting the life-size silhouette in a number of settings and shooting the life happening around it.
The frames within frames and shifting perspectives that characterize much of Snow’s filmmaking are also prevalent in his still images. The striking Power of Two (2003) is a large transparency that can be viewed from either side, the reversibility of the image only one way in which the artificiality of its staging is highlighted. Another is the direct gaze of the female subject, who looks out at the viewer with an expression of relaxed complacency despite seeming to be in the midst of a passionate embrace. Then there’s the mirror in place of a window, capturing a fragmented image of a window on the opposite wall, another reversed reflection.
Much of Snow’s work also captures his innate playfulness. “People ordinarily daunted by conceptual art can find a way into [Snow’s work] because of an element of beauty or wit,” says Elizabeth Legge, chair of the department of art at the University of Toronto and author of Michael Snow: Wavelength (Afterall). “It’s like a lure that draws you in. He has the ability to take something quite abstract and make something charming and witty. There’s a philosophical cleverness to it, but it never feels like he’s preaching to you or beating you up with philosophy.”
In conversation, Snow is disarmingly avuncular, quick to chuckle even when discussing the deeper concepts at the root of his work, finding as much joy in his serious philosophical examinations as in the frequent visual puns. (“The one with the lobster is an allegory of knowledge,” he says with a quick laugh while examining a collection of Polaroids hanging outside the gallery, each a conglomeration of found objects shot in his Newfoundland cabin. “That’s the head of my cock in the corner there.”)
Facing fellow improviser Thollem McDonas across a pair of head-to-head Steinway grand pianos in the museum’s Great Stair Hall last Friday, Snow pounded on the lowest keys, filling the cavernous space with a booming rumble. Gradually he traveled up the keyboard, ending on a shimmering whisper at the opposite end of the instrument’s spectrum. It was a vivid illustration of Snow’s awareness of the space in which he creates and exhibits his art, no matter what form that art might take. That applies as much to visual art as it does to music. “It’s very, very important how individual works affect each other and how they’re located and lit,” he says of the exhibition.
“This show really plays with a range of the things that I’ve done that have to do with what I see as the possibilities of photography. I think every individual work in this exhibition is a different tactic that comes from thinking about what photography can do.”
In a sense, Snow’s photo works can be seen as a connective tissue linking all of his other work. “I feel like photography for Michael is a continuation of the investigations he started with painting and sculpture in terms of representation,” Vlas says. “It really is the medium that allows him to experiment and take those ideas further. Photography becomes the negotiating medium between all the others.”
Music was Snow’s first love and artistic pursuit. The son of a gifted amateur classical pianist, he resisted his mother’s urging to take piano lessons, instead surreptitiously teaching himself on an upright in the basement, hidden away from the family’s more prominent grand piano. “I basically wouldn’t do anything I was told to do,” he explains. “It was kind of a continuous family joke that somehow I was playing the piano even though that shouldn’t be possible.”
Snow was initially enamored of early New Orleans jazz, enraptured by Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five. “I had this personal revolution where I was so totally knocked out that I wanted to learn how to play like that,” he says.
His tastes inadvertently progressed chronologically through jazz’s history, finally catching up with free jazz while living in New York City in the 1960s. His 1964 film New York Eye and Ear Control features a soundtrack by a group of the music’s most forward-thinking artists of that time, including Albert Ayler, Don Cherry, Roswell Rudd and Sunny Murray.
“In the beginning, I played like Jelly Roll Morton and Earl Hines,” Snow says, “but gradually I started to play my own way and it developed into totally free improvisation. That’s the way I’ve been playing now for 40 years. My improvisation comes from a jazz line, basically, although it doesn’t sound like jazz; it sounds like whatever it sounds like.”
The same spirit pervades much of his work in other forms. “I do things where I’m really not certain what the result might be,” he sums up. That approach includes the aforementioned La Région Centrale. Where most descriptions of the film describe its camera movements as preprogrammed, Snow says that’s inaccurate — he was, in fact, controlling the robotic arm remotely, from a position where he couldn’t see the area being shot.
“I think that’s called experimental,” Snow says, breaking out in another burst of laughter.
“Michael Snow: Photo-Centric,” Through April 27, free with museum admission of $20, Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2600 Ben Franklin Pkwy., 215-763-8100, www.philamuseum.org.
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