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Since the mid-1970s, the artists Angela Ricci Lucchi and Yervant Gianikian have built a remarkable body of work across a range of media — from films and installations to drawings and expanded cinema performances. Following Ricci Lucchi’s death last year, their new collaboration would seem to be their last. Completed by Gianikian after his partner’s death, Angela’s Diaries – Two Filmmakers (Il Diario di Angela – Noi Due Cineasti) collages the couple’s meticulous documentation of their lives, work, and travels, offering the rare chance to explore the mercurial and utterly unique artistic practice that these sometimes elusive artists developed over the last four decades.
Consistent through their long collaboration is an idiosyncratic and highly sensual engagement with old, archival, and found materials, including photographic and moving-image collections, as well as objects, clothing, and toys. Both born in 1942, Gianikian and Ricci Lucchi first came to international attention in the mid-1980s for their meticulous and highly meditative work with archival films and found footage from the early 20th century.
But the artists’ collaboration began in the Italian avant-garde of the 1970s with a series of poetic, often elusive eight-millimeter films. Some of these first collaborations consisted of hybrid projection performances that paired their films with carefully selected scents and perfumes, deployed during screenings using a home-made atomizing device — a suite of films they dubbed “cinema profumato.” This penchant for bespoke apparatus and a deeply physical engagement with their material later carried over to their archival films: When they began working with found footage in the early 1980s, they developed a mysterious contraption they called their “analytical camera.” It allowed them to examine, manipulate, slow down, and zoom into often decaying early film fragments.
In their 1987 feature film From the Pole to the Equator (Dal Polo all’Equatore) — a highly sensual investigation of films made in the 1910s by early Italian documentarian and explorer Luca Comerio — the artists rephotograph and hand-tint the original footage of “exotic” peoples and places. Thus, they uncover the inherent violence of the European colonialist project manifested through its propagandist images of hunters, soldiers, and missionaries bringing civilization to the corners of the globe.
We see glimpses of this working process in Angela’s Diaries – Two Filmmakers, with images of the artists poring over books and seated at the bulky mechanical controls of the analytical camera. But what mostly emerges from the film is a sense of their intricately intertwined lives as both collaborators and cohabitors. The film’s title accurately reflects the complex nature of this partnership. While the film focuses primarily on Lucchi’s richly detailed journals, sketches, and watercolors — frequently read in halting, mournful phrases by Gianikian as he thumbs through the diaries’ pages — the film is just as much Yervant’s record of their life and work together, drawing upon what seems like incessant videography. Grainy, splotchy VHS images depict quiet, quotidian moments from their home studio in a remote corner Northeastern Italy, complete with chats with the neighbors, a bit of gardening, and glimpses of Angela’s awe-inspiring home cooking (including an off-the-cuff recipe for an exquisite-looking zabaglione).
A contrast with this domestic quietude comes in the film’s account of their research trips, mostly to countries recovering from the traumas of war, where they pursued one of the central questions of their career: the origins of large-scale violence in the 20th century. A trip to eastern Turkey and Armenia in the late 1980s traces the exodus of Yervant’s father from the Armenian Genocide; a couple of days are spent exploring military footage in the Russian State Documentary Film and Photo Archive in Krasnogorsk in 1993; they drive around Sarajevo in 1996, only months after the end of the Bosnian War. Each of these trips, precisely documented in Angela’s words and sketches and in Yervant’s handheld camcorder, would yield material and inspiration for their intense, rigorous, and viscerally affecting films, which bring these complex and tortured histories into focus.
Curiously, while Gianikian and Ricci Lucchi’s work was always preoccupied with the history and archival fragments of the 20th century, the artists strenuously objected to being designated as “documentary filmmakers.” For them, this term failed to capture the intensely physical nature of their joint artistic engagement with the objects of their interest — and with the past itself. In Angela’s Diaries – Two Filmmakers, this attention to the material and the corporeal is trained on the records and fragments of their own extraordinary life together. In this sense, the film functions much like their analytical camera — allowing us to bring the past closer to us, to examine it in detail, to reach out and touch it.
Angela’s Diaries – Two Filmmakers screens at the Museum of Modern Art (11 West 53rd Street, Midtown, Manhattan) through February 13.