PARK CITY, Utah — At this year’s Sundance Film Festival, both the New Frontier and documentary sections featured films that highlighted the visual arts. While subjects varied widely — from artists and collectors, to Mexican cartels and Iraqi history — an overarching theme was the potential of art as an agent of change.
A highlight was Aggie (2020), a profile of the influential art collector Agnes Gund, directed by her daughter, Catherine Gund. For decades, the titular Gund has been a major force in the art world, by championing groundbreaking artists like Robert Rauschenberg, founding the arts education program Studio in a School, and gifting works to the Museum of Modern (MoMA). The documentary focuses on Gund’s belief that art influences how we see the world. Though she’s reluctant to get too personal, the film’s most instructive clips come from Gund’s television appearances. Artists who’ve benefited from Gund’s patronage, such as Kara Walker, along with curators, museum directors, and art workers all help fill in the picture in terms of Gund’s quest for greater diversity in the art world. Discussions of her now-famous decision to sell a Roy Lichtenstein painting for a fortune, to start the Art for Justice Fund — a partnership with the Ford Foundation designed to address the epidemic of incarceration in the US — reveals how aware she is of her own power.
Another art biopic is the eight-minute short, Betye Saar: Taking Care of Business (2019), by Christine Turner. The influential African-American artist (recognized last year with an exhibition of her early work at the Museum of Modern Art), guides us through the beginnings of her career, when, “women were not particularly encouraged to be artists, especially women of color.” Saar studied design before switching to collage, and Turner’s film, through its inclusion of archival photographs and video, offers a poignant capsule of the 1970s art scene, the growing importance of Black art, and the cross pollination between “high art” and “craft.” Responding to the civil rights movement, Saar used art “as a weapon,” making work such as “The Liberation of Aunt Jemima” (1972), which utilized blackface to challenge racial stereotypes.
This willingness to take risks in art-making also fuels Narcissister Breast Work (2019), the latest short by the titular Brooklyn-based artist and Sundance alum. In the film, women bare their breasts in locations of heavy pedestrian traffic, to underscore how, while legally allowed in NYC since 1992, the act is still treated as an illicit one. Performers wear masks to render them anonymous, which also evokes other masked protests (ex: actions by the Guerilla Girls).. More poignantly, Narcissister makes clear that while the law has acknowledged women’s equal rights to bear their breasts, it was not followed by any public initiative that worked to de-sexualize women’s breasts.
Ai Weiwei’s latest film Vivos (2019), which also screened in the New Frontier program, was filmed in the small village of Iguala, in southwestern Mexico — where families continue to grieve the 43 students kidnapped by a local cartel in 2014, who remain missing. Here, Ai focuses on the village’s landscape and people. In his native China, Ai has drawn attention to crises such as the collapse of a children’s school and its links to corrupt regional officials. With Vivos, his approach is more streamlined: a documentary, rather than an action accompanied by documentation. Ai is a keen observer of life in Iguala; his lens captures families grieving, their courage but also the immensity of their grief. However, the film gets off track when Ai broadens its scope to include interviews with experts and journalists — a sideline that repeats information previously covered by media (ex: the involvement of federal and state police, and failure of justice). A more rewarding takeaway is how some of the parents become core parts of a growing movement for justice.
More fraught is Sandlines, The Story of History (2019), by the Belgian-born artist Francis Alÿs, also in the New Frontier section. In Alÿs’s film, which is meant to serve as a historical corrective, Iraqi children in a village near Mosul reenact key scenes from their country’s tormented past. With two boys playing French and British officials (“Mr. Picot” and “Mr. Sykes,” aka François Georges-Picot and Mark Sykes of the infamous Sykes-Picot Agreement), and others in roles such as “the Ottoman,” “Saddam Hussein,” “the terrorist,” Sandlines moves briskly from the distant past to the effective carving up of the Gulf region and the Levant — the boys draw lines in the sand — the ousting of western powers (the boys jump over each others’ back), the discovery of oil, and subsequent wars. There is genuine jouissance in this historical theater, but hardly any complexity. One might compare it to Narimane Mari’s Bloody Beans (2013), in which children enact a revolutionary coup in Algeria. In Alÿs’s film, however, the playful youngsters are as vague as the figures they draw in the sand. This may be intentional – in one scene, Alÿs is heard off screen giving stage directions in French – but the effect clashes with the work’s compensatory intent.
Aggie (2020), Betye Saar: Taking Care of Business (2019), Narcissister Breast Work (2019), Vivos (2019), and Sandlines, The Story of History (2019) all premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Keep an eye out for future festival screenings later this year.