What sort of artifacts are the two films by Redmond Entwistle screening through Feb. 15 at MIT’s List Visual Arts Center? One wants to know, if only in order to know how to take them.
“Monuments” and “Walk-Through,” which together have a running time of about 50 minutes, are films and, in a sense, works of art. We can say that much comfortably enough. But they’re films in a very particular, highly self-conscious vein, and this is where things get slippery.
“Monuments” (2010) is presented as a pedagogical documentary. It’s about three artists — Robert Smithson, Dan Graham, and Gordon Matta-Clark — who were all influential from the 1970s on. (Smithson, the creator of “Spiral Jetty,” and Matta-Clark, famous for his interventions in abandoned buildings, are both dead; Graham, 72, well-known for his glass “pavilions,” is still with us.)
Entwistle enlists actors to play the parts of the three artists. All were persuasive critical thinkers as well as artists — none more so than Smithson, whose writings remain riveting, and in most cases more convincing than his art. (He died at 35, in a plane crash in Texas in 1973. Matta-Clark also was just 35 when he died of cancer in 1978.)
We see them wandering together through parts of New Jersey, where all three actual artists made work. They deliver, in stilted voices, little disquisitions on art and society, and engage in brief Socratic dialogues with equally wooden actors playing members of the public encountered at random — a woman walking in the park, for instance, or a skateboarder who has just fallen and cut his leg.
The actor playing Matta-Clark, whose deadpan delivery makes him sound utterly stoned, talks about the “metabolization of old buildings” that have been “abandoned by a system that doesn’t look after them.”
Smithson’s stand-in talks about developing “a kind of ‘anti-vision,’ or negative seeing,” expressing a wish to give “passing shape to the unconsolidated views that surround a work of art.” Graham talks about the “peculiar gratuitousness” of housing developments, and reflects on the way consumerism demands that ever-new products be detached from the just-past (from which follows his purposive interest in the just-past).
The hamminess of the acting draws our attention to the fakery of the film, which at times approaches hilarious farce. When Matta-Clark talks about the “cuts” he made in an abandoned building for “Splitting” (1973), his interlocutor is the skater. The backdrop to their conversation is a parking lot in front of a warehouse with an exterior inspired by Piet Mondrian. The skater stares meaningfully at the wound on his shin, and declares: “What struck me was how much information the cut seemed to reveal.”
The whole film is incredibly arch — but that one moment, at least, was priceless.
Graham, Smithson, and Matta-Clark came to the fore at a time when art education was expanding radically and, at the same time, institutions (including art schools) were being subjected to critique as never before. The mode of critical thinking that flourished was partly an attempt to cope with unprecedented dissonances in art and its socioeconomic reception. But it was also, less positively, a symptom of the co-option of art by academic modes of thinking.
The second of Entwistle’s films here, “Walk-Through” (2012), uses similar strategies to “Monuments” — nonlinear narrative; splicing together of old photographs and new footage; actors performing the words of actual people — all in an attempt to get us thinking about Michael Asher’s influential “post-studio” class at the California Institute of the Arts, which began in the late 1970s.
From the opening of its present campus in 1971, CalArts had tried to establish a new, more equitable model of education, informed by countercultural ideas, where faculty and students were, at least notionally, on an equal footing, finals and grades were dispensed with, and answers were not taught from a position of authority but rather “discovered.”
The film sketches all this in, using the words of former students. Entwistle focuses on the architecture of the CalArts campus. The boxy but expansive modernist building expresses the school’s rootedness in a practical Utopianism derived from the Bauhaus. But it might also, to our eyes, evoke a fatigue with modernist design principles, and a sense of malaise at the heart of Utopian thinking.
And so it’s not surprising to hear some of the students describe the downside of the Cal-Arts approach. In classes that hinged on lengthy group critiques, personal allegiances often got in the way of fair-mindedness. A virtuosity with language allowed some artists to lord it over others, since critiques were expressed verbally. And so on.
Of course, Entwistle’s very approach reflects dominant modes of contemporary academic enquiry: sincere fascination is overwhelmed by ironic self-awareness; plodding pedagogy masquerades, unconvincingly, as sly wit; acute awareness of genre and form is put in service to an almost arbitrary blurring of the lines between those genres and forms.
And yet I found both these films provocative and stimulating. I was surprised by the forms they took. They seemed largely free of the excruciating longueurs that typically kill academic art films. I was beguiled, what’s more, to walk out of the List Visual Arts Center and through MIT’s enormously strange campus with a new perspective on ideas pertaining to innovative education.
In particular, I reflected on all the extraordinary buildings these ideas routinely produce. Which is why I highly recommend a stroll, after seeing Entwistle’s films, through the new MIT Media Lab extension, designed by Tokyo’s Maki and Associates, and the slightly less new, Frank Gehry-designed Ray and Maria Stata Center.
You’ll see, if nothing else, how the ideas behind CalArts, and indeed the ideas of Smithson, Matta-Clark, and Graham (whose “Yin/Yang Pavilion” can be found nearby in MIT’s Simmons Hall dormitory) continue to thrive.
Entwistle, by the way, will be at the List tomorrow at 4 p.m. to screen and discuss several short films he made between 2000 and 2009.
Sebastian Smee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.