Susan Morris | Essays

Observed at DOC NYC 2020

Still from All the Possibilities: Reflections on a Painting by Vernon Pratt, Director/Producer: Marsha Gordon, Louis Cherry

Of the more than 200 films at the 2020 DOC NYC festival, the largest documentary film festival in the U.S., films centering on design and the built environment highlighted the themes of obsession, the passage of time, and the city as shifting canvas.

All the Possibilities: Reflections on a Painting by Vernon Pratt, Director/Producer: Marsha Gordon, Louis Cherry

Obsession starts with All the Possibilities: Reflections on a Painting by Vernon Pratt. The artist divided 65,536 squares into 16 parts on 256 panels totaling 1,534 square feet; each sixteenth was colored either black or white. This dogged and mesmerizing work titled All the Possibilities of Filling in Sixteenths (65,536) [1980-82] combined Pratt’s passions for jazz (he played saxophone), mathematics, patterns and systems. The film comes alive when quick cuts of these checkerboards—the individual squares, then the completed panels—flick past, set to a syncopated jazz score dancing on screen, “a glimpse of infinity,” says Roger Manley, Director, Gregg Museum of Art & Design at North Carolina State University.

Flower Punk, Director/Producer: Alison Klayman

Azuma Makaoto was also a musician before he became a floral designer or “botanical sculptor” profiled in Flower Punk. His punk spirit (reinvention, iconoclasm, maverick) is displayed in his elaborate, emotional on the cusp of spiritual creations, made as much for the camera as for real-life (his business partner is photographer Shiinoki Shunsuketo). “I should keep talking with flowers, engaging in battle with flowers, and destroying myself to capture new beauty,” Azuma says. The designs are documented in full flower through decay so you see what he describes as their life cycle from floral childhood through adulthood to botanical old age over the course of several days. The implacable Azuma has sent bouquets to places where they normally don’t exist like up in space and underwater (flowers are surprisingly strong against currents and water pressure).

78-year old Jackie Seiden and her husband Don are both artists and teachers who live a life of Gesamtkunstwerk or total work of art. So Late So Soon is a bittersweet chronicle of their relentlessness, surrounded by their art and disintegrating objects much like their aging bodies. The film opens with Jackie stringing dental floss in her kitchen, suspending a toy cow like a mobile. Shells, rocks, paper butterflies, and open suitcases form installations in the rooms of their multi-colored house on the north side of Chicago.

LEFT: So Late So Soon, Director: Daniel Hymanson. RIGHT: Her New York, Director/Producer: David Gross

In Her New York, Jill Gill makes artworks of the Manhattan she lives in, past and present. Haunted by the loss of buildings she had lived in, schools attended, elevated trains travelled, she exhaustively photographed what she calls “ unlandmarkable” structures and streetscapes across Manhattan over time, then made them into watercolor and ink paintings. But being a woman of her time, Gill says she does not want to go back to those earlier periods; she’d rather be of the moment, the way the city is.

Paris Calligrammes, Director: Ulrike Ottinger

German artist Ulkrike Ottinger explores her time in 1960s Paris as both a participant and witness in Paris Calligrammes, a film she directed. Looking backward while pushing forward, it captures an epoch filled with artistic ferment and social upheaval. The design and art elements are laced throughout, starting with her Isetta, the Italian micro-car, painted to look like an owl, that she leaves home in. Her first stop in Paris is the bookshop run by fellow-German Fritz Picard called Librairie Calligrammes (named for the Apollinaire poem and that inspired her film’s title). This “Expressionist temple” to book culture and the arts is frequented by Hans Arp, Max Ernst, Marino Marini, Marcel Marceau, Raoul Hausmann, Tristan Tzara and assorted Dadaistists, Situationists, Weimar exiles and Marxists. We see a play by Jean Genet about Algeria, Les Paravents (The Screens), staged by Jean-Louis Barrault, where costumes were like architecture, and hairstyles were mile high and blue. It’s a period that formed her life in art, viewed without nostalgia.

Urban Growth, Director/Producer: Nate Dorr, Nathan Kensinger

The once majestic Admiral’s Row (1864-1901) of houses built for Brooklyn Navy Yard officers that is now the site of the high-end Wegman’s mega-supermarket, is chronicled in Urban Growth. When the last of the U.S. Naval residents left in the 1970s, the houses were abandoned and fell into ghostly decline. Filmed over 12 years, the footage mourns the dilapidated, poetic grandeur of the interiors and crumbling, elegant exteriors until demolition starts in 2016. The new commercial structure with large outdoor parking lot is its sad inheritor in the shifting cityscape.

Acasa, My Home, Director: Radu Ciorniciuc

Acasa, My Home is what a large Roma family with 9 children squatting in a shack in the Bucharest Delta, an untamed natural space in the Romanian capital within eye-shot of skyscrapers that had been neglected for decades, are about to lose after 18 years. When the city elects to reclaim the area for the new Văcărești Nature Park, the family struggles to transform its scrappy but idyllic outdoor life for an urban one, akin to landing on another planet. When they disparage the house social services installs them, they are moved to a run-down public apartment block: “It smells like piss…It’s like a prison. Are we supposed to eat concrete?” one of the kids says. It’s another form of gentrification in the changing city.

Posted in: Architecture, Media

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