Saturday, September 28, 2013

Spring and Arnaud at Doc North

“…film as catharsis…”

Spring and Arnaud (2013) was screened at Nipissing University last night as part of Doc North. It’s a film about waiting for the other shoe to drop. In this documentary directed by Katherine Knight and Marcia Connolly, Canadian artists Spring Hurlbut and Arnaud Maggs take stock of life five years into Maggs’ diagnosis with cancer.

The underlying focus may be impending death, but luscious cinematography balances it by capturing the preciousness of life. We see sunlight bathing ceramic jugs in the heritage home they own in France and fog rolling through densely treed hills. We see Maggs carry a picnic basket to a flea market, play harmonica while Hurlbut dances, and read Emily Dickinson to her in bed. We also see them at work, making new series, rifling through their archives, and embracing so tightly in a gallery that Maggs’ arm flails. Evidence of the artists’ lifestyle, critical success, and happy marriage prompts the audience to believe Maggs when he says, “It’s [life has] been a great time, I’d say, for both of us.”

Hurlbut knew of Maggs’ work before she made his personal acquaintance. Based on its austerity and toughness, she confesses she thought, “I never want to meet this guy.” Nonetheless, she was charmed when they crossed paths at a birthday party. Hurlbut tried to call the whole thing off on the second date. Although the film doesn’t specify, perhaps it was because of age: Hurlbut was 35 and Maggs was 60. Maggs recalls having to rectify the situation quickly; he suggested a good-bye kiss. Tugging lightly at the tablecloth with his fingers and giggling, he says, “I put everything I ever learned into that kiss.” Hurlbut adds, “It was like good-bye, hello!” By the end of the third date, they were engaged.

Hurlbut and Maggs’ mutual support is the backbone of their relationship but it’s not flogged in the film. He says of her, “She blows my mind” and she says of him, “When he’s landed one of his ideas, he’s quite unstoppable.” There is a risk that the film could come off as pretentious, for as Hurlbut says, they are both fixated on “me, me, me, me.” What saves the film from self-importance is a scene involving a misunderstanding, because it leads to explanation. Hurlbut tells Maggs that she wouldn’t be interested in him if he weren’t a notable artist. He initially interprets her comment as tongue-in-cheek, which compels her to explain that she must be with someone she can respect who is driven by the need to communicate an idea, to have rich conversations, and to be engaged—as she is, so much so that reflecting on times when the engagement wanes causes her to sigh heavily. Maggs agrees that he couldn’t be in a relationship with a bad artist and reveals that he can’t separate his feelings for her as an artist and his feelings for her as a partner.

Hurlbut knew from a young age that she would be an artist, while Maggs made the transition unexpectedly at age 47. She tends towards sculpture and he to photography. Although their styles are distinctive, there is overlap in their approaches. Both love history and collecting, and both have embraced mortality as a theme on more than one occasion. For example, in Notification xiii (1996), Maggs, who deals with systems of identification, photographed 192 envelopes from French flea markets announcing a person’s death. Traditionally, this mourning stationery contained an x-mark in wax along the edges of the envelope. “It’s like crossing out the person,” he remarks. To see the series installed (as I have) is to be engulfed by grief. In a series of self-portraits taken at age 85 as “a record of my [his] existence,” he holds one of these lettres de deuil with a sad expression, dressed as the deathly pale French mime, Pierrot. Hurlbut also has a penchant for amassing antiques. In Le Jardin de Sommeil (1998) she installed 140 empty cradles and bassinets, which are strikingly empty. An even more direct statement about loss is Deuil (2005-06). These photographs document ashes from cremated human remains that the artist has arranged into constellation-like patterns. Fascinated by “what remains after death,” she began these unconventional portraits with her father’s ashes, and then used the ashes of other individuals. Ultimately, they became a way for her to cope in advance with her role of widow. She says initially she wasn’t clear about whether the series could even be considered art, which also cancels out any pretensiousness in Spring and Arnaud. Just as the photographic series developed out of necessity, the audience is able to see the film as catharsis, and not just as a tribute to their artistic legacies.

When Maggs met the artist Joseph Beuys, Maggs described himself as having all the time in the world. The film, in capturing the vivaciousness of the octogenarian, almost makes it feel that way. Two months after his retrospective exhibition ended at the National Gallery of Canada, Maggs died on November 17 of last year. He was 86.