in Features | 01 NOV 08
Featured in
Issue 119

‘Harpstrings and Lava’ and ‘Minotaur’

Artist Daria Martin on the evolution of an artwork

in Features | 01 NOV 08

How does this project relate to your earlier work?

Harpstrings and Lava (2007), like my previous films, is the result of joining an inner image to outward relationships. In my earliest films, perhaps because my first art works were paintings, I worked with performers for their visual impact, while their potential as collaborators was only a secondary concern. Over the course of the last decade I’ve slowly awakened to what these performers had to offer, and in the last few years I’ve worked closely and repeatedly with the musician Zeena Parkins and the actor Nina Fog on both films and performances. Harpstrings and Lava represents a culmination of my relationship with these two collaborator–muses.

How long does a work usually take to complete?

I seem to work on a yearly cycle, with different stages of various projects overlapping in a ‘round’ and one film being completed each year. The most intensive stages of production cover a cluster of consecutive months, but the preparation that goes into a film can stretch back for several years, and its digestion, process-wise, can also extend several years beyond its literal completion. In the case of Harpstrings and Lava I can trace its beginnings to a workshop I took with the deeply influential choreographer Anna Halprin at her Mountain Home Studio near San Francisco in 2006. Halprin is best known for effectively spearheading Postmodern choreography, but in recent decades she’s been mostly engaged with the expressive and healing aspects of dance. In Halprin’s week-long workshop we were challenged to make manifest internal states or emotional memories through the medium of performance. This provocation to bring into flesh an intensely felt experience motivated me to attempt to embody another person’s inner image in Harpstrings and Lava. I’ve recently come back to Halprin as the subject of a new, nearly completed film, Minotaur, which imagines Halprin in turn imagining Auguste Rodin.

Does your work change during its making?

Absolutely. A core idea or spirit remains consistent, but the ‘body’ of the film – its surfaces and textures and rhythms of moving – change and grow over time. If many of my films are attempts to externalize an inner world, then of course when this internal space hits fresh air, it takes on strange and new characteristics. One of Harpstrings and Lava’s sparks was a compulsive repeated fantasy narrated to me by a friend. She explained that as a child she conjured a particular nightmare consciously, because in some way it was thrilling, even as it was horrifying. An unnameable emotion was, for her, intrinsically embedded in this image. I wanted somehow to embody the weird feeling I imagined my friend having, to unpack its density through the media of film, music and performance. To this end, Nina, Zeena and I worked together, experimenting with various approaches, and finally arrived at something with the general outlines of my fuzzy conception, but ultimately sharply defined and intricately contoured.

How was Harpstrings and Lava made, and who was involved in the making of it?

Long story! And loads of people. A few years on from the Halprin workshop Nina, Zeena and I had the chance to conduct our own little workshop: a crucible of time at a residency away from the pressures of daily life. Working with motifs based on Frankenstein and the imagery of my friend’s fantasy, we constructed a series of improvisations and experiments. I mapped these out and later shaped that map into a detailed shot list for the director of photography and a much broader score for Zeena. The shoot itself was manned by almost 20 crew members, including a wonderfully seasoned director of photography, Nina Kellgren, and several production assistants who are also my students at the Ruskin School, Oxford. Two female ‘sparkies’ carried all the cables and heavy lights. The post-production process was collaborative as well. I sat in the editing room for a month with Guy Ducker, while Zeena tweaked and mixed the soundtrack in New York with Quentin Chiappetta.

At what stage during its manifestation was Harpstrings and Lava given a title?

The title was there as long as the idea; it crudely describes my friend’s childhood nightmare, which centred on two objects co-existing in the same cognitive space: airy, tensile harpstrings and slow-moving lava. I like the title’s childishness, and I don’t mind at all that it is literalized within the film, where a hunk of lava appears in the opening credits and harps (both acoustic and electric) are played throughout by Zeena. It is the physical, textural and emotional qualities of these objects, rather than their allegorical associations, which I found alluring, since I also experienced hallucinatory visions of viscerally clashing opposites as a child.

Is the work what you expected it to be before it was made?

In making films, unless you are a Stanley Kubrick-type character and have a huge budget, the results are never exactly what you’d imagined. Crucially, collaborators add their own views and talents to the film, and one can never fully imagine what chemistries will result. Because the film shoot itself involves complex processes squeezed into a very pressured period of time, chance mistakes and miracles erupt. Although my friend whose fantasy is at the heart of Harpstrings and Lava told me that one or two of the images in the film did in fact evoke the specific sensation of her nightmare, the trajectory of the film, in a sense, had its own course. The film certainly quickened my desire to work closely with performers and helped to define an explicit interest in translations – from inner to outer, or potentially from one medium to another. The useful thing about working on projects that, in preparation and post-production time, overlap and bleed is that unresolved questions and impulses have a chance to be readdressed in the next project. In the case of Minotaur I’ve returned to the subject of Halprin: her latest choreography, an erotic dance based on a sculpture by Rodin, sits at the centre of a labyrinth of connections and disconnections between media. This film more explicitly tackles questions about moving between performance, sculpture and film.

Who, if anyone, commissioned Harpstrings and Lava, and how did the context in which it will be exhibited influence its creation?

RosaLee Goldberg, of New York’s PERFORMA biennial, challenged me to capture the breathing, heart-beating presence of live performance on film, and although I recognized this task as intrinsically impossible, I appreciated the overreach, in the same way that I embraced the stretch to capture my friend’s intense vision. How can an art work embody that immediacy, that intimacy? These were the high bars that I’d set and that were set for me. The film was co-commissioned by SMAK in Ghent (and supported by Outset), and so I knew that the piece would not only be screened within a performance biennial but would also be installed for a longer run within a museum, as will Minotaur. At SMAK the viewers were free to come and go during the 13-minute film. The problem of exhibiting time-based work that has a beginning, middle and end is a dilemma that is still unresolved.