Art Investigated in Pair of DOC NYC Titles

It’s somewhat fitting that I saw Finding Vivian Maier and Levitated Mass together. While both deal with the world of art, it’s the fine print that makes them somewhat ideal twins. Both are finely told tales, one all about the mystery and the other all about the reveal, but when paired together the films have some rather startling things to say about the art world and the grey area that is populated with people asking “what is art”. John Maloof and Charlie Siskel’s Finding Vivian Maier was an accident; Doug Pray’s Levitated Mass a very deliberate, well-thought out piece of work. Is that the difference? Can art be so simply boiled down? It’s a question neither film answers, but is likely a topic of perhaps endless discussion by viewers.

The story of Finding Vivian Maier is just as likely to be a discovery for audiences as it was to its filmmakers. A story that takes them from the suburbs – and Phil Donahue’s house! – to art galleries around the world upon the discovery of box after box after box of photographs (and even more and more boxes of undeveloped film) taken by an unknown woman. As the secrets begin to be revealed so too does the talent and the extraordinary story behind them. A nanny of many a child, all of which remember her years later, who’s heretofore undiscovered gift for the art of street photography would see her hailed a master after her death. Maloof and Siskel’s well-intentioned film navigates her history, whatever pieces can be put together by personal testimony that is, and tries to work out why Maier never thought to show anybody her work and potentially change the circumstances with which she inevitably found herself.

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Amongst all the stunning photography on display is an anecdote that the Museum of Modern Art wouldn’t accept her photography for an exhibit. A revelation of little consequence in the grand scheme of things, but it calls into light that very question of “what is art” that has plagued people for so long. If an institution such as MoMA don’t believe Vivian Maier’s photography is good enough then are the rest of us fooling ourselves? Looking at the work – and the film is filled with shot after shot, but there is a seeming avalanche of other photos that the film simply doesn’t have time for – and it strikes me, an untrained eye, as some of the finest photography I have ever seen. The atmospheric compositions, the plays with shade and light, the capturing of timeless moments caught in the blink of an eye. For a fan of photography it’s certainly looks and feels like a goldmine. Why didn’t MoMA bite? Did they see something that I and all of Maier’s subsequent fans did not?

The question was only heightened by a viewing of Levitated Mass. A stirring and wonderfully put together film that poses an even bigger “what is art” conundrum on its audience. This time the director even sets out to ask that very question, although the answers vary. In detailing the conception and eventual grand production (and it is a production with an audience and all) of Michael Heizer’s controversial “Levitated Mass” artwork at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art it seriously asks its audience to question everything they know and consider about what is indeed art. Is a giant piece of Earth rock, virtually untouched by an artist, placed precariously over a walkway considered art? I’ve always leant towards the “if there’s intent, there’s art” side of the argument and the film certainly paints a vivid picture of the effect his work has on people, art aficionados and regular Joe’s alike.

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The long sequence that details the rock’s movement from a quarry to its permanent site at LACMA is actually a very touching sequence. I found myself quite moved, surprisingly so. With the elaborate performance resembling something akin to a religious procession with worshippers greeting it upon every turn, it’s impossible to truly reproduce the awe that many of these spectators must have felt upon witnessing the giant rock transported through their neighbourhood, but director Doug Pray gives these passages a dramatic weight that is real and palpable. These moments make the film what it is because the artist, Michael Heizer, certainly isn’t doing anything. It would be curious to know what he thought of these people camping out for hours at night just to watch his rock roll through town, but he’s not the type to give insight into his works and I doubt he was going to start now for a part of his work that wasn’t even technically part of the art.

On one hand I wish I could look at the two films separately, but the way I viewed them was together and so they are seemingly eternally stitched together in my mind. That they navigate similar territory certainly helps, but that they both raise genuine issues of artistic subjectivity makes them even closer bedfellows. Levitated Mass is the more cinematic film (Vivian for what it’s worth resembled a lot of what I had seen of her story first on a show like 60 Minutes or Dateline, but I cannot remember which), but both have virtues that will likely make art fans respond to. Depending on your own interpretation of art, the mileage you get out of one film or another will likely vary, but each are accomplished achievements that are enjoyable, thought-provoking and will likely prove to be important pieces of the puzzle for their respective subjects.

Finding Vivian Maier screens at DOC NYC on Nov 17 at 7pm
Levitated Mass screens at DOC NYC on Nov 17 at 9.30pm and Nov 20 at 2.15pm

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