Interview: Matthu Placek Screens "A Portrait of Marina Abramović" at Sundance

Interview: Matthu Placek Screens "A Portrait of Marina Abramović" at SundancePhoto by Michael Berlucci / Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Matthu Placek’s journey from what he calls “the rural back roads of Ohio” to the forefront of the emerging art scene began in 1997 when he moved to New York City to attend the School of Visual Arts. In the 17 years since, the 34-year-old artist has made a lot of friends in the art world and carved out a niche by incorporating their work into his own portfolio. Julian Schnabel, Cindy Sherman, and Yoko Ono are just a few of the artists he has collaborated with in a career that spans both still and moving images. And Placek’s journey is just beginning.

This week, Placek is bringing his striking brand of photography to Park City, Utah, where he’ll screen 130919 • A Portrait of Marina Abramović, a seven-minute 3D moving portrait of the legendary performance artist, at the Sundance Film Festival. Placek first premiered the film at Art Basel Miami Beach 2013 in December. We got in touch with the artist via email, who told us about what attracts him to a subject, the intimate nature of 3D, and death wishes.

Was there a particular artist, or moment, that inspired you to pick up a camera?
I picked up a camera—my mother's camera, that I was never under any circumstances allowed to touch—at the age of 10. I was not aware of art in general at that point in the rural back roads of Ohio. I spent a lot of time alone as a kid, hiking and exploring the woods. I took my mother's Konica and made a bunch of self-portraits in an old graveyard buried in the woods. My father was certain I had a death wish.

What led you to focus on documenting the creative process of fellow artists? And what draws you to a particular subject?
Personal space is essential to my portraits. Artists’ personalities, in every instance in my experience, are reflected in vivid color in their personal space and studios. Their surroundings tell their stories. Architecture and environments are as important to telling the story of my subjects as the subjects themselves. As an added bonus, fellow artists have respect for my craft. They understand the care and attention I devote to an image, whether moving or still. If they agree to a portrait, they give me the time I need to make it as I see it. I appreciate that very much.

Portrait of Matthu Placek / Photo by Marc Daniels / Courtesy of Sundance Institute

How did the idea for these 3D video portraits originate?
130919 • A Portrait of Marina Abramović
is my first “moving portrait.” Originally I had planned to approach only Marina's portrait in 3D cinematography. It was essential that her body—which is literally her body of work—be tangible and present to the viewer. As the process unfolded while making this portrait, I realized how powerful and intimate it is to tell a subject's story in this dramatic way with one-take 3D cinematography. It is the closest a viewer can get to a subject in a portrait. 

What makes moving images so interesting to you?
My roots are in still photography, and I have no intention of abandoning that craft. My images have always been narrative and cinematic. However, oftentimes I found myself creating a six- to 10-minute situation or encounter, but I could not show that entire story. So instead I took a single frame, which encapsulated as much of the story as possible. Sometimes it is enough; other times I am left wanting more. That is where these moving images come into play.

That being said, I make films with a photographer’s eye and ear—"ear" meaning that I prefer silence over words. How can I tell a story with as few bells and whistles as possible with the maximum effect? That is a question I ask myself every step of the way when working on a film. 

What made you decide on Marina Abramović as the first subject in this series?
I believe her. Marina and I have known each other since 2006. She is one of the most sincere artists I have ever met. In her 40-plus-year career, she has been constant in her pursuits. I respect that a great deal. It is relationships like this that allow me to conceive of these intimate cinematic scenarios. I'm thankful for Marina's trust in me to make this film. It cannot be easy for anyone to literally expose themselves in such a way, let alone a 67-year-old woman. My visual and concept was solid and clear in my presentation to her. After a meeting she said yes and we picked a date.

Photo by Michael Berlucci / Courtesy of Sundance Institute

While in the end the moving image itself is yours, the story tells the past, present, and future of the artist you’re documenting. Would you consider this more of a collaborative artwork?
I consider the process collaborative once the subject steps onto the set. My work draws from the life of a subject, but what form of artwork doesn't? It is the spontaneous elements that the subject brings to the set which make the work collaborative. My images are meticulously planned; I control every detail. Once the subject is on set, I let go of control and see what they bring to the table. This is that spontaneous element which I cannot plan for.

As a side note, 130919 • A Portrait of Marina Abramovic is the first take we shot commissioned, and Marina had not previously heard the original score I commissioned. I wanted her to react to the music without anticipation.

What was your biggest challenge?
Every element is a challenge. This film took a crew of 40-plus people, a 50-foot techno crane which had to fit through a five-foot wide door, 80-plus lights, and the challenge of perfecting all these elements without editing.

I am no stranger to one-take films. All of my film work—with the exception of one film—has been one-take. I conceived of this work three years ago, however it was on the back burner for two years. In the spring of 2013 I hit the ground running and was shooting by September. This project is different for me because it has been fully funded as a work void of commission. I am grateful for the generous support and trust from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, The National YoungArts Foundation, and VISIONAIRE FILM.

What do you hope audiences will take away from the film?
I want viewers to walk away from this film with an impression of the vulnerable nature of a profound artist and her openness to share what she has learned.

Who are the artists you plan to feature in the future?
I am in the middle of production on three more portraits, but I can't say who they are just yet.

What are the greatest lessons you’ve learned—and taken with you—from the artists you’ve shot and worked with?

There are infinite lessons learned, but what first comes to mind is that I have learned to remain consistent. Regardless of success or failure, I have to trust my vision and my exploration of that vision.

RELATED: The 3D Film Installation "A Portrait of Marina Abramovic" Debuts at Art Basel Miami Beach

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