Artist as Higher Lifer

I think the sense of ‘the past as a foreign country’ really originates in Bruegel’s paintings, at least for us today.

Naomi Cass interviews Arlo Mountford

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The Folly 2009

Arlo Mountford
The Folly 2009 (detail)
digital animation
four-channel sound
9 min
courtesy the artist and GRANTPIRRIE, Sydney

Arlo Mountford works primarily with large-scale interactive installations paired with sound, video and animation. His humorous and often sardonic approach explores art history and the contextual relationship between contemporary art practice and its perceived past. Recently, Arlo has completed a number of animations in which characters re-interpret art historical events, works and ideas in an attempt to decipher their own environments, situations and even their existence. Arlo Mountford is exhibiting The Folly, a three-channel digital animation with sound, in CCP’s Gallery 3 from 5 June to 2 August, 2009. Arlo was interviewed by CCP Director Naomi Cass in June 2009, via email.

The Folly is a three-channel digital animation with a four-channel sound mix. Based on three small paintings by sixteenth-century Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Hunters in the Snow, The Corn Harvest and The Fall of Icarus, The Folly is monumental in size and enveloping in sound. Much of the pleasure of your work derives from being drawn into ‘the past as a foreign country’ a la L. P. Hartley, but you have chosen to animate the characters in a particularly contemporary way. What program did you use and why? To what extent were you bound by Bruegel’s language?

I used Adobe Flash for the drawing and animation. As a tool, I find it very intuitive. The work really started as a drawing exercise, I began to draw The Hunters in the Snow as a counter balance to the more conceptual and humorous works I usually work on.

There is a conflict of sorts between the original images and my animation of them. When the redrawn images are static they are beautiful but when they move they become crude and simple because they are limited by their two-dimensionality. The audience is reminded of the author and the work becomes about my concept and intentions. To combat this, very few things outside of what I presume to be depicted in the original paintings happen in these animations, the hunters move into frame, the harvesters continue with lunch, the ships continue on their way across the bay. Also, Robert Stewart (the sound designer) and I focused on the sounds being as naturalistic as possible, which tended to make the actions in the animation function as signifiers of particular actions rather than exact depictions. I think the sense of – the past as a foreign country – really originates in Bruegel’s paintings, at least for us today. I think a lot of us grew up with these images or others by him. This nostalgia for a different way of life is what drew me to the images originally and it was important to me that this remained…

The Folly 2009

Arlo Mountford
The Folly 2009 (detail)
digital animation
four-channel sound
9 min
courtesy the artist and GRANTPIRRIE, Sydney

Art history has been a fruitful subject for you over many years. How much of the pleasure of this work hinges on the images being familiar and emblematic of a European past? Or were these images useful to you because they throw up a glorious pre-modern panorama where nature and culture seem to be harmonious?

Eurocentric is a word that reappears a lot in relation to my work.  In a very simple way this is my past, I was born in the UK and it is the art history I learnt growing up and later at art school in Australia.

When I started drawing The Folly in 2007 the original paintings seemed emblematic of landscape and work, harking back to a ’simpler way of life’ which was pre modern, pre industrialisation. Of course the reality of this way of life is much different but I was interested in the cultural relevance of this nostalgia now outside the context of a museum.

The sonic component of The Folly is particularly pleasing, as the naturalistic sound is in contrast to the language of the animation. What did you want to achieve with the sound and how did you do this, given that the sound is specific to the northern hemisphere, to the weather and the species, and the activities that are depicted are quite foreign (plowing, horse and cart, sailing, walking in the snow)?

As I mentioned earlier it was important the sound was naturalistic, making signifiers of the animated movements. The sounds were either sourced from sound archives or recorded live. It was important that the sound directed the audience through the work. Each painting has a three minute window starting with The Hunters, then The Corn Harvest and finally Icarus, moving from left to right. Shifting the focus of the stereo field to each painting helped imply a narrative leading somewhat anti-climactically to Icarus’ fall.

I’m not sure that the activities are foreign except perhaps in the same way the past is? However, the northern hemisphere flavor was simply dictated by the original works, we researched the paintings for any reference to the species of birds and the activities depicted in order to use or recreate the right sound. For example, for the scything motion my brother recorded my father, who owns and knows how to use a scythe, cutting dry grass last summer.

It seems you have animated a period just prior to and following the moment depicted by Bruegel and, in doing so, you have thrown open the idea of the decisive moment in painting, the choices an artist makes. The Fall of Icarus is endlessly pleasing because the main action of this busy world is just two tiny legs sticking out of the ocean, having fallen from the sky with his failed waxen wings. Were you inspired by Bruegel’s decision to depict just that moment?

The Fall of Icarus is a great painting because Icarus is secondary to the real heroes of the painting: the Plowman, Shepherd and Fisherman, all of whom seem much more concerned with their work than the follies of Icarus.

Concerning the decisive moment, initially I had planned to have a moment when the characters moved into position for the snapshot and then continued on, however, as the work progressed it became more interesting to work backwards from the painting guessing the order of events and depicting them in real time. Subsequently, at no point do the animations completely depict the original painting, the decisive moment then becomes my decision.

The Folly 2009

Arlo Mountford
The Folly 2009 (detail)
digital animation
four-channel sound
9 min 0 sec
courtesy the artist and GRANTPIRRIE, Sydney

The central panel revolves around a monologue given by a figure facing away from the viewer, sitting amongst workers or country visitors picnicking in the fields. What is this text and why have you used this voice?

The monologue is taken from a book I was reading whilst I was animating, Aldous Huxley’s Eyeless in Gaza, first published in 1936.The extract is from a diary entry by one of the characters. It essentially describes the virtues of living as a ‘Higher Lifer’, someone who spends their time moving thoughts and ideas around in their head free of the commitment of ever actually producing something. This resonated with me at the time because I felt it described a form of art practice similar to my own. By including this monologue I wanted to place the artist in the work. However, by having a peasant read the monologue I essentially displaced the artist’s role into the way of life depicted in the work… it being unlikely a busy peasant would have time for such ideas.

Bruegel’s work is often used by historians to research the ordinary lives of sixteenth-century Europeans, their work, play and living conditions. On what basis have you expanded the lives of these protagonists through animation – are your decisions purely formal? For example, in the backgrounds of Hunters in the Snow and The Corn Harvest, you have animated people playing games. (And do you think Bruegel was always telling the truth!)?

Generally, I tried to be faithful to the paintings. There is a lot of writing about the games depicted by Bruegel, so it was possible to find out what might have been going on and animate accordingly. However, the paintings are sometimes like the Where’s Wally books by Martin Hanford with small jokes and events emerging for the audience if you spend the time looking. I added a few of my own and expanded on some of his. Concerning truth I think Bruegel obviously had a great sense of humour and it’s quite possible he intentionally played tricks upon his audience.

Oh, I forgot to ask, what do you mean by folly in the title?

Folly means fun, lightheartedness and slightly foolish, but I was also thinking of its other meaning as an architectural object. Last year while travelling in Britain I visited a few follies, usually non-functional towers on the top of hills, built by noblemen to employ local townsfolk. This work reminded me of a folly in a historical sense and I saw the work as functioning as a decorative space, similar to a folly. Like a useless decorative architectural object, The Folly doesn’t do anything for you – it is designed to give pleasure.

Arlo Mountford
The Folly
5 June - 2 August 2009
CCP, Melbourne

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One Comment

  1. Louise nicholas commented on September 17, 2009 | Permalink

    We saw your work at Dubbo last week. What a beguiling piece it is! Beautifully paced - would that life could return to it. Thankyou, Louise NIcholas

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