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Conversation  |  Artist, Film Director and Screenwriter, Auckland

Vincent Ward

In Conversation with
Anna Dickie
12 February 2013

Vincent Ward is best known as an internationally acclaimed film director and screenwriter, earning both critical acclaim and festival attention for his often dark, but memorable films. Vigil

The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey and Map of the Human Heart were officially selected for the Cannes Film Festival; and What Dreams May Come, starring Robin Williams, was nominated for two  Academy Awards and won the Oscar for best visual effects.

More recently Ward has embarked on a redefining exploration of his fine arts background by combining photography, paint and digital imaging to present a range of remarkable artworks.  In November of last year, Ward was invited to participate at the 9th Shanghai Biennale with his exhibition Auckland Station: Destinies Lost and Found. In this exhibition birds and figures were submerged in a stream of cinematic vignettes that played alongside images of women suspended, swimming and falling on silk scrolls that hung from cathedral rafters. The Shanghai exhibition followed on from Ward’s critically successful institutional exhibitions, Vincent Ward: Breath – the fleeting intensity of life at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, and simultaneous exhibitions Inhale/Exhale at the Gus Fisher Gallery and the Wallace Arts Centre respectively.

In March this year the artist will discuss his recent publications at the Shanghai Literary Festival and guest lecture at City University School of Creative Media following talks at Shanghai University and China Academy of Art, where he is a guest professor. Also in March his most recent feature film will be hosted by Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art in the 798 arts district in Beijing.

You were originally drawn to painting at Ilam Art school in Christchurch before embarking on your very long and successful career as a filmmaker. What prompted your return to fine arts? 

Filmmaking is quite rigid in its structures: You are tied to storytelling, three acts, and a single viewing screen. I’ve often explored painting concerns in my films and wanted to return to making art as it is a medium I find to be purer in some ways. I wanted to broaden the way my work can be perceived and experienced, to reach people in fresh ways. I have always loved to extend myself, push boundaries. I also think play (and experiment) is very important and it has been exhilarating to work with different visual mediums and come up with new ways they can work off each other. 

Your artworks combine photography, sound, film, and painting. Would you describe yourself as being driven to dismantle the distinctions between the disciplines?

Sure. I feel very strongly the ivory towers of each discipline need to be dismantled so that work can combine and coalesce through different media and mediums. There is an exciting frisson that occurs when you push the boundaries and break the rules.

Your artworks explore the 'motion painting' technique you created for the Oscar award winning film, What Dreams May Come. Please explain motion painting and how you use it in your latest body of artworks? 

For that film I wanted to make a world that looked as if the characters were moving within a range of real living oil paintings that these were aesthetically cohesive. To achieve this I figured I needed to make the paint strokes move organically and in three dimensions.  It was very challenging at the time—back in the 90’s when computer visual effects were still pretty new. I spent over a year developing the aesthetics of the 'motion painting' technique with a digital effects company, hand in hand with the technical break-throughs. I knew it would only ever be as good as the aesthetics of it, regardless of technical achievement. We scanned actual paint strokes and attached them to pixels which we tracked using motion vectors. When we were working on it, I loved the way every frame looked like a painting (sometimes a painting in transition), many of the frames had a gestural quality that was unlike something you could easily achieve with paint on canvas. The gestures were often very fresh and spontaneous yet gave a precise stylised and emblematic quality in relation to the representation of reality. Of course when you watch the film you don’t see the minutiae of every frame as it is in motion and changing at speed, so I wanted to explore this more in my art practice. By dramatically slowing 'motion painting' down you can see that many of the frames are unique and have their own integrity as an individual artwork created out of a dialogue between movement and stasis. Works such as 100 Paintings of a Painted Bird, which showed at the Govett Brewster Art Gallery, started with this as a premise.

Other works used 'motion painting' simply as a jumping off point and developed from there. I have always been drawn to figurative painting that has a gestural quality to it especially when it has elements that convey the psyche or the human form in transition. I am really interested in how digital technology can take this exploration to new places. I believe I have something to contribute to the dialogue between film and painting, either through my explorations using frozen cinematic single and multiple images on canvas or more obviously through film by experimenting with movement and stasis.

Dan Fleming refers to your work in his book Making the Transformational Moment in Film – Unleashing the power of the Image (with the films of Vincent Ward). How does the concept of the ‘transformational moment’ inform your artwork?

Dan’s thesis has been that most American narrative filmmaking is too linear, and formulaic. He argues that my feature films though narratively driven, are an example of filmmaking that allows a viewer to resonate with the material a little more deeply, to tap into your own experiences and therefore give wider meaning to a particular moment. Obvious examples of this in European filmmaking are image based film makers such as Tarkovsky and Herzog, whose work at times has little fusion with American narrative film making. These particular moments become heightened because of the way they are singled out, articulated, put into relief by the associations around them. These concerns are shared in both my feature filmmaking and my still and cinematic explorations. So effectively for the last four years I have been running a laboratory of sorts to explore this further in my art.

I guess also in my films I have been particularly interested in psychological transformation, the psyche, how we perceive the world and how that can be conveyed through a visual medium but in my art this has taken a slightly different direction. Stripped of narrative it can be distilled, to give an example you can see this in the musculature of the birds back and how the beating wings relate to the hybrid human form, or the vulnerability of a naked man on a deserted street eerily communicating with a horse. Someone might be floating sublimely, or struggling for air and I follow the moment when it changes from one to the other.

Your Shanghai exhibition was an immersive experience and in this respect cinematic. How important is the viewer's experience to you?

Essential. For me it is about sharing an experience that each person who views the work can absorb and reinvent for themselves; of course everyone brings their own interpretation and associations to a work and reacts to it through their own framework. I design the work to allow for this. One of the experiences I am evoking in my latest body of work is to do with uncertainty and vulnerability. I am trying to conjure the sense that we are not fully in control, that things could go badly or they could go well, but mostly that right now we are vulnerable to unpredictable experience in our interface with reality. To use the cliché of the artist as a tuning fork: I feel this experience of vulnerability reflects something of the times we live in, it taps into a universal experience, for many people we are not in an age of confidence but difficulty. To achieve this I wanted to go under the radar of intellect, to the well-spring of thought and experience, the subconscious. I hope to create an experience that allows people to reflect, that has a visceral effect on the viewer and then slowly allows them to unwrap their thoughts in relation to it afterwards. Perhaps that is why I am drawn to moments of transformation and of key turning points. These are not necessarily big moments sometimes they are very small, that together, like a series of small dots that suggest a line, indicate the trajectory of an experience.

There is an element of the ‘struggle’ in your work: struggle to fly, to breath to float, to escape? Is your work a celebration of life or a damning indictment?

I don’t quite see it like that—struggle or celebration. Both perhaps and the unpredictable points inbetween.

It’s part of a current that is articulated because there is a positive and negative charge at each end. So in life we experience the vibrant movement and change of the current in between these nodes.

I grew up on a farm so I see us to lesser or greater degree as animals and like animals each living thing negotiates its existence day-by-day. It engages. I wanted to make images that speak to the viewer on that level, images that empathise with a range of experience which often includes moments of struggle in order to evolve.

Four very well received institutional exhibitions, what is next for Vincent Ward?

I have developed this large modular and changing body of work now, which I am keen for more people to see internationally. And I feel its time is really in the next year or two.  I’m exploring further public gallery exhibitions in a range of countries, and would like to collaborate with curators to progress the meaning and the shape of the work. I think we are at a cusp in terms of where new media and cross media work can go, and because of my background as someone who started in painting and then became a filmmaker and then moved back to art I believe my work offers something which is timely to this discussion. I have only started to scratch the surface playing around at first with motion painting, and then in varied ways, to explore where paint meets film. I am really excited by the possibilities.

I have some film projects in development—one or two that have been in my bottom drawer for a while, waiting for me to find the time to dig them out again. It has been exciting revisiting them because my mind is in a different space. Through delving more fully into the art I have fresh creative juice and perspectives to bring to these projects. I am also aware that through making the film I can find unique elements, moments or stories or elements that I can bring back into the gallery for exhibition. Inspirations that would normally have been looked over by me in the past, as there was no application for them. And these opportunities would also not be available to an artist not working in feature filmmaking. So I believe as I become more sensitised to these creative options there is a triangulation that will occur that must inevitably lead me to fresh ground. — [O]

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