I had the pleasure of attending the “Conversation with Agnes Varda” held at the Getty Center.
I was not familiar with Ms Varda’s films but I had been familiar, back in my film school days, with the French New Wave cinematic movement of which she was “the grandmother.” At 85 she was still sharp and could remember clearly each film she’d made and the circumstances surrounding them. In the past decade she’s shifted from film to digital media and to doing installations, taking her art into three dimensions.
Listening to her deconstruct her work was fascinating and eye opening. I wish I could tell you everything she said because it was all marvelous but I will recount some of what she said to the best of my memory.
What stuck with me most were the events which precipitated her transition from film maker to installation artist.
She’d made the film “The Gleaners” which documented the potato harvest. In the film, one of the farmers said that the markets only wanted potatoes which fit a specific size profile. Anything which didn’t, 700 kg worth, was dumped and left to rot. Locals would come and collect (glean) the perfectly good potatoes which were too large or misshapen. Agnes became enthralled by the heart shape rejected potatoes.
She set up the potatoes and photographed them. (final image) They became dried out, wrinkled but not dead. They sprouted. Flowers grew from them as roots emerged from below. They were rotten, not fit for consumption but they were alive and vibrant and changing. She saw that as a metaphor for the people who don’t fit the form that society deems acceptable. The potatoes must fit a format; the people must fit a format. What doesn’t fit is discarded as worthless. Her photographs of the potatoes proved the falsehood of that assumption. She brought her potato images to the Venice Biennale in 2003 – the media elements played on three screens; the floor in front of the screens was filled with potatoes.
Truthfully, had I walked into the Biennale I would probably have dismissed the potatoes as just another crazy art display. Hearing the thought process that was behind the creation and understanding the full meaning, opened my eyes to the art.
An 85 year old woman taught me to see with new eyes.
Her older films were original, non-commercial and intricately crafted. She revealed in the Q&A that she spent a year in post production editing and re-editing to make sure each cut was perfect. She was far ahead of the feminist movement – focusing on women in her films.
In Les Veuves de Noirmoutier (The Widows of Noirmoutier), shot in 2004, Agnes intermingled two films or more correctly fifteen films. One film, which had no dialog just a score featured fourteen widows on the beach just moving. On smaller monitors which framed the larger screen, each of the fourteen widows told their personal story. The seats in the auditorium were set up so that each seat corresponded to an individual widow. A viewer could sit in the chair, put on head phones, and hear the voice of the woman being interviewed by Varda. I love the idea of having a one on one experience with each widow made all the more intimate by the head phones – the widow was speaking directly to you.
Lastly, when Varda’s old films were restored and converted to digital, she took the old film and made a house from it so people can literally step into the film, sit on stools made of film cans and see the images of the film. This “film hut” is on display at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) through June. (See the image on the screen behind Ms. Varda in the first picture)