Indebted to the legacies of experimental and avant-garde structural film from the 1960s and 1970s, St. Louis based multi-media artist Amy Granat has developed a distinct visual language. Her early works were often made by cutting, puncturing or scratching the surface of the film, addressing ideas of abstraction through the materiality of the medium.
A 2011 work—Cars, Trees, Houses, Beaches—is on view in Gallery 301 through November 12, 2017 as part of the Museum’s New Media Series. Shot over the course of two years, the silent 16 mm film juxtaposes shots of the beaches of Hawaii, American muscle cars and 1950s modernist architectural spaces.
Granat recently discussed the film with Hannah Klemm, the Museum’s assistant curator of modern and contemporary art.
HK: What impelled you to make the film Cars, Trees, Houses, Beaches?
AG: At that time I was spending most of my time in Europe. My career was primarily in Europe and my personal relationships were in Europe. I had this real longing to come back to the Midwest and I thought a lot about America and Americanness and how complicated it is, how good, how bad. This series of films on America could also be called “the good, the bad and the ugly.” It was thinking about Westward Expansion and the American dream.
HK: How did you begin conceptualizing the film and how did you come to the idea that objects and landscapes you feature in the film epitomized Americanness?
AG: It began as thinking about these three portraits: muscle cars, modernist homes, and these famous beaches in Hawaii. It was just a moment to make these portraits that were like a love letter, but much more complicated. I think it was the time that I had spent in Europe, realizing how uniquely American those things felt to me: surfing, muscle cars, jazz music, and Frank Lloyd Wright and Charles and Ray Eames. People didn’t know who Frank Lloyd Wright was in Europe! I longed for these things and loved these things, but I saw there were also clearly problems as well. There is darkness in these things, which you see in how the camera is manipulated and how the film goes from light into dark and the black sands beach.
HK: How was the film itself made? We are so used to digital films these days it’s interesting to go back and look at analog, which has such a different process.
AG: Nothing in the film is post-production. Nothing in my work is post-production, there is no editing. It’s all manipulated while I am shooting. That’s part of the work: revealing the mistakes and being very interested in the mechanics of cinema.
HK: How did you first start making 16 mm films?
AG: I was a painting student originally, and I was kind of weighted down with the history of painting. One thing that is wonderful about painting is how pure it is, how it can just be a person and their canvas and the paint, but I felt that I needed a little bit of tension. I needed something to work against. The actual mechanics of film and cinema became that, and were very much a part of my early scratch films. I wanted to translate these ideas of painting into film but also have restraint.
In film there is something so poetic about how something is actually nothing and nothing is something, because it’s all just light on the film. That’s played out even further in the looping of the films in Cars, Trees, Houses, Beaches; there is no end and no beginning. These ideas are continued in this film, which is the synchronization of the three films that are always is a moving loop. They will never create the same three images at the same time.
HK: Why did you decide to make Cars, Trees, Houses, Beaches a silent film?
AG: Because film is inherently silent. I am interested in purity, and sound is separate from film. In this case I was keeping it pure to its form. The film was a trace of my being in those places, in a pure way. There is also a meditative quality to the work. This film is supposed to be a quiet reflective moment and in some ways very sensual and beautiful, hopefully.
HK: Do you have plans to revisit this topic of American architecture and landscape?
AG: As I said earlier, Cars, Trees, Houses, Beaches was made in 2011 when I was living in Europe and going back and forth to the US. I have since moved back to St. Louis, and I’m back in the American heartland and it just seemed inevitable to go back to this topic. I am making a new film in this series for a show opening in September in New York. That film has churches, city halls and rugged western landscapes and beaches. The film is going to be differently formatted. Instead of having three separate films next to each other, these three images will be superimposed on top of each other.
HK: What prompted you to move from abstraction towards more standard films?
AG: I liked going back to using the camera and the ideas of travel and place and how the films captured those things. A sense of place is so important to me as an artist, so being back in St. Louis has completely affected how I am thinking about and making my work. One of the first things that I shot when I got back, which I never showed, was of the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, because I was like, this is heavy place on the planet. It’s interesting to remind oneself of these things. It’s important to think about how we are at this place where these two big rivers merge, to sort of look beyond yourself. The Cahokia Mounds were also important. I filmed them for an exhibition in Zurich in 2009. I like that sense of moving place. Even if I film a place, it is also interesting that the place is displaced when it is exhibited. In Zurich no one knew anything about Cahokia Mounds, and the film became about colonialization and American history.
I have more recently gone back to the more abstract films. I made one that is white on white. It is a spray paint film that will also be shown in New York in September. Film is also so physical. It is wound and cut by hand, and these cuts also become part of the film. I have really liked the physicality of actually being in a place with the camera, or scratching directly onto the film. I never use a tripod and I’m not so particular about holding my breath, so there is movement of the camera. The scratch films and these other films are connected through the body, a moment with the body in different places.