A curious something not worth filing away in the "hauntology" drawer, but definitely engaging a set of heavily retro-/throwback aesthetics and technology…
A couple of weeks ago I couldn't help but notice a flurry of hubbub coming from the coverage of the 55th Venice Biennale, particularly that surrounding a particular work – Mathias Poledna’s installation, entitled Imitation of Life. Poledna originally hails from Vienna, and – despite the fact that he's been apparently living and working in Los Angeles for many years now – was chosen by his home country to be their primary representative artist at the Biennale's Austrian national pavilion this time around.
Upon its debut, Poledna’s work immediately became one of the more gossiped-about items at the expo. A reviewer at Art Info offers a breezy description:
"At just over three minutes long, 'Imitation of Life' should feel like a slap in the face to the hulking structure in which it sits (both literally and figuratively). But the single animated scene, which reproduces to exacting detail the process used by film studios in the late 1930s and early 1940s, is a joy. It’s simple, light (at least on the surface), heartwarming even, and then it ends leaving one wishing for more.
dog[donkey] in a sailor costume trots back and forth across the screen singing a tune by Arthur Freed from the ’30s. The hook, 'I got a feelin’ you’re foolin' ...foolin’ with me,' points at both the absurdity of the Disney-esque display — production on this was run by Tony Bancroft, whose animation credits include Aladdin, The Lion King, and Beauty and the Beast among others — and the trompe l’oeil of the medium itself. Around 30 hand-drawn and colored sketches flick past the screen each second on their 35mm spool, which along with the full orchestra commissioned to record the score, made this a massive undertaking in hours of work alone."
The screening room for Poledna's short film is housed in a temporary extension to the pavilion, designed by the Kuehn Malvezzi architecture firm. The accompanying song, “I’ve Got a Feelin’ You’re Fooling,” was a widely popular and often-covered tune from the 1930s; attributed to a pair of noted songwriters who frequently worked with MGM Studios. For the project, Poledna had the song rerecorded, making a new version that closely adhered the style of the original. The artist also created a series of original drawings and sketches for the project, which he then had developed into the requisite series of hand-drawn cels by a crew of veteran animators.
None of which comes cheap these days; considering that certain old modes of production have become so rarefied, rapidly dwindling to a specialty that involves a shrinking pool of skills, expertise and know-how. Which is why the Poledna's in Austria had to (reportedly) summon together a generous sum to fund Imitation of Life. The money involved being part of what has fueled the baffled reception of the project. The other part being that all that funding only amounts to – by all appearances – a cartoon that runs roughly three minutes. Befuddlement ensues, with one critic finding it delightful while another one waxes incredulous. Must be some "conceptual" thing – something having to do with all that money being funneled into getting swallowed up by a few moment's worth of fluffy, gen-audiences escapist entertainment; and thus some ironic comment on the "culture industry" and all that it involves. Or something along those lines.
Poledna’s had an interesting number of projects over the past fifteen years or so. Interesting, in that these projects reveal an evolution in the artist's working methods. First there’s the preference for analog technology – especially in his habit of eschewing video in favor of working with 16 and 35mm film. Secondly, there’s his fascination with pop culture and his choices of artifacts from the realm of entertainment, which he then uses to explore themes relating to the nature of artifice, escapism, and concept of “authenticity.” And thirdly, there’s his working methods, which involved deeper levels of cultural research with each successive project; the resulting work alluding to esoteric cultural/historical parallels or connections.
For instance, a few of his projects from recent years: