In the Guardian, Jonathan Jones talks with Aleksandr Sokurov about his latest film, Russian Ark, and he retraces the path of the single 96-minute Steadicam shot through the Hermitage with the museum’s director, Mikhail Piotrovsky. I’ve written about this before, but what comes through here is a double view of serious passion for art.
The Hermitage dominates the lives of those who work there: It “has its own school where children can learn archaeology and art history from the age of five, preselected for curatorial lives like gymnasts or violinists.” Piotrovsky appears as himself in the film, talking with his deceased father, who was also director.
And for Sokurov, encountering art, not just seeing or presenting it, was a central goal of the film. “Sokurov films paintings from the side, in normal lighting, so that reflections – as they do – obscure one part of the picture and make the texture of its surface visible.” One encounter Sokurov provides is Rembrandt: “When you meet the real painting, you meet a real creature. Rembrandt left part of his physical being in his painting – every time you come up to a painting, you feel part of this energy, this sense of something being alive.”
Sokurov dismisses modern works—the museum’s famous Matisses don’t make the film’s, um, final cut–saying “the main criterion in art is time. It seems to me that those artists who are considered modern classics are to be tested by time yet.” And the director chides film for utterly lacking historical awareness (“due to the lack of cinema museums,” he claims) even as Jones points out the contrast of the unedited Russian Ark and its Russian Avant Garde antecedents–like Eisenstein, who also filmed in the Hermitage–whose “great modernist aesthetic” of editing became the foundation of our entire visual language.
So, Sokurov, what’s a better way to spend four hours today, watching my Criterion Collection Andrei Rublev DVD (aka, the cinema museum?) or standing in line at the Met for the last day of daVinci? “Museums make culture stable,” Sokurov notes, and they perform an invaluable conservative function, that is, conserving the “real creatures” of our collective past. As Sokurov would no doubt agree, in contemporary art, the artist leaves no part of his physical being in his work: he leaves his thoughts, his mind, his idea. And when I encounter a Felix Gonzalez-Torres light string, fabricated with parts off the hardware store shelf, I still have a sense of something being alive.