August 6th, 2010
(Click to expand image)
Video still from Tommy Hartung’s “Ascent of Man”, 2009
(Image from www.onstellarrays.com)
Hartung’s “Ascent of Man” is one of the few pieces I remember from the otherwise lukewarm collection showcased at P.S. 1′s “Greater New York” exhibit — and easily the one I cared about most.
Hartung’s video uses stop-animated visuals to great effect, delivering haunting, poignant scenes of biological processes matched occasionally to voiceover from a 1978 BBC documentary series of the same name. I remember that I just couldn’t turn my back on it, I had to see where it went next. I loved how full of reverence the work was for life, birth, decay, mutation, and in equal measure how irreverent it was, with its strange array of props, plastic anime dolls and lo-fi assemblages.
I loved too how the video felt like a documentary doing its best to honor not some linear, tidy, rational “Ascent”, but rather a process altogether messier, more fractured, more alien, and much more modern-feeling (plastics and plastic+nature interactions a bounded, as in the above still; animals and vegetation at times existed with no sign of mankind other than the residue of synthetics and glass). What results is not so much a depiction of our “Ascent” but something much more powerful: a devotional to our frayed and frankensteined lurch from side to side — one step up, two steps down; progress over here, devolution over there; in danger of self-annihilation, with roaches rodents and lichen ready to take our place — all of it sad and funny at once, and in this somehow a more authentic document of what human biological experience over time means.
I also loved the meditative, beautiful score that accompanied it (part of the original BBC series perhaps?). It felt dirgeful and yearning and thoughtful all at once, sometimes suggesting a lament of the processes depicted on the screen, sometimes suggesting a passionate tribute to them. Its delicacies also felt slightly out of place alongside the more rough-hewn/frayed-edge visual style — this contrast was delicious. So many video artists today are content to score with amelodic, atonal drone and ambient sound-art — that may suit some pieces, but ‘Ascent of Man’ absolutely gained from Hartung’s musical choice.
More Tommy Hartung over at New York Magazine
All writing © 2010 C. Way/ SnailCrow.com