Things we can learn from our fantasies

Fantasy Mirrors Reality was something I thought of as a name for this post, but on second thought the order of the reciprocating reflections felt confusing to me.  For one reason, I am not sure what came first fantasy or reality.  Though some might find it easy to say of course, reality came first then in order to escape it we created fantasy.  However others might say that fantasy came first, then in order to retain the fantasy, we made attempts to translate the fantasy into reality.  Take for example,  Ludwig II of Bavaria who commissioned to have luxurious palaces and elaborate castles built according to his imagination and thus to retain and wallow in his romantic dreams.  In more modern times, Henry Ford once bought a piece of land in the middle of America and transported historic houses to this Greenfield Village as he named it in order to reconstruct an old town.  In hopes to restore a bygone world that he grew up in as a child, Ford found comfort indulging in nostalgia while escaping from the revolutionary industrial empire that he created.  Maybe fantasy and reality both can take place at the same time, simultaneously preoccupying and occupying our minds.  For contrasting fantasy from reality and reality from fantasy, we can learn about ourselves and our relationships with things that surround us. 

In fantasy, we dream of far-away places filled with exotic adventures and where everything exists in harmony with each other.  In fantasy,  we cast off to an other place outside of our every-day.  Vicariously, this marks us off from the other existence.  Therefore, we identify certain traits and associate certain characteristics to that other place, and hence we establish a self-identity of which is independent of that other place.  Yet, our fantasize actually reflects quite a lot about us.  In fact, it has less to do with the true identity of the other as it has more to do with who we are and how we think. 

Mathias Poledna. Crystal Palace, 2007
35 mm color film, optical sound, 28 min
35 mm frame enlargement
Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Meyer Kainer, Vienna; 
Galerie Buchholz, Cologne/Berlin; Richard Telles Fine Art, Los Angeles

Using the medium of film, artist Mathias Poledna investigates the rift between fantasy and reality .  He crafts 35 mm films demonstrating the disconnection between reality and imagination. His works beseech the spectators to contemplate the nature of truth versus subjective projections.  I first became familiar with his work in 2008 when one of his films titled Crystal Palace screened at the New Museum of Contemporary Art.  Then until recently, when I visited the Austrian Pavilion at the 55th International Art Exhibition, La Biennale di Venezia it inspired me to re-visit his works.  Representing Austria, Poledna screens his latest film called Imitation of Life and exhibits sketch-drawings in the main section of the pavilion.  My recent experience brings me back to look at his works more carefully.  This time, I not only pay attention to the process of film-making (a method that is gradually fading out and replaced by advanced digital process) but at the same to understand his works through the lens of projected reality, fantasy and make-believe.

For the making of Crystal Palace, Poledna and his crew traveled an arduous journey to the remote Southern Highlands Province of Papua New Guinea.  Described in Western historic records, the island is famous for its exotic rainforest and indigenous culture.  As early as sixteenth century and early twentieth century, Western explorers journeyed there in hopes of finding exotic plants and to indulge in the discovery of wild landscapes untouched and unspoiled by modern human life.   With these ambitions and ideas, past records present the island as a curious treasure island.  To be there or to see anything brought back from the island was like experiencing another world far away from the reality familiar to those people living in Western civilizations.

Shot on 35 mm film, for close to thirty minutes, Crystal Palace unfolds a beautiful yet mundane scenery in a tropical rainforest.  The camera is stationary and the spectators are offered a limited medium-shot of the rainforest.  Without the freedom of roaming around the landscape, the rainforest becomes nothing more than a projection.  While accompanying the long take of greenery is a score including sounds of wild birds and noises that one would expect to hear amidst the wild.  For almost half an hour, the film only shows subtle movements of the leaves without panning or zooming.  It is likely that our attention would veer to focus on the sound.  The only component that seems to unfold an active narrative.  Betraying our expectations and fooling our senses, the sound at times feels incongruent if close attention is paid.  Even though Poledna shot the entire footage while on site, but the original film is silent.  By implementing a pre-recording of wild sounds, he adds a different dimension to the viewing experience.  Issued by Folkways Records for the American Museum of Natural History in 1951, the sounds of tropical rainforest was actually recorded inside of a zoo in Bronx.  This sound piece was originally an accompaniment for an exhibition on Amazonian tribes-people.  By this process, Poledna produced a piece of fake-documentary.  In other words, its lack of authenticity contrary to the expectations of spectators becomes the evidence for revealing our conditioned perceptions when confronted with images of the unknown.  While watching Crystal Palace, the feeling of time stasis results in an encapsulating experience. It transports us to another world, a world of fantasy and dream where the beginning and the end are blurred into a continuous passage of time.  This dream-like state is further heightened and indulgent in the latest work called Imitation of Life

Mathias Poledna, Imitation of Life, 2013
35mm color film, optical sound,
3:00 min,
35mm frame enlargement
Courtesy of Mathias Poledna;
Galerie Meyer Kainer, Vienna;
Galerie Buchholz, Cologne/Berlin;
Richard Telles Fine Art, Los Angeles

Imitation of LIfe is another 35 mm color film and is approximately 3 minutes long.  It is screened in a temporary extension to the Austrian Pavilion designed by Kuehn Malvezzi architects.  While the main section of the pavilion displays sketches and production drawings from the process of making this animation film.  The process was a long and laborious effort.  Intendedly to keep away from using more recently developed digital process of animation filmmaking, Poledna chose to make Imitation of Life according to the exact process of how animation films were made in its golden era of the 1930s and 40s.  With the help of professional animators and draftsmen from film studios in Los Angeles such as Disney, Poledna produced about over 5,000 handmade sketches of the characters and the scenes in order to later be able to animate them on screen.

When you walk into the screening area from the brightly lit exhibition space proper, you feel as if you have entered onto an empty stage that is completely devoid of lighting of any kind.  The space suddenly feels compressed and becomes difficult to navigate or to proceed forward as you begin to feel your way around as to not run into any objects or other people.  Then gradually the space begins to expand as the large screen lights up and the cute little animation starts to unroll.   A tiny pretty blue bird flies happily and whimsically around in a dark forest and across the screen, meanwhile a familiar old tune begins to play in the background.  The music sounds like one of those old jazzy numbers often heard playing in old classic Hollywood movies of the 30s and the 40s.  It is not so much that you know the music or the lyrics by heart, but more that it evokes a sense of nostalgia and reminds you of something old and familiar.  The sense of a return to the good old days when everything felt perfectly in tune immediately takes hold of your eyes and mind.  With the use of 35 mm film and handmade drawings, all the colors in the film appear more vibrant than in real life.  Like the way things look in Technicolor movies, scenery and characters in Imitation of Life take on a brighter appearance and with it notions of romance and nostalgia begins to surface.  The film seems to convey a sense of optimism, as if there has never been a better day than today.   

Mathias Poledna, Imitation of Life, 2013
35mm color film, optical sound,
3:00 min,
35mm frame enlargement
Courtesy of Mathias Poledna;
Galerie Meyer Kainer, Vienna;
Galerie Buchholz, Cologne/Berlin;
Richard Telles Fine Art, Los Angeles

The musical score for Imitation of Life is a popular song from the 1930s called I've Got a Feelin' You're Foolin' written by Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown.  The two also composed the famous musical score for the movie Singin' in the Rain.  Even though the music sounds as if an authentic recording of the 30s, but if you happen to be familiar with Poledna's work such as Crystal Palace, then inevitably you would start to question his source material.  If his work probes one's mind to question the nature of truth and the presentation of truth, then no matter how perfectly everything looks on the screen something must be awry.  For this I've Got a Feelin' You're Foolin' was in fact recorded recently with a full orchestra in the style of the period at Time Warner Brothers scoring stage in Los Angeles.  It also contains a new original musical arrangement and with a re-arrangement of the popular song from the 1930s by Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown.  (Although at the time I had no idea it was a "re-mix".)

As a smooth male vocal comes on with words like "I've got a feelin' you're foolin', I've a notion it's make believe, I think you're laughin' right up your sleeves foolin' with me …" , a dancing donkey in a sailor suit starts a tap dance number all the while waving his magic stick like the one a magician uses in a stage-act.  The character's dance and costume remind you of watching Gene Kelly in a musical, where he finesses every move with utter easy jumping off of walls without a care in the world.  This charming character appears in the guise of an ass, an animal usually characterizes naivety and simplicity points to the fact that his act is a make-believe.  Just as the words of the song expresses that such a beautiful feeling must not be real.  Yet, this reference to the golden era of Hollywood musicals and to Disney animations (in the 1937 version of Snow White, there are singing blue birds like the one that appears here) is more than just nostalgia.  It also points to the reality that things are not going to be good forever, in fact as soon as it started it is already the beginning of an end.  The entire animation and music is about 3 minutes, it ends rather abruptly without a resolve and pulls back to darkness.  Like in a dream when nothing gets resolved, just when something nice or someone you desired appears, you find yourself nowhere near reaching that person.  Shortly after, you wake up and realize it was all but a dream.  Imitation of Life is similar to a dream in the sense that unlike conventional narratives, there is no causality and no motivation.  In other words, the story begins with a flying bird, then a dancing donkey but nothing leading up to the moment is narrated nor is what happens afterward at all known.  It is like walking into a movie after it has started and leaving before it is finished telling the whole story.  All the while, you keep hoping that something would give you a clue as to what is going on.  
Mathias Poledna, Imitation of Life, 2013
Production drawing,
pencil on animation paper
approx. 30.5 x 42 cm (16.5 x 12 inches)
Courtesy of Mathias Poledna

Then again, to know what is going on within the narrative of Imitation of Life is not really the point.  It is not the only story that Poledna wishes you to focus on.  However, your sentimental and visceral reaction to viewing the film is more the focus.  This piece stayed in my memory for a long while because it is a romantic work and triggered my imagination and fantasy of something or someone loving and warm.  Yet, I also know the reality is not at all the way fantasy plays out to be.  We learn something about ourselves when looking inward to our desires and true longings for things that are unreachable.  It is the question of why we desire what we desire and less the question of what we desire.  For what we desire might never exist or have always existed without our awareness to it.  I like Poledna's work because it pays homage to how films were once made and that in its laborious process and certain technical limitations, there derived a unique kind of aesthetic.  Unfortunately, this method of filmmaking is gradually fading into oblivion.  By presenting a subject in idealized state of being, the work brings up questions of the presentation of truth and the nature of truth.  It seems to me that although I cannot escape reality yet at the same time, I cannot escape from dreams and fantasies either.  It is like in the song I've Got a Feelin' You're Foolin', describing a naive happy moment questioning the reality of that good feeling.  The reply is yes, it's all a make-believe. 


Installation view
Foto: Daniele Resini


Padiglione Austriaco
55. Esposizione Internazionale d'Arte, La Biennale di Venezia
1 giugno - 24 Novembre 2013
Artist: Mathias Poledna
Commissario: Jasper Sharp

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