At the beginning of this 21st century, some of the most significant projects of global contemporary art were conceived with the sponsorship of Unilever, a British-Dutch multinational that produces all kinds of food and cleaning products made from oil and fat. The iconic turbine hall of the Tate Modern in London welcomed, thanks to its financial contributions, materialized in the so-called Unilever series, installations such as The Weather Project (2003), by Olafur Eliasson, y Sunflower seeds (2010), by Ai Weiwei, large-scale free experiences that have left their mark on the discourse of current art.
Renzo Martens is one of the many creators who, from different perspectives, have tried to question the strained relationship between art and capital. The Dutchman did not limit himself to loading his works with messages and good intentions but, to get to the heart of the matter, in 2013 he went deep into the very heart of darkness. Much of the wealth that Unilever generates – but does not distribute – comes from palm oil plantations in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Its workers barely receive sufficient remuneration to eat, in the same way that (relatively speaking) in the art world it is not the creators, but the intermediaries, who often win the profits.
Based on this premise, Martens created a workshop to produce art with the local population. His eventful journey over almost a decade and with his final destination to New York, the epicenter of the art market, is documented in The White Cube (2020), a documentary that points out ways in the competition of the Dart Festival of contemporary art documentaries, which starts this November 25. With screenings in Madrid and Barcelona and a virtual platform in Filmin, the contest presents over two weeks 25 titles of which 11 are premieres in Spain and one –Sergio Larrain, the eternal moment (2021) – in Europe. Among the crop of artists whose life, work and visual miracles are revealed on the (big) screen, names such as Alvar Aalto, Marina Abramovic, Marcel Duchamp, David Hockney, Dani Karavan and Hilma af Klint stand out.
Another man who, like Martens, transformed the power of artistic creation into a political throwing weapon was David Wojnarowicz (1954-1992). Homosexual and sick in the middle of the AIDS epidemic, the American amassed stones with his paintings, photographs, engravings and poems that he threw with as much fury as he was wise against a public opinion that persecuted him until he was cornered in history. Wojnarowick: Fuck You Faggot Fucker (2021) is the first documentary to be made about this creator, a deranged, brave and provocative tribute as was his work, claimed in recent years by the great museums of the world, including the Reina Sofía, which dedicated a retrospective to him in 2019.
Transforming reality by transcending the rules imposed from the poles of the capitalist and communist economies was the task that the proudly unclassifiable Joseph Beuys set himself, whose aura of legend envelops and drives the story of Beuys (2017). From his childhood marked by the injury of distant parents to the plane crash that nearly ended his life in World War II, the film follows in the footsteps of the author who wanted to expand the concept of art to encompass the entire life in their daily life. What he is looking for are answers to questions that the German raised at the time, and that have more to do with intuition than with knowledge, with the heart than with the brain.
The filaments that interweave —really and metaphorically— the works of Esther Ferrer knot in Threads of time (2020) ideas and milestones spanning from their performances with the Zaj group in full dictatorship to the enriching influence of his relationship with John Cage. If the works of the 2008 National Prize for Plastic Arts dance in time, those of the Barcelona-born Jaume Plensa do not stop multiplying in space. His sculptures, crossed by symbols such as words and water, star in the documentary Can you hear me? (2020), which reflects on how the presence of these monumental pieces redefines the public space of cities across the globe: from Madrid to New York, Nice, Antibes, Montreal, Tokyo and Chicago.
The Chilean Sergio Larrain also inhabited the planet in its fullness. Coming from a wealthy family, the Magnum photographer ended up becoming, not by chance, a documentary filmmaker for the children of the raggedy. His images in the margins —of the frame and of society— not only acted as witnesses of an era, exhibiting from the savage manners of the Sicilian mafia to satori of worldly objects, but they composed authentic poems written with the air that blew in the spaces that separate their characters. Sergio Larrain, the eternal moment it is the affirmation of that hypothesis by means of a conviction: the world that he captured was never outside but always carried it with him, inside.
Festival Dart. Screenings in Barcelona, Madrid and Filmin. From November 25 to December 12.
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George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.