Magazine article Artforum International

Robert Gardner

Magazine article Artforum International

Robert Gardner

Article excerpt

IN 1987, shortly after the death of Basil Wright, a pioneering figure in British cinema, Robert Gardner wrote a brief tribute praising Wright's "truly transforming cinematic vision" and clubbing him the "quiet poet of film." A generation and an ocean apart, these two nonfiction filmmakers had nevertheless shared a deep commitment to recasting documentary practice, ostensibly the most normative form of film, into a vehicle for personal expression. In an elegant turn of phrase, Gardner wrote of his profound gratitude for Wright's Song of Ceylon (1934), which revealed "how moving, moving pictures could be." Yet at the same time, he could not help wondering whether Wright had ever been properly acknowledged by the British "film establishment," lce its American counterpart--was "almost wholly preoccupied with the 'story' film, its stars, its budgets, and its gossips." While he tried to dismiss such concerns ("all beside the point"), one senses the personal stake Gardner had in this aesthetic dilemma.

Gardner was himself at this moment in the middle of the most fertile period in his career. After a hiatus in the mid-1970s and early '80s, during which he had completed only one substantial film--Deep Hearts (1981), an hour-long documentary on the nomadic Bororo of central Niger--he released Forest of Bliss (1986), a feature-length portrait of the Indian city of Benares (now Varanasi) that eschewed contextualizing interti-tles, voice-over narration, or even subtitles for the Hindi speech periodically heard on the sound track. By the time of Wright's death, Forest of Bliss had become the subject of heated debate within the anthropological-film community, which, according to ethnographic filmmaker and scholar David MacDougall, had responded with "a kind of corporate outrage" to Gardner's unapologetic aestheticization of his purportedly anthropological subject ("the City of Death"); to their minds, it served only to reinforce misconceptions about Hindu society. By then, Gardner was no stranger to controversy. His first feature film, Dead Birds (1964), a meditation on ritual warfare among the Dani of West Papua, also had been attacked for its alleged privileging of art over ethnography. Here, however, the complaint had been that the film explained too much--with voice-overs that revealed the tribesmen's inner thoughts and with editing more befitting a fiction film than the documentation of anthropological fieldwork. Undaunted, Gardner continued to work and in 1988 completed Ika Hands, an intimate portrait of a people, once thought to be descended from the Maya, whose "constant industry" of handiwork and whose ritualized gesture were vividly captured in resonant close-ups that far exceeded the needs of mere documentation.

Though Gardner will no doubt forever be associated with this singular form of ethnographic film--what he called "chasing the chimera of isolated people"--he was as often as not focusing on the subject of art. His productions took him to some extraordinarily remote parts of the planet (the highlands of New Guinea, the scrublands of southwestern Ethiopia, the Sierra Nevadas in northeastern Colombia), yet roughly a third of his films were made within the more familiar environs of artists' studios, museums, galleries, and installation sites. If part of his practice seems to have addressed a personal need to deploy the anthropological gaze in the service of discovering aspects of his own humanity, the time he spent in the company of artists (Joan Mire., Christian Boltanski, Sean Scully), poets (Octavio Paz), and architects (Josep Lluis Sert) may well have provided aesthetic models that informed his vision of the moving-image medium. Like the great French film critic Andre Bazin, Gardner seemed continually to be asking, "What is cinema?" and reporting back with each subsequent production.

No account of Gardner's life and times can neglect the family into which he was born or the community in which he resided. …

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