The Art of the Art Documentary

Most art is meant to stand alone, without explanation. It is for the audience to decide on its meaning and value. Art is supposed to be a subjective and highly personal experience. But whenever we look at art, although we can make our own interpretations, we often begin to wonder about the world behind the art – the artists’ intentions, where and when the work was created. Documentaries about art and artists provide that link between artist and audience. The art of a good documentary is to inform the viewer, while leaving a little room for individual understanding.

New York based contemporary Chinese artist, Cai Guo-Qiang, is well known for his explosive artwork. His firework installations and gunpowder performance art are of course temporary. So unless you’re lucky enough to watch these displays live, the only way we can experience the works are from behind a screen. The documentary Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang preserves Cai Guo-Qiang’s work digitally and makes it accessible internationally. The documentary adds more value to simple videos of the work, explaining the context of the works and recreating the place of site specific installations and performance art.

I am Sun Mu, a documentary following the life of Sun Mu, a North Korean defector, provides a unique insight Sun’s story – from escaping North Korea to his first international exhibition in China. The artwork featured the documentary uses playful parody of communist propaganda style art to portray the artist’s experiences growing up in North Korea. Unfortunately, on the opening day of the exhibition in Beijing (at a gallery close to the North Korean Embassy), Chinese officials shut the exhibition down and confiscated the artwork. The documentary of this story and the included images of the artwork means that Sun’s art and ideas and experiences are not forgotten but are shared on a global platform.

Netflix has also released a beautiful series called Abstract: The Art of Design featuring boundary-pushing designers from many different industries. Designers are not often as well known as their designs but the story of Tinker Hatfield, Nike’s powerhouse behind the Jordan range – and the self lacing shoe – will give you a new appreciation for the history of the sneaker. Es Devlin has created stage designs for some ground-breaking and notoriously challenging theatre productions and worked with iconic artists including Kanye West and Jay Z, Beyonce, Adele and U2. Interviews with her and her colleagues provide an unlikely insight into collaborations with artists and directors and the types of messages staging can send. It’s easy not to question the functionality of design but this documentary series steeped in history challenges us to think about the other end of consumption in such a visually beautiful and authentic way that no two minute How it’s Made video, magazine feature or biographical book could.

Iris is the documentary offering a glimpse into the life of now 95-year-old interior designer and fashion icon Iris Apfel. Using iconic items from her vast collection, the Met’s Costume Institute curated the exhibition Rara Avis (Rare Bird): The Irreverent Iris Apfel about Apfel’s style an exhibition that few of us at 16,000 kilometres away will get to experience. The documentary is homage to a living icon who famously flaunted fashion standards and norms to dress only for herself, a unique insight we are rarely privy to. The film encapsulates the elegance and outrageous glamour that Apfel has commanded well into her nineties. Think Baddiewinkle, but with class.

The function of a documentary can be as broad as the subject matter it can encompass. Although art should not be viewed exclusively through the lens of a documentarist, or even the artist themselves, art does not exist in a vacuum and art documentaries provide permanence and context to artworks. Art documentaries cement legacies, preserve stories and artworks, expand the reach of exhibitions and provide vital insight into artists’ messages and intentions.

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