Newer posts are loading.
You are at the newest post.
Click here to check if anything new just came in.

April 16 2011

Marina Lutz interview: The sins of my father

For the first 16 years of her life, Marina Lutz's every moment was filmed, even the most intimate. What was her father's motive – and when does art become exploitation?

When Marina Lutz, then aged 37, lost her mother to dementia 10 years after losing her father, she began the slow process of going through their storage. There she found box after box of reel-to-reel audio tape, Super-8 films and more than 10,000 photographs. They were all of her, each one taken or shot by her father, Abbot Lutz, microscopically documenting the first 16 years of her life through the prism of his lens. There were pictures of her on the lavatory, pictures of her naked as a pre-verbal child, some in which her hand was innocently holding her genitals; pictures of her in her underwear as a pubescent girl and footage of her asleep with her teddies, tossing and turning while having a dream.

There was audio tape of her father coaxing her to sing, reprimanding her for her childish tears at not being able to live up to the moment; audio of when she was told why Father Christmas had decided she was a bad girl undeserving of a doll; and footage of his interrogation of her first dance. There were shots of her backside bending over loo seats, pants round her ankles, and shots of her, years later, bending over in cotton underwear, looking cross at once again being pursued by the camera. For Lutz, the archive – "just a bunch of boxes full of crap until I turned it into a historical document" – provided a window on the past. She came to regard the material as "evidence" – evidence of her father's voyeurism, of his latent paedophilia, of his bullying, coercive nature, of his pathological narcissism; of her objectification; emotional abuse and stolen childhood. "In not one of those 10,000 photographs am I smiling and the only time my parents touch me is to hold my hand in a restraining way, as if to stop me running away."

Over 10 years, Lutz watched every movie, listened to every tape, looked at every photograph. She numbered each film and logged every scene. She listened to every audio tape and typed out every word as a script. It became her own obsession.

In an attempt to deal with the material, she went into therapy and in 2005, three years after being diagnosed with bipolar disorder, Lutz cut together some of the film to show her therapist as a way of expressing her feelings of violation. Three years later, she worked on the material again, editing it down to an 18-minute film that she called The Marina Experiment, in which she exclusively uses her father's footage and audio to create "art" of her own.

It is both an exercise in reclaiming the material and exposing herself as the recipient – she hates the word "victim" – of her father's predatory desires: "Now I am chronicling his view of me through my own digital video microscope and you can watch me watch my father watch me," she explains.

Abbot Lutz, a Russian Jewish emigré who grew up in the Bronx, had at various stages of his life been a professional photographer and collector. His images are proficient. The Marina Experiment uses the most dubious footage and pictures together with his voiceover in a way that presents the case against him. It is a brilliant piece of film-making from somebody who had absolutely no knowledge of how to do it: "I did it instinctively," Lutz says.

Prompted by friends, in 2009 she sent it to Super Shorts, a small film festival in London, where it picked up Best Documentary. It has since won nine awards at film festivals around the world and been licensed by the Documentary Channel in the US, playing twice a month. Lutz is a regular speaker at festivals and universities and is currently attempting to raise money for The Marina Experiment Part II – which she loosely thinks of as "The Trial" – eventually to be followed by Part III – "The Verdict". In the short trailer she has made to raise funds for Part II, the narrative restraint of Part I is replaced by retribution. "You liked watching me and it made me uncomfortable," she says, addressing the dead Lutz: "Now I'm turning the tables; I am going to upstage you, give you the cold shoulder, the thumbs-down. I wanted to find a reason to like you, but in every box there was another clincher."

The Marina Experiment has, since its release, gathered a word-of-mouth cult following. The critic Thierry Méranger, writing in the French film magazine Cahiers du Cinema, was struck by the similarities to Yoko Ono's famous documentary, Rape. "Eighteen extraordinary and exciting minutes," he wrote of The Experiment, calling it, "the most beautiful discovery… If no individual document is in itself proof of guilt, the accumulation and layering of images and sounds leave no doubts… Rarely has found footage revealed so many intimate issues." Carol A Mandel, dean of the division of libraries at New York University, delivered an unequivocal verdict: "Brilliantly intense and the message is penetrating." The film has been projected on to the side of a building in Paris and used as an installation in the window of a New York gallery.

In the flesh, Lutz looks younger than her years, with glossy hair and expensive clothes. She is an assistant to a New York casting agent – to which she brings the same talent for organisation that proved vital for structuring the archive. She says that for the first time in her life she is finding artistic expression – in fact, any expression at all.

She was an only child and there had been no siblings to verify her unhappiness at home. Lutz had grown up damaged, with feelings of suffocation and of being unloved. She fled the family apartment on the Upper East Side in 1977, aged 16, and never looked back. While she maintained a fractured relationship with her Italian mother, a disciple of Mussolini, she never spoke to her father again. Ironically, for all his videoing and photographing – an aspect of her childhood that, bizarrely, she cannot remember – she says that her father, a photographer during the war, "didn't see me".

As an adult, she hated sex, although she had copious amounts as a "groupie", numbed with drink and drugs; took heroin for 10 years; became a pot dealer; briefly worked in a strip bar; and was unable to sustain even one healthy relationship with a man. Now she knows why: "What he did was obliterate my personality," she says today, aged 52: "I grew up and for the longest time I had no idea who I was. I wasn't present in my own life. I really struggled with that for many years." Her mother, she thinks, "was suffering from a very dark depression. I don't honestly know if my mother was aware or paying attention. It has been pointed out to me that surely it is a mother's job to protect the child from the father in that situation."

The damage, not just of the past, but of so many years spent living with the "evidence" – runs deep. There is one box she still can't bring herself to go through and the rest of it has to be hidden by a curtain in her apartment as she can't bear seeing it every day: "At one point I thought my relationship to my archive is very similar to the relationship with my father – I am continuing to go after something that makes me feel terrible."

By way of an example, she talks through various crushing episodes from her childhood (recalled from viewing the archive, not from memory) such as when her mother scrawled "No Good!" over a letter in which she is identified as being gifted at school. "Why? Why did she write that?" On another occasion, she says: "I was punished a lot for not singing when he wanted me to sing – you see it on the tapes. But how bad could I have been?"

SUFFERING, FAMOUSLY, has long produced good art. In 2007, for example, the French artist Sophie Calle's critically acclaimed Take Care of Yourself was made after she was dumped by a boyfriend electronically, ending with the words "Take care of yourself." Calle – whom Lutz greatly admires – showed the email to 107 female professionals, photographed them reading it and then asked them to analyse it. First it was therapy, she admitted, then art took over: "After one month, I felt better. There was no suffering. It worked. The project had replaced the man."

"I think [a result of] my continued pursuit of this project is that I have found my voice," explains Lutz. "I have found a way to express myself that is effective and I gain great satisfaction from, although it is very painful. I think, too, that's also part of the story that people like – because it is like making lemonade out of lemons. It's the damage that enables the creativity – I think that it's because there is so much power in the pain that it translates."

In the trailer for Part II, very much a work in progress, Lutz goes on to say to her father: "You made a mistake when it came to leaving behind 16 years of evidence. You picked the wrong girl."

The Marina Experiment raises many complex issues, not least the sensitivity and controversy of using children in art. In 1990 the FBI raided Jock Sturges's San Francisco studio as part of an investigation into child pornography: his work featured adolescent and pre-adolescent girls in naturist communities (all photographed with their parents' consent) as well as a famous long-term collaboration with Misty Dawn, whom he photographed from a young child until her 20s. A grand jury did not indict him. Sally Mann's 1992 work Immediate Family featured 65 black-and-white photographs of her three children, all under the age of 10, dressed and undressed. Opinion was largely with her because her children participated happily in her work and she ceased to photograph them once they reached puberty. In 2001, police twice raided the Saatchi Gallery after the News of The World called a photograph taken by the British artist Tierney Gearon of her two naked children at the beach, wearing identical masks, "a revolting exhibition of perversion under the guise of art". The photograph was not seized, and Saatchi did not remove the image. As Laura Cumming, art critic of this newspaper, explains: "The scene was comical – one cartoon face shared between two, and a light skit on Botticelli's Venus, too." The same year, Time named Sally Mann America's best photographer.

The idea of complicity is a vexed one when you consider that in the eyes of the law, minors cannot express consent. As it stands, there is no legal definition of what image is or isn't innocent. A jury must decide, based on "current recognised standards of propriety". As Cumming says: "Who can define 'current recognised standards of propriety?' The Crown Prosecution Service can only guess what a jury might think."

Lutz's work resonates in other areas, too. The retrospective interpretation of images has never been more pertinent than in the current climate of social networking, which requires and invites an almost compulsive photographic capturing of the self. There is a disconnection caused by viewing your own life through the lens of a camera phone, outsourcing memories to technology such as webcams and Twitter, logging experiences in ways that have no lasting power beyond the immediate.

For Lutz, this disconnection is greater because the images of her are not her own. Memories of her childhood have become entirely shaped by what her father saw and recorded: "My memories are with the archive," she says, "because I have been living with it for so long and going through it for so long. I don't really have those other memories."

The fundamental question remains: how guilty was Abbot Lutz? Was he a latent paedophile, now exposed by his own Facebook-style documentation? Or are his images simply a 16-year-long artistic project – rather like Sturges's project with his "muse" Misty Dawn – now posthumously distorted, through clever editing, by a daughter looking to find answers and place blame?

Marina Lutz acknowledges that she has no memory of sexual abuse, although states that he spanked her bare bottom "what felt like almost every day" and would massage her back at night, hands straying uncomfortably down her back. In one of the audio clips Marina Lutz uses to her own end, Abbot Lutz, a collector of books, antiques, postal cancellations and vintage pornography, is addressing a symposium sponsored by the New Yorker and we hear the words: "The idea of this tape is to tell us from beginning to end everything that happened, not for us to know, but for you to know 10 or 20 years from now."

Last year, as The Marina Experiment gathered momentum at film festivals around the world, another story broke in New York which raised the identical question of whether a male artist, in recording his daughter's developing sexuality, was shattering taboos or destroying innocence. Eight years after the death of pioneering proto-pop artist Larry Rivers, his archives were sold by the Larry Rivers Foundation for an undisclosed sum to New York University. The archives contain correspondence and other documents that shed light on his relationships with artists such as Willem de Kooning and Warhol, and poets such as John Ashbery and Frank O'Hara, with whom he had an affair.

Among the material was a film, Growing, in which Rivers filmed both his adolescent daughters, Gwynne and Emma, naked or topless, and interviewed them about their developing breasts. The filming began in 1976 when Gwynne was 11 (exactly the time when Abbot Lutz was conducting his filming). Gwynne Rivers is captured nude in her father's shower and topless between his black satin sheets.

A year later, Emma was involved, too, and twice a year for more than four years the daughters were filmed, naked or partly naked, while Rivers asked questions about their bodies and sexuality. Emma Tamburlini, now 43, has since said the filming contributed to the anorexia she began suffering at 16: "It wrecked a lot of my life," she told the New York Times.

She began a fierce campaign to reclaim Growing and have it destroyed. Gwynne, initially silent, later admitted she drank to excess in her early 20s, and had difficulty connecting emotionally with men. She has also sought help from a women's therapy group dealing with sexual-abuse issues: "I'm not saying it was all the film of Growing but… that careless attitude on my father's part," she has since said.

In a voiceover to Growing, Rivers admits that he made it in spite of "the raised eyebrows of society in general… and even my daughters – they kept sort of complaining." Gwynne has since recalled how, like Lutz, she would often be asked to sing a song: "To go from singing a song for your father and then to suddenly be told to take off your shirt… the dread in my stomach when I heard those words drowned out the lovely feelings of performing for my dad."

Horrified, Carol A Mandel, NYU's dean of libraries – herself a vocal supporter of Marina Lutz's work – has declared NYU wants no part in Growing and has handed the video back to the foundation, where it resides with David Joel, the director. Backed by fellow board members, including the girls' aunt and one of his three sons, Joel refuses to hand the film over to Emma, citing it as important source material for a large Rivers painting made in 1981, and also as art in its own right. Three more sons agree the film should be preserved. Emma Tamburlini has said she has spent years in therapy trying to deal with Rivers's behaviour and, like Lutz, at one point created a work of art of her own to try to cope with the emotional damage.

Lutz was struck by two things about the case. The first: "It made me think if my father was doing it and this famous artist was doing it, I bet you lots of other men were doing it, because the Super-8 camera was developing around this time." This has been confirmed by the talks and lectures she gives: "Female members of the audience come up and literally pin me to a wall," she says. "They ask me, 'How can I help myself?' You are so brave, they say, they tell me they had similar experiences as a child, they tell me their stories, they ask me questions… and it is always women." This was the second element of the Rivers story that struck Lutz.

Rivers's sons, who had been painted naked by him at formative ages, were emotionally unaffected, vouching that there was no sexual overtone or latent pornography in their father's work. Objectors to Lutz's film are, she says, always men: "I got one email titled 'Jail Time'. 'Shame on you!' it said. 'How could you take these loving photographs that your father took of you and put them together to make him look so terrible?' Men see it as an affront to their manhood or to the male race or something. The only thing I can think is that it makes them feel they have done something they are ashamed of."

Such criticism of The Marina Experiment makes her unsure and uncertain of her feelings. One French filmmaker, who has since become her friend, pointed out that from a technical point of view she was an editor, and that she had, by repeating certain images and sounds, manipulated the footage to present Abbot Lutz in the way she wanted.

"I told him that I can't make up audio tapes," she remembers, "and that I used the repetition because that is how I felt going through the archive. I kept finding the same thing and it kept hurting me and hurting me. It felt right.

"All I can say is that I wasn't present in my own life. I know what I'm doing now and I'm really happy about it – not all the time – but I am making conscious choices now based on who I am today and how I feel at this time and it feels great." © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

August 16 2010

A picture of ourselves offended

In his Edinburgh festival show, the comedian provocatively uses a picture of an art work that has been condemned as child pornography. Is standup the right arena for such a debate?

Warning: this blog contains spoilers for Sanderson Jones's comedy show Taking Liberties

"Do you want to see the picture of a naked 10-year-old girl?" comic Sanderson Jones cries. Almost as one, we cheer our assent. Confronted by the sight of Brooke Shields as a child standing nude in a bath and wearing makeup, there is a stunned silence. The man directly behind blurts out: "Oiled." Everyone is thrown by this, including Jones.

We are not a paedophile ring comparing holiday snaps, but an Edinburgh fringe audience watching Jones's standup show Taking Liberties. Jones, formerly the hirsute face of Ikea UK, has assembled an entertaining hour that questions the nature of offence and its impact upon civil liberties, gradually building from petty irritations to jokes about his dead mother, the Jean Charles de Menezes killing, to Guardian readers' ill-informed opinions on Islam. With some live Chat Roulette.

The Shields image, which is unveiled during the closing section of the show, is in fact a copy of artist Richard Prince's work Spiritual America, a photograph of a photograph taken by Garry Gross in 1975 for Playboy with the consent of Shields's mother. Condemned by some as child pornography, the image was removed from London's Tate Modern in October last year after police warned the gallery it might be breaking obscenity laws.

Jones's show contends that Spiritual America is an appropriate image to use in comedy, a catalyst for a debate about freedom of expression. But is standup an appropriate medium to debate the subject in such graphic fashion? There is a warning about an unspecified image at the top of the show. Yet how many in that room felt free to express their unwillingness to see it, whatever it may have been? Jones couldn't reveal his set-piece without undermining its impact, and few people want to be seen walking out of a gig so early.

So much of standup relies upon surprising, sometimes shocking the audience – as in Kim Noble's staggering, shocking 2009 fringe show, in which he projected video of himself masturbating into jars of vaginal cream, which he then seemed to put back on the supermarket shelf.

Unlike an image hanging sedately in the Tate Modern, approached deliberately and contemplatively, live comedy retains that sudden, explosive power – that visceral punch. It provokes honest, instinctive reaction, be that laughter, revulsion or simply a man blurting out "oiled". That makes it the perfect art form to explore offence and freedom of expression without any pre-conceived agendas. I wasn't offended, I was shocked. But I'm grateful standup still affords me freedom to be offended if I choose.

And yes, you might find the number of spoilers in this post offensive. But you haven't seen what Jones does with the image yet. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

July 22 2010

Our image of children rests on who takes the picture | Libby Brooks

While adults fret about taking photographs of children, the young happily post pictures of themselves online

My mother was a great one for photographs. Sandcastles, candle blow-outs, a new cream party dress: no event in my childhood was insignificant enough not to merit a carefully annotated space in her stack of albums. As a restless girl and an embarrassed teenager, I found her attachment to the lens time-thieving, then tedious. As an adult I understand better that compulsion to capture: how limitlessly photogenic the children you love seem to be, how unfathomable it is that there will never be another moment in their development that can be the exact replica of this one, here, now, and the brief comfort that – in the instant of closing the shutter – you might have stopped time.

In little over a century, since the camera became affordable to most, photographs have emerged as the dominant chronicle of western family life. Before that, only those wealthy enough to commission portraits had a record of what they looked like as children. But this democratisation carries a burden. As Susan Sontag observed: "To be able to see oneself and one's parents as children is an experience unique to our time. The camera has brought people a new, and essentially pathetic, relation to themselves, to their physical appearance, to aging, to their own mortality."

Nor is the quotidian manufacture of memories as honest as the simplicity of their execution might suggest. Those "smile" moments happen after the bandaged knee, alongside the sulk, before the anticipated festive altercation. The happy snaps that spill forth from overseas Christmas cards present a glossed domestic identity. And, in an age when the notional paedophile sets the standard for us all, when photo-processing booths are the self-appointed arbiters of bathtime propriety while parents are barred from filming nativity plays, photographing children can be anxious sport.

The doting amateur makes no claim to high art, but it is precisely the same concerns about privacy, artifice, and the potential for unintended provocation that inform reactions to those who work creatively inside the domestic sphere, then make that work public. Since the 70s, artists like Nan Goldin, Dick Blau and Robert Mapplethorpe have used photography to challenge our cultural ambivalence towards images of children. Their project has been to overthrow the 18th-century Romantic idealisation of childhood in art, which fetishised children for what they were not: not sexual, not knowing, not polluted by adult experience, and, in so doing, to challenge the viewers' interior sense of what childhood ought to look like.

Most notable among them was Sally Mann, whose book Immediate Family, which presented her three children, often undressed, in a variety of ambiguously erotic and decadent poses, caused a sensation when published in 1992. Mann, arguably America's greatest living photographer, whose work ranges widely through form and subject matter, has expressed frustration at her sticky soubriquet of "the one who photographed her children naked". And it's telling that the most controversial images of that series have been left out of her first solo British retrospective, currently showing at the Photographers' Gallery in London. It's impossible to know whether this was by accident or design, but the ever-stricter monitoring of youthful nudity prompted by the explosion of internet child pornography, in addition to tabloid relish for the kiddie porn versus art non-debate, has led to spot censorship of similar works by Mapplethorpe and Goldin in this country over the last decade.

Just as Mann unpicks platitudes around childhood innocence, and proffers children's bodies as a site of adult discomfort rather than certainty, she is likewise transgressive in how her professional life impacts upon her duties as a parent. The intimacy of the form, its staple status in family interaction, led many to question whether Mann was exploiting her children for her own artistic endeavour. Her now adult children have since spoken of their pride in their mother's work and their right of veto over its display. In practical terms, such technically rigorous and composed images could not have been rendered without their complicity. This was clearly not the case for the daughters of New York pop artist Larry Rivers, who last week made public their battle with their dead father's foundation to prevent the screening of nude footage he shot of them as teenagers.

It's a timely reminder not to sentimentalise the artistic integrity of the very young. At base, no child wants to disappoint their parents. But it's ironic that, in direct opposition to adult policing of images of childhood, it is young people themselves who are now most adept at invading their own privacy online, and using the latest technologies to fashion digitally altered simulacra to suit taste and trend. Beyond point-and-press, contemporary youth has a wholly different relationship to photographic image, and one that is more public and more mutable than ever before.

In a sense, this generation is doing the work of the artists for them. The results may not be so adept, but they maintain the recognition that portraits of the domestic sphere, and particularly the young within it, have many meanings, and that the antithesis of innocence – while it may be awkward or provocative – need not be inevitable pollution. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Older posts are this way If this message doesn't go away, click anywhere on the page to continue loading posts.
Could not load more posts
Maybe Soup is currently being updated? I'll try again automatically in a few seconds...
Just a second, loading more posts...
You've reached the end.

Don't be the product, buy the product!