A film artist unveils her ‘visual manifesto’ on Chicago
Director Sarah Morris opens her film “Chicago” with a close-up of a computer screen at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. Multicolored graphs of kilohertz and millivolts blink in Batavia, Ill., as Liam Gillick’s techno music pulses on the soundtrack.
At the end, we see a spider at night in its web, outlined by an out-of-focus streetlight. Morris designs the other 459 shots in between with an analytic eye for systems, signs and surfaces.
Shot in 2010 and completed in 2011, “Chicago” got its U.S. premiere Nov. 29 at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, 220 E. Chicago Ave. “City Self,” an exhibition of some 40 photographs, paintings and drawings with Chicago themes selected from the MCA collection, accompanies “Chicago” through April 13. The 68-minute movie will screen continuously on an 18-by-34-foot expanse of gallery wall.
“I’m involved in every single frame,” Morris explained during a recent interview in the MCA cafe. She compulsively checks with her cinematographer David Daniels: “Is it level?” As for people in front of the lens, she tells them: “Don’t smile.”
Architectural facades outnumber faces in “Chicago,” wherein Morris admires the works of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe on Lake Shore Drive and at the Illinois Institute of Technology. “It is so incredible and so unusual for one architect to mark a place so much,” she marveled.
Besides celebrated buildings, “Chicago” inventories an array of activity: from touching up a photo at Ebony Magazine to making pastrami sandwiches at Manny’s Cafeteria and Delicatessen. Details include sunglasses, giant red fingernails, framed Playboy magazine covers, and phone-fixated pedestrians. Locations include the Cook County recorder of deeds office, the Vienna Beef factory, and a U.S. Open Squash Championship match at Pritzker Pavilion.
Morris, based in New York and London, never records sound when filming a city, starting in 1998 with “Midtown.” Beijing, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, New York City’s Manhattan borough, Miami, Rio de Janeiro and Washington, D.C., are other subjects in her cinema portfolio. When asked what Gillick’s music adds, Morris lists: “anticipation, adrenaline, movement, alienation, reflection.” At a Mercy Housing press conference in “Chicago,” we see Mayor Richard M. Daley speak yet hear none of his words.
At Brown University in the late 1980s, 46-year-old Morris majored in semiotics, the study of signs as systems. Early in her career, she made silk screens listing words from The New York Times and other newspapers. Then she painted single words on canvas with house paint. “Cinematic” is a word she has used in her art since 1997 to describe her outlook.
After a recent preview screening of “Chicago,” Morris claimed the terms “documentary” and “city portrait” did not correctly characterize her film. “So you’re very adamant that this is not meant to be a portrait, that you’re not trying to do that,” responded one member of the audience. “But what are you trying to do?”
“Well, at some level the films are an excuse,” Morris answered. “They’re similar to, like, [Andy] Warhol having Interview magazine and being able to, like, meet people. No, but seriously, the films allow me to investigate a place and meet a lot of people and have a lot of conversations and see what is being produced and what is dying, what is coming to an end.”
“Chicago,” offered Morris, is like her other films: “It is a visual manifesto. It is articulated through images.” Architecture professor Philip Ursprung decodes her artwork, which includes glossy geometric paintings, as “representing the raw forces of capitalism ... that forge our language and ideas, our images, our rhythms and colors.”
Accessing a city is an art itself. A Hollywood executive tipped her on shooting her film “Los Angeles”: “Sarah, it is a secret society, it is a conspiracy.” Taking his cue, she sees herself “showing how a city is multiple conspiracies.”
“Sarah Morris is a spy in the city,” Dieter Roelstraete, the 41-year-old curator of “City Self,” suggests. “She intrudes. She can see a conspiracy in the surfaces.” Morris often cites affection for Alan J. Pakula’s paranoid thriller “The Parallax View” (1974) and conversed at length with its star, Warren Beatty.
From the Oscars in “Los Angeles” to the Olympics in “Beijing,” master image makers intrigue Morris. “Chicago” nearly omits a local one.
As the artist told Architectural Digest: “Oprah [Winfrey] was, I have to say, more difficult to deal with than the Chinese government.”