Tyler Green
Art-focused Journalism by Tyler Green

Tyler Green Modern Art Notes

"What Remains," Part II

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Yesterday I started talking about Steven Cantor’s new documentary about Sally Mann, What Remains. It is premiering at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

One of the juxtapositions between Mann’s work and her words is the way Mann talks about the dead and the way she photographs the dead.

In Cantor’s film, Mann expresses incredulity that anyone gets worked up about dead bodies. She can’t imagine that people give a flying fig if their ashes are scattered over the Ganges or what-have-you. She’s almost indignant about it.

But as I noted in my review of her 2004 Corcoran show, she treats every dead thing she sees with reverence.

The most shocking installation in the Corcoran show was a tiny gallery of snapshots of an escaped prisoner who committed suicide on the Manns’ property. The prisoner shot himself in the woods, just at the edge of a clearing, plainly within sight of the Manns’ home. (Mann speaks of being threatened by him, but only vaguely.) Shortly after the corpse was removed, Mann walked out to look at where he had shot himself.

“Right there, where his head was, was a little pool of blood.” Mann says. “It was strangely dark, like chocolate. And I started to put my finger on it… and it moved.”

The blood was absorbed into the ground. Mann’s telling of this story is mournful, respectful, fascinated. The same emotions are there in Mann’s photographs of her dead dog Eva (at left), and of Civil War battlefields.

The obvious pop psych explanation is that she’s watching what is happening to her husband’s body as muscular dystrophy affects more and more of his musculature and that Mann’s photographs about the dead are her way of working through that.

“I think I’m in denial about his illness, I really do,” Mann says. “I hate that sort of psychobabble business, but I just don’t think about it. It’s just like age itself and I don’t think about it, and when I glance out the window and realize that he walks with a big hitch now… it’s almost like he has to drag one leg, you’ll see it. I think oh my goodness. Ooh. It seems so sudden. And unfair. And not us.”

Mann professes to dislike the analytic thing and several times in the film she says she hates it when people subject her family to it. (Early in the film Cantor shows us a scene of Mann and her children, the famously photographed, no-longer-little ones, discussing whether or not Mann wants to launch another exhibition or book of her family series. Guided by Mom, the family decides that no, that’s not necessary because they’ll all be quizzed and pop-psyched to death about them all over again.)

That dichotomy is both puzzling — a multi-year project on dead things practically screams out for psychological explanation — and natural — artists like the work to stand for itself and not for the life behind it. But Mann’s work is intensely personal, a photographic memoir of both Mann’s life and her inner-most thoughts. It’s the humanity in Mann’s work that makes it great.

Expect “What Remains” to continue on the film festival circuit for a while, to have a brief theatrical window in the spring, and then to debut on HBO and on the BBC this summer.

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