With thinning white hair, unruly eyebrows, and a powder-blue pullover, Michael Snow, at 84, is soft-spoken and sharp-witted. Somewhere between professorial and grandfatherly, he at once commands attention and puts you at ease, like a glass of warm milk with a shot of Canadian whiskey. This week, MoMA's recent acquisition of Snow’s slide installations Slidelength (69-71) and Sink (70) brought the Toronto-born artist back across the border for an edition of the museum's Modern Mondays series.
Filmmaker, painter, sculptor, photographer, holographer, and accomplished jazz pianist, Snow profoundly shaped the American avant-garde with such works as Wavelength (67), La Région Centrale (71), ‘Rameau’s Nephew’ by Diderot (Thanks to Dennis Young) by Wilma Schoen (74), and Presents (81), but onstage Monday he explained his own foray into moving images as a happy accident:
“I had an exhibition of drawings in ’55 in Toronto and I got a phone call from somebody who had liked my work very much and wanted to meet me. He had a film company and saw something in my drawings that made him believe I was interested in the movies, which in fact I wasn’t. I very rarely went to the movies.” The man on the other end of the telephone was George Dunning, who would later direct the Beatles film The Yellow Submarine. “He offered me a job, which was really fantastic; I was young and trying to figure out what to do next. My introduction to film was via his noticing something about my work that made him think ‘this guy would be good trying to do animation.’”
Although the main focus of the evening’s discussion was his gallery work—Snow doesn’t like to talk about his films without screening them, and seeing “snippets is never a good idea”—the influence of the filmic is pervasive in his art, which plays with themes of vision, perception, pattern, repetition, framing, and the relationship between time and space. Favoring the participatory over the didactic, Snow’s conceptual visions are transformed into physical experiences that reward the engaged viewer.
The experience of the gargantuan sidelong steel periscope entitled Scope (67), which Snow describes as a “primitive television,” for example, is contingent upon who else happens to be in the gallery at the time. The viewer may look through the tube and discover nothing at all, or they may see a distorted image of a fellow wanderer at the other end of the installation. In Atlantic (66), Snow uses 30 black-and-white images of the Atlantic ocean framed and mounted against the contours of an imposing stainless steel sheet. The reflections of the steel create the illusion that the waves are moving—these are the same distorted images he famously uses at the end of Wavelength. More recently, Snow’s piece The Powers of Two (03), a suspended translucent image of a nude couple’s coitus in media res, presents a kind of participatory voyeurism. The image recalls a production still, and because of its transparency, to viewers on the opposite side, the spectator appears to be standing in the couple’s boudoir.
The piece that most explicitly references film, and his own film no less, is De La (71), an installation featuring the machine that was specifically engineered to achieve the disorienting camera movements in La Région Centrale, shot on a barren mountaintop in northernmost Quebec.
“I wanted to be able to move the camera around in circular, elliptical movements and I couldn’t find anything that wouldn’t film itself,” Snow explained. So with the help of a friend working at the National Film Board of Canada, he simply invented one. “Watching it shoot I became interested in the machine itself. It was made never to be seen but I found it so beautiful to watch I made an installation out of it.” The kinetic movement of the massive machine is not merely displayed for its own sake; it simultaneously films spectators as they view the work, playing the footage in real time on surrounding monitors.
Calling Michael Snow interdisciplinary is an understatement. Though medium specificity is central to his art, it is also impossible to relegate any of his seemingly boundaryless pieces to a single medium. In talking about his work, Snow makes it all sound so easy. Each idea seems to spring spontaneously and effortlessly from a preceding project, in a never-ending chain of astonishing productivity that can perhaps be attributed to the mental flow of his improvisational musical mind, creating through creation itself—or perhaps it’s just his understated Canadian way of expressing himself.
During a brief Q&A, Snow recalled his formative years in New York. Living on Canal Street and hobnobbing with Jonas Mekas and other members of the “so-called underground film movement,” Snow painted an enviable scene with characteristic downplay:
“I didn’t know that artists made films…When I came to New York, I started to go to the screenings at The Modern and to the variety of screenings that Jonas put on. Naturally, it was gradually refining my ideas about what I wanted to do with film. With Wavelength I think I kind of got to being myself and a lot of things came from making that film. I became friends with both Steve Reich and Richard Serra because of Wavelength. The Sixties were very…fertile.”