Lukas Marxt wasn’t particularly surprised when Adam Hyman of the LA Film Forum told the audience at the Goethe Institute Los Angeles they need not worry about the narrative of the short films they were about to see. There wasn’t one. Or only rarely.
“My works are very open,” says Marxt himself diplomatically. In 2017 the 35-year old Austrian lived and worked in Los Angeles for six months.
Here, new works dealing with common topics emerged. In August he traveled to Arco, Idaho, with his partner and collaborator, Vanja Smiljanić, to experience the solar eclipse, for instance. The village with fewer than 1000 residents prides itself of being the first human settlement run entirely on atomic energy.
It comes as no surprise that such dismal a place where one can almost feel that the end is near attracts him. Inhospitable, almost hostile locations exercise a fascination on him – with or without narrative.
If anything, Marxt feels that it could be an asset that his movies often lack a clear beginning and ending. When he was younger, at the university in Linz, his thought process was more naïve and organized around narratives, he says.
It was a coincidence that he moved away from “mainstream stuff” (Marxt). At first he enrolled in environmental sciences in Graz, before switching to audiovisual design in Linz. He completed postgraduate studies in Cologne.
As an audience member, one has to be able and willing to stomach the type of slow movies the Austrian makes. Watching requires extra effort, as there is little guidance.
“We are taught to expect a narrative and we want to identify with what we see on screen – we want to understand something,” says Marxt.
He is aware, though, that only a “special type of person” takes the time to engage with experimental films. This might be one of the reasons he likes to produce works for the exhibitions in addition to the theater. There, his video installations can reach an audience that might otherwise not sit through a short film program.
With their long takes – often there is only one camera position – Marxt’s movies are defying the logic of wanting to understand what we see he discussed. They appear like a relic from a past century. Almost as an antidote against the accelerated lifestyles many of us lead. Researchers discovered that the average user only spends 2.5 minutes watching an online video.
This deceleration is intentional. Marxt wants to give the spectator time for introspection. “One can’t keep up!” he says about a world in which members upload 300 hours of video to You Tube each minute.
The audience needs to make time for Marxt’s films – just like Marxt took his time making them. His works can invoke a feeling of being left alone. This is all but deliberate, too. Marxt thinks that the dialogue between audience and artwork is more intense when audience members feel abandoned and on their own with their thoughts.
Early works like REIGN OF SILENCE (2013) are good indicators as to where the cinematic journey is headed. The film documents an act of human intervention in nature. For a long time it seems nothing is happening and we stare at a world of ice and snow. Then a boat appears from the right and begins to circle on the water. The boat leaves the scene to the left. The film ends like it began – with ice and snow. One can only surmise the traces of the human intervention. Nature took back the reigns and, with its ability to heal itself, eliminated all human traces.
It is perhaps due to his affinity to circles and circular movement that people draw a comparison to Robert Smithson’s “spiral jetty”. The 1970 sculpture made of rocks and soil represents one of the most prominent works of land art. The artistic movement that originated primarily in the English-speaking world in the 60s and 70s used natural materials they found on site and erected elaborate structures that were then returned to the elements after documenting the artistic process.
What Marxt’s films and installations have in common with land art pieces is a sculptural quality that is important to the Austrian. It shines especially in the exhibition space. He wants his works to have a body that can be connected to the ground – grounded, as it were.
“As soon as the paintings are connected to the ground, they gain a certain tactile property in the space; that makes them more present than at the theatre where it’s all about illusion and fiction,” says Marxt.
Marxt, for one, isn’t terribly concerned with putting his mark on nature permanently. He wants to capture and process what happens (or doesn’t happen) and transport it to the showroom or theater.
Land art artist such as Robert Smithson and Michael Heizer rejected the commercial art market. The artworks themselves only exist outside and separate from the theater and gallery space or museum. They only showed films and images of the creation process. In Marxt’s case, no permanent structure is left in nature after filming is completed.
CIRCULAR INSCRIPTION (2016) illustrates the artist’s thought and work process well. While he first identified a location for REIGN OF SILENCE, he put the cart before the horse in the case of CIRCULAR INSCRIPTION. Knowing he wanted to produce another piece that dealt with circles, he searched for an appropriate location. A white car draws circles in the sand that grow wider and wider, the car gains more and more speed. The spectator assumes the bird’s eye view.
Another favorite theme of his is solar eclipse. He finds their universal and epic quality attractive.
“When one sees that black hole in the sky one feels very small and alone with oneself.”
Also, such a monumental event allows him to discuss size differences between the spectator with the camera and the rest of the world or the universe.
He processed his first solar eclipse in the movie DOUBLE DAWN (2014). It’s set in a uranium mine in Australia’s Northern Territory. Only a few minutes passed between the initial sunrise and the complete eclipse. The movie is almost 30 minutes long nevertheless. There is nothing to see or hear for a long time, except sounds of cars and animals. For the untrained eye it is impossible to identify the uranium mine as such. The large hole in the red rock might as well be a bomb crater. This idea can lead one to have existential and apocalyptic thoughts.
In his second work about the subject, SHADOWLAND (2017) with Vanja Smiljanić, the viewer is not alone with the spectacle – just as the filmmakers weren’t alone while filming. Other eclipse chasers and even two music bands joined them on the Faroe Islands. The shots are not quite as long as usual and edits more frequent, there are more close-ups and even spoken words. We hear a woman report about the life changing quality of a solar eclipse from the off. The whole thing culminates with a band performing on top of a romantic cliff for the duration of the eclipse.
SHADOWLAND marks a development towards a slightly faster sequence of images and the incorporation of people as well as language.
Marxt cites practical reasons for the broad absence of people and language from his previous works. He noticed that he was most comfortable as a One-Man-Band (that means he does everything himself from camera to sound to editing) while at the university. That made it difficult to deal with people and dialogue. “This limits what I do, but at the same time I have complete freedom”, says Marxt.
Increasingly he took a liking to collaborative projects and seeks new challenges. A cinematic profile of a hermit whom Marxt met on Lanzarote while working on his thesis film is in the making.
FISHING IS NOT DONE ON TUESDAYS (2016) with Marcel Odenbach, is the result of a fruitful collaboration. The concept was simple, Marxt recalls: Fly to Ghana, stay at the home for three weeks and make a movie about it. “And I will bring my drone.”
This movie features another protagonist in addition to the ubiquitous nature: Marcel Odenbach’s and Carsten Höller’s house in Ghana. It’s an experimental way of looking at architecture, says Marxt.
The film has three narrative levels:
1. The camera observes the house,
2. The neighboring village and fishing boats are observed using a telescope from the house and
3. Bird’s-eye view.
There are no interior shots, except of the neon lights that are battling it out with the crickets over who is louder. Or are there? The boundaries between inside and outside are blurry.
With its aerial view of lush vegetation, the opening scene reminded me of the intro to the TV show MASH. This film paints a different picture of Africa than the one transported by the media every day. Ghana is not portrayed as an empty and sad desert. Malnourished children with bloated tummies are also missing. We are dealing with a green Garden Eden and a gray house on stilts.
The sounds, on the other hand, are not designed to audience members at ease. The sound of helicopters might as well originate from rebels. And who or what are the men with spears after?
Marxt himself does indeed see his work as political. However, he doesn’t want to hit viewers over the head with his message. He trusts that they are well able and equipped to draw the right conclusions on their own – as they don’t leave the theater or the gallery prematurely.
Ecology and history as topics are gaining importance for his work, says Marxt. He wants to know, for instance: what kinds of resources have we already used? What has been destroyed with them? How are we dealing with this problem? His goal is to draw attention to the absurdity of human behavior.
Traces of this behavior he finds all around the world. Often and readily at far-away places. Even as a student traveling inspired Marxt. His movies and installations are set in Spitzbergen, Lanzarote, Australia or the Faroe Islands, for example.
Marxt says he noticed that his films’ reception depend on the cultural context. In Norway, for example, people didn’t find movies about oil platforms or barren landscapes with lots of fog and water particularly exciting.
“If one is familiar with these landscapes and stories, one surely searches for something deeper than if one is so overwhelmed by the images that one is incapable to ask these questions after watching for the first or second time.” When they see his films for the first time, audiences from different cultural backgrounds were so overwhelmed by the images and nature that they couldn’t begin a dialogue with what they saw.
At the university, Marxt grappled with artists who pursue similar topics in their work – such as members of the land art movement. That shouldn’t discourage oneself, he feels.
“Rather, it’s a testament that something is worth doing, or that there is a reason why people are interested in a topic over and over,” he says.
Many of his works deal with the tension between something akin to Spinoza’s idea of nature doing its thing, natura naturans, and the traces of human meddling in nature.
Marxt undoubtedly does not have a monopoly on nature as a movie topic. He also didn’t invent slow movies. The term ‘slow cinema’ was coined in the early 2000s to describe films with long takes as well as little emotion or physical movement.
When, as is often the case in Marxt’s works, the emphasis is on observing what happens naturally, nature itself becomes the actual protagonist. Marxt uses fog as a cinematic tool. For the spectator, this may enhance the feeling of disorientation that the absence of a narrative beginning and ending can invoke. Marxt’s cinematic experiment often leaves the camera located or what it observes obscure.
In addition, fog can take the place of transitions when there’s only one camera perspective. It builds up, exposes something, and covers it up again. This replaces cuts. The video installation CURRENT SHOT 2 is an example for such cinematographic use of fog; as are the films SHADOWLAND and CIRCULAR INSCRIPTION. In the latter, dust stirred up by the car’s tires, replaces natural fog. In WUNDERSCHÖN UND RUHIG GELEGEN, one of only a few movies Marxt filmed in a German-speaking area, both types of fog are present: the naturally occurring kind as well as the man-made one in the form of smoke after an explosion. The same is true for CAPE GROUND.
Marxt finds the lines between creative job descriptions kind of foggy, too. If someone asks him what he does in English, he’ll say “I’m an artist.” In German, things are a little more complicated.
“Artist is such a difficult and complex construct. So much depends on the definition of the person who asks.” If he says “filmmaker”, people immediately wanted to know where they could see his movies. By now, however, he made peace with both terms, he says.
His artistic roots go back to his childhood home in Styria. His father always had his VHS camera running. That way, he collected over 50 hours of footage of, for example, the family dinner. An appreciation for slow cinema seems to run in the family.
2011 RISING FALL
2012 NELLA FANTASIA
2013 TWO SKIES
2013 ITS SEEMS TO BE LONELINESS BUT IT IS NOT
2013 REIGN OF SILENCE
2014 BLACK RAIN WHITE SCARS
2014 LOW TIDE
2014 DOUBLE DAWN
2014 HIGH TIDE
2015 WUNDERSCHÖN UND RUHIG GELEGEN
2015 CAPTIVE HORIZON
2016 CIRCULAR INSCRIPTION
2016 CAPE GROUND
2017 FISHING IS NOT DONE ON TUESDAYS