Since the mid-1990s, Sarah Morris has exhibited abstract paintings and films that explore the charged psychology of various urban sites, with particular attention to architecture’s visually encoded hierarchies and histories.
With two recent films, one about a screenwriter (Robert Towne, 2005) and the other, completed in 2008 and titled 1972, about a police psychologist, Morris shifts from panoramic views of major cities to intimate portraits of individual citizens. In the following discussion she talks about the relationship between these distinct genres and how her current film, a work in progress about Beijing, led her to Georg Sieber, who is the subject of 1972. Hired by the International Olympic Committee to be head psychologist of the Munich Police, Sieber was charged with leading security for the 1972 games, and projecting scenarios that could jeopardize their safety.
Ultimately, Morris suggests, the inevitable failure of such Olympian efforts reflects the degree to which contemporary experience mirrors Hollywood versions of history. It is no longer just that “truth is stranger than fiction,” as Mark Twain wrote. In our world, according to Morris, truth is fiction.
Cay Sophie Rabinowitz Each of your films develops around a particular setting and group of cinematographic conventions, formats or genres. You’ve made a number of city portraits: New York [Midtown, 1998], Las Vegas [AM/PM, 1999], Washington, D.C. [Capital, 2001], Miami  and Los Angeles ; most recently, you made two films that each focus on a single person. How do these portraits of individuals—Robert Towne; 1972,about Georg Sieber—relate to your films about cities and the event spaces where they prop up their identities? Could you talk comparatively about this in terms of your Beijing film?
Sarah Morris Because I haven’t started editing the Beijing film yet, I’m sort of reluctant to talk too much about it. It could be interesting to talk about the way Los Angeles is to Robert Towne as 1972 is to the Beijing film. There is sort of a prologue/epilogue dynamic between them—they are almost twin films.
CSR So how does Robert Towne act as a precursor or staging situation for 1972?
SM Part of my work is setting up an approach and then letting it become an open system, letting it run. I had
been thinking for a while about the role of characters in my films. Obviously, they’re not really characters per se—they’re sort of citizens. When I was shooting Los Angeles, where the meetings seemed to go on endlessly, often there would be this moment where Robert Towne would be on the phone [with someone] in an office where I was, or something else would happen that made me very aware of his absence and also aware of his presence. I was very aware of Robert Towne’s history and his role as a script doctor—somebody who improvises deeply but within a very given system. Shampoo [which Towne wrote] is almost a history or a story about Los Angeles, as a number of his screenplays are. One thing I learned from Los Angeles is the way interdependency—director on producer on scriptwriter on actor and so on—is very explicit. It being so clear the way all these people are involved in the image production, in the making of an entire image, fascinated me as an artist who uses multiple mediums. I think that’s something specific to my generation of artists, going cross-media and also cross-disciplines, being able to use everything from industrial design to architecture to politics to the entertainment system to maybe commercial strategies, and not only using those ideas as subject matter.
I had already made a painting titled Robert Towne. So, after making the Los Angeles film and dealing with issues of surface, I decided to start a series of films, each about just one person who is a particular citizen of a place, with a very particular historical relation to that place, and basically letting them speak for themselves even if what they said might not prove to be consistent with the dominant story about that place.
CSR So is the same kind of prototypical character to be revealed in 1972? Is Georg Sieber, a police psychologist involved with that year’s Olympic events, the prototypical Münchener? In your film he makes some interesting comments about the Hollywood version of history—what he calls “Spielberg’s version . . . the most prolific version . . . a propaganda version.” Sieber also says, “the version I’m telling you is not the version that’s usually told.”
SM Well Robert Towne is basically a storyteller, and so is Georg Sieber. Sieber was the scenario planner for the 1972 Olympics. He was hired by the International Olympic Committee to predict what would happen, and in fact he did do the projections, but when it actually happened nobody listened to him. Both of them are playing with their own versions of reality. Viewers are aware of the storyteller as mythmaker, and I am definitely playing with that. They know not to believe everything they hear.
CSR If Robert Towne is an epilogue to Los Angeles, is Robert Towne also a prologue to 1972? How does the way Towne is constituted within the structure of Los Angeles relate to the way that Sieber is structured into 1972?
SM Sieber is a little different. Robert Towne was done after Los Angeles, in retrospect. What led me to Sieber was, firstly, that I was looking for a second character to continue this series that I had set into motion, the idea of using different characters. And secondly, I was already doing research into the Beijing film. I was having lots of discussions with the International Olympic Committee in both Lausanne and Beijing, and I was talking to a lot of people about how to go about making this film in China. Everywhere, I confronted these enormous bureaucracies, and it was impossible to figure out how many people actually were involved or the bureaucracies’ relationship to a place. Indecipherability and the idea of not being able to perceive depth goes along with the idea of parallax [also the name of Morris’s studio]. Actually, the International Olympic Committee is a Swiss organization, and it has very little to do with Beijing. I had to figure out how to navigate through this.
I thought very much about the idea of failure, not only my own in dealing with these entities, which were pretty confounding, but also failure in terms of the games. I wondered, will it be a failure if nothing happens during these games? Will it be a failure if something happens during these games? Like what? It just seems you can’t talk about Beijing without talking about failure, and I realized that before shooting the Beijing film I wanted to deal with that specifically in relation to the past, which brought me to the idea of Munich, the biggest failure in terms of Olympic games.
In a way, it gets down to the failure of system planning in general, which is a much more interesting topic. Even if you hire a very interesting progressive thinker who is a psychologist to come up with ways to respond to possible scenarios, it doesn’t mean they’ll be implemented. You can have all the plans and ideas you want, but between planning and implementation, or projection and implementation, is a gap—the gap between reality and the idea, the ideal. I mean that’s what artists are dealing with all the time. That’s what I’m dealing with.