In the Studio: Tommy Hartung

New York

Portrait of Tommy Hartung. Studio photography by Jonathan Dennis.

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WHEN IT COMES TO THE BIBLE, Tommy Hartung has some unique qualifications. Raised on a modest farm in Sheridan, a tiny rural town in upstate New York midway between Buffalo and Erie, Penn., the 35-year-old New York-based artist is the third of four sons of strict Evangelical parents for whom Scripture provided not a once-a-week panacea but a filter for daily life. Colored in part by his upbringing—unconventional by art world standards—and in part by an abundance of cultural influences, from 19th-century novels (particularly those by Mark Twain) to the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche to movies by Kenneth Anger and Pier Paolo Pasolini, Hartung’s films are a mixture of animation, studio-produced segments and found footage, enriched with dense audio tracks of music and spoken word. Skirting the edges of surrealism, populated with doll characters and mannequins in sets that he makes or finds, his works are nonetheless fiercely contemporary, referencing world events that violently inscribe themselves on the suffering bodies of real human beings.

THE BIBLE (2014), at 60 minutes, is Hartung’s longest and most ambitious film to date. Despite its emphatic, all-caps title, it has an elliptical connection to its source. Conceiving his film in six segments that can be screened separately, Hartung tackles the Bible as open-ended and multi-authored, porous and visionary. It is our approach and our subjective responses to the Bible that interest Hartung, rather than its specific narratives. Accordingly, the film opens with a written text taken, as Hartung says, from “some religious nut job’s website,” the words animated with shifting editorial marks and corrections. It begins, “The Bible is a multidimensional worldwide network of networks in which users at any point in the world can connect information with any other user.” The mélange of drawing, sculpture and sometimes disturbing found materials that follows is typical of Hartung’s work: an Islamic pattern that transforms into waves; an animated talking head of the physicist David Bohm (1917-1992); a hand-constructed, icy landscape; footage of a family of Sri Lankan Tamils hiding from nearby shelling in a primitive bunker. In subsequent segments, we see a post-apocalyptic landscape intercut with a spinning and morphing doll (“struggling with its own representation,” as Hartung describes it); a book-length storyboard flipped from page to page by a disembodied wing to the sound of a Hebrew prayer (“Oh Lord, put me down in the Book of Life,” is how a friend of Hartung translated it); and homages to the military whistle-blower Bradley (Chelsea) Manning and Vietnam veteran John Constantino, who self-immolated on the National Mall in 2013, during the government shutdown. The Constantino segment unfolds to the music of DAS, an artist’s band founded by Hartung’s friend Ronnie Bass, with the lead vocals sung by Gandalf Gavan, another friend from Hartung’s MFA days at Columbia, who died last spring. It closes silently, with a distant view of the immolation captured on a witness’s cell phone and uploaded to the Web.

Hartung works slowly; his earlier films include The Ascent of Man (2009), a profile of Jacob Bronowski (host of a 1973 BBC television series of that title, shared by a spinoff book); and Anna (2011), a retelling of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina from the peasants’ point of view. I sat down with Hartung in his Ridgewood, Queens, studio in May 2014, and again in late August, when he was closer to a final cut.

 

FAYE HIRSCH You speak with an unusual cadence.

TOMMY HARTUNG In childhood I had a severe stutter. It took me a long time to learn to talk, and made me very introverted.

HIRSCH  You grew up in rural upstate New York.

HARTUNG  I was born in Akron, Ohio, but grew up 10 or 15 miles away from Fredonia, New York, in a town called Sheridan. My dad, who was a railroader, was injured on the job, and with the settlement he bought this little farm. It wasn’t productive, in the sense that you could make money at it. We grew grapes, tall grass for hay and pretty much every vegetable, and my father did odd jobs, like selling tractors and old grandfather clocks. He’s a Swiss Army Knife kinda guy, very mechanically minded.

HIRSCH  Siblings?

HARTUNG  I have three brothers. My parents started off really young—I think my mother was just 18 when she had her first. We didn’t go to preschool and were partly home-schooled, because we bounced around a lot during that recession in the early ’80s. Our house in Ohio was foreclosed, so we lived in a camper for a while as my parents figured things out. When I was two and a half, my brother David was born mentally disabled. I was the one closest to him, and in some ways we had a lot in common. My older brothers were athletic, very testosterone-driven. They played all these sports together. I was a real daydreamer, not at all mechanically inclined. My little brother needed someone to be with him constantly. He would get very upset, and he could hurt himself. So the person who helped him was me. It was a nice childhood, because I had all this time to play with my brother. I was something of a naturalist, and very into animals. I trained dogs for hunting—I really liked hunting and stalking. I had a lot of time to be creative, while my other brothers were forced into fixing cars and tractors.

HIRSCH  Did you have any access to art or art education?

HARTUNG  In fact, my second-oldest brother was the artist of the family. He could draw very realistically, and paint pastoral landscapes and that sort of thing. That was art, in my family. As a child, I would draw pictures of God.

HIRSCH  What do you mean?

HARTUNG  My parents were very religious. My mother was raised Jehovah’s Witness, and my father Evangelical—all different sorts of Evangelical. I think he was a Seventh Day Adventist at one point.

HIRSCH  So you too were raised Evangelical?

HARTUNG  I think that’s the best way to describe it. My dad is a very independent person, so we were constantly shifting churches. We had Bible studies almost every night. He would have friends over, and they would talk for eight hours at a time. I was constantly around people who were constructing worldviews to fit their own particular, immediate surroundings. There were supernatural explanations for a lot of the things going on. I remember, as a child, feeling very uncertain about these things, kind of scared.

HIRSCH  And you drew pictures of God?

HARTUNG  Yes, but God might be a purple being with a green beard in a pink sky. I would just get everything wrong. My parents would frame my older brother’s drawings and paintings, but mine sort of mysteriously disappeared [laughs]. Actually, my dream as a child was to be a writer. By sixth grade I was reading a lot. David Copperfield had a profound influence on me. All those details—the elaborate descriptions! I read pretty much all of Dickens, and Tolkien.

When I hit my teens I became even more introverted. I would go off by myself, spending days on end in the woods. We had something like 80 acres. I built forts and hideouts. In some ways, I think my first studios were out there. I would dismantle hunters’ tree stands, or build monster scarecrows out of wood and leaves to keep the hunters off our property.

HIRSCH  How about movies?

HARTUNG  Our parents didn’t really take us out. We didn’t have cable, so TV was very limited. They controlled what we read and watched. But the library at my school—I spent all my free periods there. And most of the things I read weren’t a problem, until I was much older. And at that point it didn’t matter anymore. Because when I was 15, my parents split up. There was a lot of flux in the household. In my last two years of high school, I just started staying more and more with friends.

None of my family went to college. I couldn’t pass a second language or algebra, though I tried really hard. I was told either to join the ROTC or get my GED and vocational training. So I trained during my last two years of high school as a sous-chef in a local Italian restaurant. That’s what I thought I was going to do with my life. But I was able to spend a lot of time during those last two years in the art room. I had a great teacher, who saved my life. He was the one person in the world who made me feel creative. Also in my senior year I really got into punk rock.

HIRSCH  Straight to punk!

HARTUNG  I was in a band. We did shows around Buffalo, Pittsburgh and Erie. We were called the Screw Ups—this Ramones-y punk band. And I ran a fanzine for a while, with designs influenced by Aaron Cometbus, who had this famous punk fanzine [Cometbus, begun 1981] out of the Bay Area. I dyed my hair, pierced my ears.

HIRSCH  Was your father appalled?

HARTUNG  Yeah, but at that point he just didn’t care. It was a dark period for him. Nothing had worked out the way he planned.

HIRSCH  You had a complicated life.

HARTUNG  Well, it might help explain a few things in my work.

HIRSCH  How did you get to college?

HARTUNG  I called up a friend at NYU and said, “Eric, I need to get out of here.” He said, “Come on down.” I’d never been to New York City, never been beyond Pittsburgh or Cleveland. I got a cooking job in Mamaroneck, at a French restaurant. I started rooming with Eric’s girlfriend, who was a Purchase College student, and went to some classes with her. I thought, “Wow. This is what kids my age are doing? They’re not working 80 hours a week?” I didn’t think I could get into Purchase—you need to take the SATs, you need a Regents diploma in New York State. All I had was a GED and low scores on tests. But Eric’s girlfriend was so helpful. She found EOP [SUNY’s Educational Opportunity Program], an affirmative action program for lower-income kids. I quit my job and went back home, where some schoolteacher friends helped me pull together a portfolio and write a coherent essay. I had tons of art—drawings and cartoons—R. Crumb, punk kinds of things. I got into Purchase through EOP.

My professors at Purchase had a big effect on me. One of them showed us experimental films, performance videos—everything. In her class I saw animations by the Czech artist Jan Švankmajer. A lot of Švankmajer’s work deals with Soviet repression. That showed me that you could make objects talk about big things.

HIRSCH  Did you like films by the Quay Brothers?

HARTUNG  In some ways, and in the beginning my work was kind of close to theirs. But their work doesn’t address something bigger than itself. You know—one creepy baby doll scares another creepy baby doll. For me that doesn’t go far enough. By the time I got to Purchase, I was done with all the drinking parties. I spent a lot of time in my studio, working. I began my graduate portfolio my junior year, and wound up at Columbia.

HIRSCH  How did that compare with Purchase?

HARTUNG  It was hard—another country. I work slowly. The whole phenomenon at Columbia of selling work right out of your studio—that’s not for me. I work at what I think of as the pace of writers—an author can spend three years working on something.

HIRSCH  I first saw your work in the “Greater New York” show at MoMA PS1 in 2010—your video The Ascent of Man.

HARTUNG  I began to feel really awful about that piece after a while, because people didn’t get from it what I wanted. It was a biopic about Jacob Bronowski, a Jewish mathematician who became a pop TV personality in 1973 for his BBC series “The Ascent of Man,” chronicling the history of human evolution. But the point about my film—it was not just an homage. I focused on the visual moments where you see it’s not about history, not about science, but about Bronowski’s spiritual and emotional connection to his subject. I was trying to get at the pathos. There is one episode in which he’s talking about his parents who were in the Holocaust. He’s standing at Auschwitz, and he’s speaking about how things can slip off the rails when people believe with absolute certainty, and how they can do these terrible things. He starts walking, then just stands still. There’s this confusion in the documentary, where it ceases to be objective. Culture does not have to be filled with misunderstanding. No matter what world you’re coming from, you can have access to some part of what Bronowski is feeling. Empathy, sympathy, knowing how thought can go wrong.

HIRSCH  So now your subject is the Bible.

HARTUNG  I grew up between two worlds, and have an understanding of both of them. Someone who just grew up in secular society will have a very different reason than I do for calling something “The Bible.” A friend said to me, “The Bible is about violence and a lack of empathy, those are two things people don’t want to talk about, Tommy.” I thought—perfect.

HIRSCH  You often mention satire, but not irony.

HARTUNG  Satire can go further. Satire can be kind of mean.

HIRSCH  Well, so can irony. I think it’s the level of engagement that’s different.

HARTUNG  Irony is in some way a pretentious form of satire. Mark Twain, a master satirist, was not afraid to be vulgar. He was talking the way people actually talked.

HIRSCH  You definitely have a particular angle on Christianity.

HARTUNG  My thesis in grad school attempted a history of Evangelical Christianity through [the Calvinist theologian] R. J. Rushdoony’s Institutes of Biblical Law [1973]. All these guys—the Koch brothers, the politicians, corporate types—are influenced by this brand of Evangelical, libertarian belief that considers the federal government a form of idolatry. And it comes from Rushdoony. People in secular liberal society don’t want to know that—they can’t—they are so locked into their bubbles, still talking about Foucault in graduate school.

HIRSCH  You describe THE BIBLE as a “cinematic dérive.” What do you mean by that?

HARTUNG  It refers to how I want time in the film to be experienced. The Situationists describe the dérive as wandering through a space rather than experiencing it in some sort of logical order. It can be seen as akin to Borges’s way of writing, kind of a labyrinth. You could also think of it as something like channel surfing, or browsing the Web. I’m creating a stream of information having to do with my physical process of making sculpture, and how, in my studio, I use my objects to tell subjective stories. I touch on ideas, and maybe come back to them, or maybe not. There’s not some logic behind it, beyond wanting to re-create my process.

HIRSCH  At several points in the film we see you—your hands at least—manipulating these objects.

HARTUNG  I might cast a head out of plaster and think of it as a death mask. I then resurrect it by constantly touching it and moving it around. For one scene, I had to rotate a head 10,000 times. For me, it was meditative.

You are not, however, supposed to be particularly emotionally engaged with the characters in my work. I want you to look at them in the way you would look at Francis Bacon’s Pope paintings—as images that are constantly fluctuating in their representation. A figure will look like a prophet at one moment, and at the next like an inflatable mannequin. It will come into and out of form, and constantly change.

HIRSCH  No matter how hermetic your content, it’s always brought back to events in the real world, or to something outside itself.

HARTUNG  I always have things playing on the Internet—TV shows, movies, lectures. I’ll be listening to a lecture by [the physicist] David Bohm, for example, and I’ll think, why not put him in my work? I drew a portrait of Bohm for THE BIBLE and animated it; the sound is of him giving a lecture on emotional sensitivity and the limits of cold, rational thought. In The Ascent of Man, it was Bronowski; in Anna, the peasants on Levin’s plantation in Anna Karenina. Living on a farm, I gained experience that gave me some understanding of their condition, since we were such small-time farmers. In my version, the peasants take their revenge. I was also influenced by Earth, a 1930s Soviet film about farm collectivization. I used some footage from that film, which is about the conflict between an idealistic agrarian and pastoral view and what I consider to be the reality. I wanted a dark, visceral, even grisly view of farming. Have you ever seen a nest of baby rabbits get eaten up by a hay baler? These experiences are not romantic at all.

HIRSCH  You have said that THE BIBLE is different from those earlier films.

HARTUNG  What attracted me to the Bible is its archive of cultural information. Its authorship is mysterious. It includes oral traditions that were rewritten many times, and I like how organic that is. “The Bible” literally means “the book.” Just the idea of calling something “the book”—forget all the morality tied up with the Bible—it’s a concept with such power, asserting the linguistic foundations of the religion. And God was named: “I am.” “Yahweh.” That is thinking very abstractly about the universe. Once, the gods were right there—you could offer them food, talk with them on a daily basis. The Bible is about getting further and further away from that, of thinking more and more abstractly about God, a tradition that bleeds into Western philosophy. Kierkegaard had many interpretations of Abraham. An endless multiplicity of interpretations may be used to justify things that are totally unrelated.

HIRSCH  John Constantino, the Tamil family, an actual rape scene that I know you are considering including: these are incredibly shocking images as you present them. We might not know exactly what we are seeing, and it’s sometimes just for a very, very brief moment. But embedded in the film they gain emotional resonance—they take us beyond mere prurient viewing.

HARTUNG  The John Constantino scene, for instance: I’m using a gaudy pop-music video form, going over-the-top to tell this horrific political story about a guy who lights himself on fire. I create for it a fantastical, magical context. My intent is not to make fun of or lighten the event, but to make it even more dramatic. In that scene with the Tamil family, the father asks the cameraman, “What are you going to do with that video?” That spoke to me. What will I do with my video? Maybe I can add a fictional element that will allow such moments to have more of an impact, beyond a documentary’s cold, hard presentation of the facts.