The Seductive Nature of a Vision

The Seductive Nature of a Vision
The American artist Sarah Morris made a film about Chicago and has taken a new approach to Mies van der Rohe

She is a specialist for architecture, even though her pictures mostly portray abstract structures. The American artist Sarah Morris prefers to deal with the condition of American cities – in pictures and also in films since 1998. The film Capital (2001) focused on the political centre of Washington D.C.; Los Angeles (2004) looked at the movie industry in Hollywood. In Beijing (2009), Sarah Morris followed the preparations for the Olympic Games in Beijing/China. Chicago, her latest film, celebrated its world premiere at the end of April in Berlin and was accompanied by the short film Points on a Line. Christina Tilmann spoke with Sarah Morris about the traces of the Bauhaus in America, about characters in architecture in general and Mies van der Rohe in particular.

Sarah Morris
Still no. 7, Chicago, 2010
Stills from a colour film in HD / HD-Videostill in Farbe
35 minutes 48 seconds

Sarah Morris
Still no. 7, Chicago, 2010
Stills from a colour film in HD / HD-Videostill in Farbe
35 minutes 48 seconds

Sarah Morris
Still no. 8, Chicago, 2010
Stills from a colour film in HD / HD-Videostill in Farbe
35 minutes 48 seconds
Sarah Morris
Still no. 6, Chicago, 2010
Stills from a colour film in HD / HD-Videostill in Farbe
35 minutes 48 seconds
Sarah Morris

Your film Points on a Line from 2010 deals with Mies van der Rohe in America. What do you find so interesting about him?

Points on a Line very concretely deals with the connection between Philip Johnson’s Glass House in Connecticut and Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House in Illinois. The idea that the copy, the Glass House, was completed earlier than the original intrigued me. The character of Mies van der Rohe has already fascinated me for a longer period of time. I met with his grandson, the architect Dirk Lohan, some time ago and researched court documents related to the Farnsworth House. These also play a role in the film because Mies van der Rohe and Edith Farnsworth sued each other. What happened between these two people is a strange and erotically charged story: He sued her for outstanding payments while she sued him for exceeding the budget and it went on and on like this. The film Chicago emerged from this work, but it concentrates more on the contemporary city.

Chicago, which celebrated its world premiere in Berlin at the end of April, is also about architecture in particular. What do you think is so special about Chicago?

The film focuses on the John Hancock Center, which is one of the most famous buildings of Chicago. Its trapeze form and the two antennas on its roof have always reminded me of a strange insect. This is also why I gave the name of “Antenna” to one of my paintings that was inspired by Chicago. The fact that it was the first multi-functional building of this size makes the John Hancock Center so interesting. It is a residential building, but there are many shops and offices on the lower floors. The underlying idea was that you would not have to leave the building at all. You could go to the swimming pool and after that to the grocery store: Everything is in one building. This might not be special today, but it was quite a revolution in the Seventies.

How are the two films related to each other? After all, they were created at about the same time.

 As a type of prologue and epilogue. I already took this approach once before. When I prepared my Olympic film Beijing, I was so frustrated with the Kafkaesque Chinese bureaucracy that I thought I would never finish the film. So I thought about 1972 and the Olympic Games in Munich as an alternative. Then I stumbled upon Georg Sieber, who developed the security concept for Munich back then. He had planned for the scenario of a terrorist attack, but they didn’t listen to him when it actually happened. This is how my film 1972 came into being, as a type of prologue to Beijing. The concept is similar to Points of a Line and Chicago.

You have already been involved with various American cities such as New York, Washington and Los Angeles. Why Chicago at this time?

 I already considered making a film about Chicago eight years ago because the city especially fascinates me due to its architecture. But then it was time for Los Angeles instead. When Barack Obama came into power, I thought that now would be the time to work on Chicago. It is impossible to think about the city without focusing on Mies. This involves not only about the appearance, but also the physical present of the country. Mies and his architecture strongly influenced America because the seductive nature of his vision is still tangible today. He co-created the corporate image of America. Just consider this: The banking crisis and many other events took place in rooms that are based on Mies’ vision. That is the point where I decided: Yes, I want to make this film now.

Philip Johnson’s address book can be seen in Points on a Line and includes about all the movers and shakers from the cultural world. How does Johnson come into play?

 I met Philip Johnson at the Four Seasons Restaurant, which was practically his living room. He invited me to a glass of wine and then we agreed to meet for lunch. Johnson was a contradictory character: He was born wealthy, a socialite, flâneur and connoisseur and represents many things that are considered frivolous or negative. On the other hand, he has done a great deal for the MoMA and donated large sums for modern art... Furthermore, he was simply a gifted networker. If you look at his party plans, you see that how he planned his dinners and parties is a masterpiece. I find it highly interesting to see how much thought he lavished on them.

 How do you view the relationship between Johnson and Mies?

 Mies van der Rohe lived a much more sedate life than Philip Johnson. But they were dependant on each other. Mies knew that Johnson had made it possible for him to build the Seagram Building because the latter was a powerful figure in the USA, even though he was much younger and less talented. But here in Chicago, Mies van der Rohe is obviously more dominant. Wherever you look, he is present everywhere in this city. Just look at the history of the IIT and the campus he designed for it. He taught there from 1938 until the Sixties and simultaneously designed many buildings in the city together with a developer such as the residential high-rises on Lake Shore Drive.

In Points of a Line you do not portray Mies as the urban planner. Instead, he is the creator of an individual building that was virtually a utopian dream: a glass house in the middle of a large park...

 It seemed to me that there was no oxygen in this house. The Farnsworth House is like a film set. It is very theatrical, like a Jacques Tati set. Even the kitchen is theatrical. It stretches across the entire back side of the house. At the same time, the building is very vulnerable: Not just because it is made solely of glass, but because it is elevated as it stands on stilts to protect it from flooding. But you can also feel the tension in the house between the characters who worked together here.

 In what sense?

This is a house that was built by a man for a woman. It has this aspect of being on display or of being made into an object. On the other hand, Edith Farnsworth was a successful scientist who translated Italian poems and was very wealthy. She was a very cultivated woman, and she built this house that cost a fortune as a weekend house. I find the economic aspect of this very interesting. I always like to look at numbers and balance sheets. Just imagine: When Truman Capote bought his first apartment in New York from the royalties for In Cold Blood, he paid 68,000 dollars. Edith Farnsworth paid far more just for a weekend house. This materialistic aspect is also a part of the house.

Architecture has always interested you in all of your films and pictures. What is the next topic that you will concentrate on?

My next project will be based in Brazil – in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo. But I am still in the beginning stages. I had a great meeting with Oskar Niemeyer the last time that I was there. Everyone told me that he is almost dead but he is so lively. Even though he is 104 years old, he burns the screen with his presence. He somehow reminds me of Vincent Price. Oskar Niemeyer has a great voice, a powerful charisma and he is still absolutely a force to be reckoned with.

Gallery Capitain Petzel, Berlin, Karl-Marx-Allee 45, until 30 July 2011. Tuesday to Saturday from 11 am to 6 pm

Christina Tilmann