directed by Barbara Visser
Hot Docs, the Canadian International Documentary Festival, runs April 26-May 6, 2018 at Toronto's Bloor Cinema. Visit the fest's official site for more details.
by Angelo Muredda Barnett Newman's divisive abstract painting "Who's Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue III" becomes both a forensic site and a compelling structural absence in Dutch conceptual artist Barbara Visser's debut feature The End of Fear. What might have been an annoyingly palatable art doc about Gerard Jan van Bladeren's vandalism of the painting in 1986 (van Bladeren was so outraged by the work's abrasive shock of red, dramatic asymmetry, and obstinate refusal of representationalism that he decided he had to slash it) and subsequent failed restoration becomes something more slippery and interesting care of Visser's puckishness as not only a filmmaker but also a presence on screen, where we see her coolly hiring a hungry grad student to create a close reproduction of her own, apparently in the filmmaker's name. Though the project suffers at times from the preciousness of its noncommittal form--spanning everything from the expected talking heads lecturing about the painting's mixed critical reception and tabloid history to process-based interludes of Visser's hired gun hard at work, to abstract top-down tableaux of unnamed, black-clad gallery workers mapping out the painting's history on the jet-black floor with masking tape and archival photos--for the most part its free-roaming approach to questions of valuation, ownership, and work in contemporary art feels playful in the right way, opening up a number of avenues for discussion out of what feels like genuine curiosity.
That isn't to say that Visser is disinterested in the tabloid dimensions of the painting's afterlife. She does, for instance, frequently come back to the somewhat silly motif of Visser herself in the aforementioned dark studio space, revisiting an audio tape of a message the painting's attacker--who went on to leave his mark on another Newman work in recent years--has left for her, wherein he opts out of doing a proper interview, sounding a bit like the Zodiac killer in the process. She likewise revels in the strange ways art, commerce, and audience expectation intersected with Daniel Goldreyer's shoddy restoration in 1991, exploring how the respected conservator's work didn't resuscitate Newman's piece so much as it created an uncanny doppelgänger--so indifferently executed as to be incapable of inspiring anyone to hack it to bits. (It did predictably inspire a lawsuit all the same.)
Yet The End of Fear feels most alive and most worthy of the visceral emotions the painting itself inspires when it's at its most unorthodox and cold, such as when Visser sharply cuts between gallery-goers' respectful admiration of the restoration and a group of schoolchildren's flat dismissal of it, or in the faintly chilling moments where her freelancer challenges her authority to call the reproduction, which the student has toiled away on for untold hours for probably pitiful wages, her own. There is something admittedly unsatisfying about the way this challenge of ownership and hurt feelings is resolved: with a stiff, formal sit-down at the table between Visser, her lawyer, and the painter, who is reduced to tears by her employer (and our director's) implacable stance. That dissatisfaction, and willingness to court the viewer's disapproval of the filmmaker's methods, may nevertheless be part of Visser's point--that it is impossible to suss out where an artist's work ends and our engagement with and appropriation of it begins, and that there is no use making abstract art unless one is prepared to confront its audience or think about the ways that countless untold spectators will eventually stake their claim in it.