Capturing Chaos:
Reflections on The Magus


By Jaimz Asmundson


Image: Still from The Magus (Jamiz Asmundson, 2011). Courtesy of the artist.

 

The Magus (2011) is the second collaboration between my father, C. Graham Asmundson and me. Shot over a period of two years, the twelve-minute film details, within a narrative structure, the creation, destruction and technological transformation of my father’s static works into a time-based exploration of his process.

Our previous collaboration, Drawing Genesis (2006),1 was photographed in a freeform, improvised style; documenting my father’s ritualistic painting process. Rather than focusing on the creation of actual paintings, the film centers more on my father fiddling with props, costumes, mirrors and dance, and fussing with uncompleted paintings, while I obstructed the lens with various translucent objects, crystal spheres and Vaseline in a frenzied, in-camera montage of his work, occult symbols, performative gesture and visual vestiges. Later, I came to understand that this ritual was part of his madness in finding inspiration in chaos: he employs ritualized physical movement, dance, controlled breathing, physical exertion and music to achieve a trance-like state, in which the canvas serves as a record for the paint and ink that happen to be transferred in this process. He then makes use of the forms, lines and shapes that have appeared to the mind’s eye as suggested by his incoherent scribble and reflection of light on the canvas, which serve as the groundwork for drawing out recognizable imagery, until the composition manifests as a writhing dream-architecture of nude forms.

The earlier film was very spontaneous; it was shot over the period of a few hours. Despite the film’s success, I wanted to explore the process of creation in greater depth, so my father and I began to discuss a larger-scale project that would document his method from beginning to end.

Painting, especially my father’s, is not a quick process. Every night, he toils away at it, working first with chaotic scribbles, which continue to develop based on the images that emerge. This process can go on for months; the paintings, in a state of continual transformation, always seem to be incomplete in his mind. A few times this has frustrated him to the point of destroying his work. He once, while in art school, made a massive sculpture out of the torn canvases of several large paintings; another time he spent over 100 hours on a small, three-foot by three-foot painting only to pull all of the yarn off it and recycle the wax-covered board for another piece. He also has a habit of over-painting a work until five or six layers of painting exist below the surface—the resulting topography suggests constantly evolving worlds.

My goal with The Magus was to frame his work and activity within a narrative structure that would complement his aesthetic, based in relentless alchemical creation and destruction, as well as provide a metaphor for the artistic process itself. Since I was a child, my father has described this process as a conduit for an unseen magical force, a linking of his mind to a collective unconscious that allows certain worlds and characters to spill onto the canvas, through the divide. I did not want to recreate this world, but instead to capture his descent into trance-state during this artistic process by confining it within a mise-en-scène rich in occult symbolism; thereby fashioning an elaborate, cinematic ceremony that would distill the occult symbols and archetypes of our culture that have influenced his work, and unleash a concentrated vibration of energy upon the viewer.

Unlike Drawing Genesis, this film was not to be spontaneous. The performative gestures and resulting paintings were somewhat contrived for the camera, knowing from the outset that ultimately we would be destroying the work and that the entire motivation in making the film was to record the creative process itself.


 

Image: Still from The Magus (Jamiz Asmundson, 2011). Courtesy of the artist.

 

False-vérité
The film begins in a cinema-vérité style. Shot in HD video, we see my father in his messy apartment, saturated with his personality and teeming with his artwork. He wakes up, has a smoke and a coffee amid his cluttered living and working environment, and prepares to leave. I open the film this way to provide a brief glimpse into my father‘s character and daily routine, and also to set up the (false) impression that this is will be a conventional artist portrait, there by diffusing expectations of what is to come.

Arriving in downtown Winnipeg in the winter, he descends an exterior staircase and enters an underground system of tunnels. As he gets deeper and deeper underground, the architecture becomes more and more ancient, timeless, dimly lit and claustrophobic.

This sequence begins in Winnipeg then transitions to various “verboten” locations in Cologne and Paris that I shot while at a residency in early 2010. In one location, the underground remains of a Roman castle, the camera was nearly confiscated. In another, my father and I were lost in the absolute darkness of a condemned German war fortress that was littered with beer bottles, needles filled with an unknown red liquid, and a haunting air of negative energy. I left the camera rolling as we, terrified, attempted to find our way out of the labyrinth. The look of fear on my father’s face in this footage is real.


 

Image: Still from The Magus (Jamiz Asmundson, 2011). Courtesy of the artist.

 

On the final level of the descent, he comes to a dark hallway with a set of double doors at the far end, behind which is a brilliant white light seeping through, illuminating the tunnel.


The White Room
He enters through the doors to discover a white room, with a small wooden box in its center. He opens the box to find a smaller box, which he sets aside as he removes his clothes. Once naked, he takes a paintbrush from the smaller box, cleanses the space through ritual, and begins the formal procedure of his artistic process.

At first, filming my father in the nude was somewhat of an issue for me, but the truth is, we could not settle on an appropriate wardrobe. I felt a poor costume choice (such as a wizard’s robe) would obscure our intentions; this is not an occult film, it is about an artist’s process of creation that draws parallels to occult philosophy—just as my father’s work does in many ways. The nudity also represents a stripping away of the layers with which we represent ourselves to the world, and entering this new state as a pure, naked being fit well with our narrative.


Creation
Over the next five months (from January to June 2009), which spans five minutes of screen time, we see my father create a series of four paintings, each corresponding to the four directions and elements (east: air, south: fire, west: water, north: earth) and their associative color palettes, as per Qabalistic correspondences. During this period, I limited his outside influences and social interactions. For instance, while at work, he could only listen to music from a part of the world that related to the direction (east, south, west, north) he was facing. Also, only those people related to the production of this section were allowed on set. The purpose of these restrictions was to help facilitate the purest possible representation of each element. Aside from the color limitations, he otherwise had free reign to paint what he wanted within these boundaries.


 

Image: Still from The Magus (Jamiz Asmundson, 2011). Courtesy of the artist.

 

My interaction during this stage was also minimal. I set up a semi-automated system to document the daily progress on time-lapsed Super 8 and still images, which allowed my father to work alone, although I would, at certain periods, photograph him in real-time.


Destruction
With the paintings completed, his brush is replaced with a roller, a tray, and a can of white paint: in a matter of minutes, he whitewashes over the work he had just spent five months pain stakingly creating.

From the beginning, my father and I had talked about having an installation component to this film and I was encouraged by several people, including my father, to place clear plastic over the paintings in order to preserve them for this purpose. But I felt that the paintings, if preserved, would hold considerable importance over the film, which was intended to be about the process, and it would lose the impact of the destruction‘s psychological effect on the viewer. The destruction is essential to the symbolism. The paintings as specific reflections of internal landscapes, are destroyed only to be rebuilt and perfected.2

Despite my aggresive attempts to ensure that no accidents occured, we set the alarm off in the building while shooting the following section on a cold Sunday. With no response from the alarm company or the property manager, we filmed the sequence while our studio walls shook violently due to the surrounding old-school fire alarms, which made an unbearable noise and created a terribly tense atmosphere. Overall, I feel this is representative of the somewhat calamitous production of the film, which makes the film’s tension authentic.


 

Image: Still from The Magus (Jamiz Asmundson, 2011). Courtesy of the artist.

 

Rebirth
My father returns to the box in the center of the room, with the paintings now only a memory, concealed under layers of white paint. Carefully arranged inside the box are small mirrors on hinges, as well as lasers, screws and a screwdriver in place of his brush. He removes the contents and attaches the mirrors to each wall. He then returns to the box and trades his screwdriver for a bundle of sage, which he uses to bless the first wall by lighting the herb aflame. Cut to a rapid flash of fiery images; the light in the room has diminished and the laser has been turned on, reflecting in the mathematical arrangement of mirrors to create a blazing red pentagram. The organic nature of the previous sequence now transitions to a technological reunification of the destroyed art.

As he cleanses the space of any lingering organic vestiges of his paintings, he moves in a choreographed dance to invoke his work, timed to a rear-projected, four-channel video that has replaced the walls, and the paintings begin to reappear as animated, pulsating landscapes—electronic portals to the painted worlds. From inside the work, the elemental gods appear wielding spiraling fire. He directs them to enter the paintings, circling them in a ring of fire that consumes his body and the film’s frame in a blinding white light of additive colour.

The images, like the artist, have transcended their static existence, leaving the frame and returning to the void.


 

Image: Still from The Magus (Jamiz Asmundson, 2011). Courtesy of the artist.



Notes

1. Drawing Genesis was originally produced for the One Take Super 8 Event, during the inaugural year of WNDX, Winnipeg’s Festival of Film and Video Art.

2. This decision elicited threats to burn down my house after my father, who was starving for some feedback and human interaction, had let a friend in to see the works.

 



ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jaimz Asmundson is a Winnipeg-based media artist. His award-winning work has traveled to film festivals worldwise and he hase been crowned "Winnipeg's enfant terrible of transgressive cinema." Asmundson is a member of the WNDX Film Festival and has also contributed to many award-winning shorts, features, documentaries and TV productions as a picture editor, assistant editor and graphic designer.


 

 

INCITE Journal of Experimental Media
Issue Number Three (Fall 2011)




 

 

 

 

 


 

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