Art as a subversive film

Over the years I’ve worked with Robert Nelson on the unearthing, preserving, and screening of his films, there has always been an interesting back-and-forth related to his perspective on his own work. He has said that he views his films as “works in progress” in the sense that, at any given time, if he feels he wants to further modify or change or even destroy any of his films, he absolutely reserves the right to do so. In fact, not being hung up on his art (whether film, painting, sculpture, etc.) as being sacred or immutable in some way is part of his pleasure in being an artist.

I totally love and respect this viewpoint, but of course it puts the preservationist side of me at some odds with his efforts. At any rate, just wanted to give some background on this photo.

In the mid-to-late ’90s, Nelson started to re-evaluate his entire filmographic output. Many films that he felt were problematic, he attempted to “fix” by re-editing them. A few of these attempts were successful for him, most weren’t. Some he didn’t even bother with and immediately earmarked them for destruction.

Eventually, everything that he planned to destroy (including also workprints, cut mags, and faded prints, in addition to originals for the aforementioned dismissed works) went into a huge pile. Some of it got shredded in a paper shredder. The rest of it got lacquered and turned into sculptures, several of which are visible in this photo.

May I draw your attention to one stack of film in particular, in the lower left, which has been turned into a stool seat…? When it occurs to him, I’m sure Nelson gets a certain kick out of planting his ass onto what may be the originals for Super Spread (1967) or The Beard (1968) or any number of other destroyed films.


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