Lo-Down Arts Contributor Ashlie Cotton recently spoke with the artist Tommy Hartung.
This past summer, while roaming around the floors of the contemporary show, Greater New York, at P.S. 1, I stumbled into a gem of a room. As I entered the darkened wonderland I was greeted by a koi that swam in sparkling waters of a tranquil fish tank, positioned near the room’s entrance. I began to watch the single video in the room, The Ascent of Man, by artist Tommy Hartung, and was instantly mesmerized. Hartung’s piece, which incorporates stop-animation, model toys, and a living mouse, was all at once surreal and poetic. It was abstract, and yet very emotional. I learned that Hartung is represented by the LES gallery On Stellar Rays, and knew I had to meet with him. Here’s what he had to say in a recent conversation:
TLD: When did you start creating art?
Tommy Hartung: I guess when I was in high school. I was interested in technology rather than fine arts. Even though my brothers were good at drawing, I was attracted to computers and technology. Our high school had tons of video equipment because we had our own t.v. station that ran educational films through the local cable access channel. We also had a school news show anchored by our principal. We were basically producing, shooting and editing, all on big analog machines. We would re-edit the footage to make the teachers and principal say whatever we wanted. I guess I really made my first experimental work back then, playing with cameras and technology. I didn’t really understand it as art though. Then when I did my fine arts undergraduate degree at Purchase, I experimented with different mediums through all the core classes you have to take in the bachelors program. None of them really hooked me until I took a video class. I began to apply a lot of the video concepts in my sculpture classes. Also, as a kid, I was always taking apart my toys and reconfiguring them and placing them in cinematic settings.
Now, I am really fortunate to work with good people. I met Candice through a friend and collaborator, Ronnie Bass. He introduced me to her and I did a show for a gallery she used to work for, and then she started her own gallery and asked me to show there. She is the only person I’ve ever worked with as far as dealers are concerned. I lucked out with her. She has a deep connection to the work.
TLD: Which artist has inspired you the most?
TH: My friends.
TLD: What are you reading these days?
TH: The Decameron by Giavonni Boccaccio, which takes place in the 1500’s during the plague in Northern Italy. The premise of the book is that there are these people, a group of mostly women and two men, escaping Florence. They travel around in this Bohemian lifestyle, telling stories to keep themselves entertained. In past years my work has been focused on storytelling. My new project will also be based on Anna Karenina, a book by Leo Tolstoy, working with text and breaking it into script to see where that takes me.
TLD: What would you create if someone gave you an unlimited budget for a single project?
TH: I live in my movies. I build my sets in my living space. If I had unlimited budget, that would confuse things and how I define my life separate form my films. It sounds nice, but people don’t generally give that. I guess I would use an unlimited budget to do absolutely nothing. Then there’s no expectations. Then you do nothing.
TLD: If you were not an artist, what would you be?
TH: An artist.
TLD: If you could wake up anywhere tomorrow, where would it be?
TH: Does that mean I have a time machine? I would like to have a time machine. It would definitely improve my movies. I don’t like traveling, but traveling in time would be cool. I kind of like the early 1900’s, but after that I would go really far back to when Jesus was in his 20’s. That way I could bring back some real answers. It would be a trip to see if he was around, and maybe hang out with him, have a couple of drinks, and watch him pick up girls at a bar. That would be pretty funny.
TLD: In three words, what inspires you?
TH: I don’t know.
TLD: Can you talk about a piece you have created that you are especially attached to?
TH: I think I’m not attached once a piece is finished. I’m kind of over it at that point. I get more attached to the objects in the show, like the fish tank. The objects I use in my studio are actually my personal possessions, so there is a pretty deep physical connection to my work in that way. For example, my piece Ascent of Man, is a document of my process and relationship to these objects and the original documentary [The 1973 Ascent of Man by Adrian Malone] that I worked from. It is a fantasy. My fantasy.
TLD: Can you talk about a piece you created recently?
TH: The Story of Edward Holmes is an older piece, [recently showcased in the LES Lush Life show] from 2008 about a fictional character Edward Holmes. In a lot of my films there is not so much work on making a character really be a character. You see a head or a hand or a face. My films are interested in the generic operatives in narrative filmmaking. Holmes is antagonist and protagonist all at once, all in one. It doesn’t matter who he is, but he sort of drags the story in any way he wants. He starts on a journey as a conquistador, and ends up becoming conquered, in a way. A lot of my movies have literary reference points. The one for this piece was The Conquest of New Spain by Bernal Diaz. The book was sort of a seminal text on what Cortez did when he got to Mexico. Now the book has tons of footnotes saying “He’s lying here, and here, and here.” He exaggerated the facts. I was also interested in how the General talked about Cortez, in sort of a Messianic way. Militaristic events create these quasi spiritual attractions between people. They become intense because of dramatic situations they go through.
Stay Golden PonyBoy, a piece I did with reference to The Outsiders novel by S.E. Hinton, is also an expansion on this idea, although it’s more of a musical trailer.