Credit: FIDMarseille
by Michael Sicinski Featured Film

Land Without Words — Antoinette Zwirchmayr [FIDMarseille ’24 Review]

July 1, 2024

For several years, Austrian filmmaker Antoinette Zwirchmayr has alternated between rigorous visual filmmaking and a hybrid form of experimental narrative. She seems to be interested in exploring the degree to which the structure, pacing, and coordination of avant-garde abstraction can be meaningfully combined with such elements as performance and language. The methods seen in her portrait films, such as 2012’s delicate untitled, or landscape-based work like 2016’s Venus Delta, are placed into service for the explication of more explicitly stated themes. This has resulted in projects that are not filmed theater or dance, but also have very little connection to diegetic storytelling.

Some of Zwirchmayr’s efforts in this vein have been more successful than others, suggesting that she is still grappling with the contradictions implied by her practice.  2020’s The Seismic Form, which presents bodies in landscapes, accompanied by quotations from Jean Baudrillard, frustrates. More compelling are the ideas at play in Zwirchmayr’s more recent project, At the Edge of the Curtain (2022), which uses an enclosed space for presenting highly ritualized actions in a theatricalized mode of abstraction. One gets the sense that Zwirchmayr means to reconcile her twin fascinations with moving bodies and philosophizing, perhaps making her a potential filmmaking heir to Yvonne Rainer, an artist who wove multiple disciplines into her own highly individualized style of experimentation.

Zwirchmayr’s newest film, Land Without Words, splits the difference between these two performative modes. It’s based on a text by playwright Dea Loher, and although one may not immediately recognize this, it is meant to be spoken from the perspective of a woman painter who is reflecting on her work and its place in the broader art world. This monologue is divided among seven performers (six women, one man) who are dressed in identical white tunics and declaim the text as a kind of ritual chant. All the action takes place in a large loft space where different arrangements of theatrical staircases permit the speakers to slowly climb up and down, entering and exiting the camera’s field of vision.

There is a perversity baked right into Land Without Words. This unadorned presentation describes specific works by Georgia O’Keeffe, Damien Hirst, David Hockney, and concludes with an extended rumination on a painter who is almost certainly Mark Rothko, his works becoming a luminous black before eventually committing suicide. The extreme minimalism of Zwirchmayr’s staging and filming of Land Without Words actively deprives the viewer of the visual constructions that are the text’s explicit subject matter, and the final result feels strangely disembodied, as if purely visual concepts (“without words”) were removed from the exterior world and lodged in the speakers’ minds. It treats language as vapor, and pictures as if they were invisible.

Published as part of FIDMarseille 2024 — Dispatch 1.