Credit: FIDMarseille
by Michael Sicinski Featured Film

The Spirit of the Spider — Antonia Rossi & Room of Shadows — Camilo Restrepo [FIDMarseille ’24 Reviews]

July 1, 2024

One of the hallmarks of rapid-onset social change is a general sense of confusion. We often understand that some sort of intervention is absolutely necessary, but just as often we face the fact that we really don’t know what to do. What does productive resistance look like? What is the appropriate intervention for this uncertain moment? Since the 1970s, there has been a widespread consensus that in order to be effective, artwork must leave the safe space of the studio behind and engage more directly with the larger world. This idea was codified most directly at CalArts, when conceptualist Michael Asher created a seminar on “post-studio” arts, a course that turned out to be one of the most influential for future generations of artists.

It’s unclear whether this attempt to think outside the studio has run its course. But a couple of new films from 2024 FIDMarseille appear to be reversing the terms. The studio, like a frame around an image, can permit the creation of a limited space of action, a kind of control group where ideas can be explored and assessed for their possible contributions. Although the two films in question do not completely shut out the social world, their makers do confine themselves to a small space, one that affords them a great deal of control over their procedures and meanings. Likewise, both films attempt to comment on or affect the social and political spheres from inside these private rooms.

Chilean filmmaker Antonia Rossi’s The Spirit of the Spider is a busy, at times cluttered, film that largely focuses on solitary creation. Most of the film consists of a sculptor (Maria Garcia) producing a large installation work in an otherwise empty warehouse space. Rossi begins by showing us the artist digitally cropping images on a computer, eliminating margins and altering color and texture. We soon get a look at her larger project: she is building a miniature city made of metal silhouettes, black buildings with white light shining through their negative space. We see figures in the windows, and assorted figurines and other objects, as Garcia arranges and rearranges them in the studio.

Garcia’s performance alternates between experimental action and a kind of quiet fear. The overwhelming sense is that she is manufacturing her own symbolic world as a way to minimize her contact with the real one. We see her sleep, eat, crawl around, and generally eliminate the distinction between life and work. Rossi’s film includes abstract interludes, along with found-footage inserts of 1950s stag reels and softcore porn. While it’s likely that The Spirit of the Spider is actively courting confusion, asking the viewer to draw their own conclusions about what we see, the film is mostly incoherent. We don’t ever really get a sense of what is at stake in this imaginary cityscape, nor do Rossi’s digressions establish a clear place within the film. As a document of uncertain artistic engagement, a concrete sense of confusion about the artist’s role in present society, The Spirit of the Spider conveys the conundrum without making a clear, positive statement.

Credit: FIDMarseille

Meanwhile, Colombian filmmaker Camilo Restrepo, best known for his previous feature film Los Conductos (2020), appears in FIDMarseille’s French Competition with Room of Shadows, a somewhat more complex work than Spider but one that shares many similarities. Restrepo confines the action to a single room and an adjoining wall, as we observe a woman (Élodie Vincent) working to fortify her private space against growing social unrest right outside her window. We hear explosions, we see glass broken by flying rocks and bullets, and Vincent’s character busies herself with boarding up the windows, moving furniture around, and eventually knocking a hole in the wall between her apartment and the next.

Vincent’s performance is strange and compelling, pitched somewhere between professorial discourse and mounting dread. She frequently addresses the audience, and overall the film has the feel of a one-woman stage play, its location quickly coming apart. Restrepo has her deliver a fractured monologue about the role of the arts and intellectual examination, things we are meant to understand are in jeopardy due to the unseen world order coming to power beyond her room.

Vincent cites Pliny the Elder, who described the first known drawing as a silhouette traced on the wall, a woman making a mark of where her husband was before heading off to war. In this respect, Room of Shadows argues that creation and unrest have been intertwined from the very start. As she discusses various other artworks — a protest photo by Susan Meiselas, a collage painting by Paul Klee, films by John Smith, Dennis Hopper, and Travis and Erin Wilkerson — there is an accumulating sense that Room of Shadows means to catalog various acts of creative resistance before they are wiped from the historical record.

In this regard, Room of Shadows plays a bit like the plays of Wallace Shawn, such as The Fever and The Designated Mourner, in which intellectuals are forced to reckon with the dissolution of their prized cultural artifacts. Restrepo’s film embraces artifice, combining a nondescript apartment space with Op Art paint and high-temperature chromatic lighting. But its engagement with social crisis makes it almost seem like a documentary of real-time devolution, an entire history being stripped away and destroyed.

If The Spirit of the Spider attempts to construct a second world that might compensate for the destruction of the first, Room of Shadows offers a glimpse of the studio in ruins, the vain attempt to use culture and history as bulwarks against the violence of power-crazed philistines. Rossi’s film admits the outside world but doesn’t quite know what to do with it. But Restrepo’s articulates the irony of cultural resistance. The bigger the cocoon you try to build around yourself, the more inevitable the collapse.

Published as part of FIDMarseille 2024 — Dispatch 1.