Alex McDowell, film production designer and producer, founder and creative director of 5D Global Studio, on a painting by his wife, Kirsten Everberg
GB Tell me why you chose this painting.
AM ‘The Woodcutter’ is one of a series of four paintings by my wife, Kirsten Everberg. I feel deeply connected to my wife’s work. I’ve seen this incredible transition she made. She was a costume designer when I met her, working in film, and she decided that she wanted to go back to art school when we had our first child. So she literally went back to art school with Oonagh, our baby daughter on her hip. She was going to just dip in and then go back to costume but she realised she had found her life’s work. Her process is unique. She projects images and paints in very thin oil while the canvas is vertical, then she lays it flat and drips liquid acrylic onto the surface. There’s a constant tension between control and release. With this painting, what resonates for me is the notion of Kurasawa’s non-linear narrative Rashomon, that this series of paintings is based on. Like the film, this painting speaks to me of multiple issues about narrative. That’s kind of fundamental to what I’m doing nowadays. Then there’s this idea that every story has rich, layered, interwoven time and space, and each lens you put on it gives you a different story. For this series she made four very similar looking paintings of the forest where the Rashomon story takes place. Each one represents a different character and each character has a different story outcome because of their different viewpoint. And then there is her process. The surface of this painting has this beautiful quality of shifting from the abstract to the figurative depending on scale. The closer you get to it, the more abstract it becomes, which I think makes your relationship to the painting very volatile. It changes completely as you move back and forth from something chaotic to something that has layers of figurative meaning. The things she’s dealing with in memory and history are there for you if you stand back far enough to see it as something with a photographic source. Then as you get closer it becomes more about the paint and the materiality. That is a beautiful aspect but in this case it has extra layers of meaning with the Rashomon source.
GB I’m fascinated that your own work involves such unbelievably sophisticated technology and yet you’ve chosen something as primitive as painting.
AM I was trained as a painter and I think it’s a primary reference to me. I don’t think the technology itself is what’s important to me. I’m interested in the doors that it can open but it all still comes down to these primary things like story and memory. I’ve enormous respect for Kirsten for having stayed very pure in her relationship to painting. Technology for her is an overhead projector. She tapes together transparent elements and projects that onto her panel.
GB Some people say that painting is dead. Do you think that could ever even be possible?
AM I do think that it’s a fundamental. I don’t see this notion of things dying. The history of the ways in which we communicate our narratives shows that the platforms remain. Theatre is more and more vibrant and relevant. Each creative platform is a different but important way to express the human viewpoint, and none are supplanted by the next. I think that painters have to make strong decisions now about why they’re sticking to that medium and in this case the tension of the work in this painting where the physicality of the paint is almost at war with the intent, the fact that it has to be tangibly mediated in this way, is something you cannot experience in digital media. I worked in digital animation for three or four years and it’s really tough to get the accident to come back into the mix, to have that chaotic tension and lack of control. You have to make a decision about every pixel in an entire space. In everything we do now I’m striving for that balance where you’re not completely in control.
GB It’s interesting to study the neuroscience behind what happens when we have an aesthetic experience. For instance, there’s not just one part of the brain that responds to beauty. The mind is flooded with memories and associations when we look at an object. It seems that you’re creating an experience like this with world building, but one that you’re in control of.
AM Or not. The world building is a design impetus where you’re responsive to all the factors that control the narrative space and make it as broad as possible. The more the neural network builds between these disparate elements, the more robust that world becomes. But you kind of have no idea what happens when you introduce a new element, like adding a specific historical event that could’ve happened to this world ten years ago. You have to be open to constant disruptions to the world space. The creative pleasure I get from world building is the not knowing and the surprise. In the opposite way from what Kirsten does, I really enjoy these vast collaborations and the tension between all the different people involved. Incredibly, it never breaks. The more disparate and cross-disciplinary the creators are, the more interested they are in each other and the more interesting the world becomes.
GB Do you think universal beauty exists?
AM The notion of beauty never actually comes up in my work. I don’t know why. I feel the context is always one of problem solving. I arrived at the notion that I was an artist when I was ten and an art teacher told me I was an artist. When I was in London after art school I was doing life drawing but designing record sleeves at the same time. Then I had this revelation that it was all the same thing. At that point I think I became a designer rather than an artist, and I’m very comfortable being a designer whose job it is to solve problems. In a way I’m just an empty vessel until a problem comes at me. I have huge respect for the way Kirsten works in isolation and discipline, striving very much towards beauty and responding to the flow. It’s a set of internal, emotional, instinctive decisions and I think that the criteria she uses are pushing towards an ideal of beauty. I try to visualize quite abstract solutions to problems that I see as quite empirical. If the narrative you put out into the community does well and people who have been absorbed in that world are triggered emotionally, then you’ve been successful, but you haven’t imposed your own style on it. You take on the rules of that world so it’s a contextual aesthetic. So I suppose I find the painting beautiful because it’s the opposite of what I’m doing in many ways. It’s a moment in time that’s locked and there forever.
GB Kurosawa was very concerned about beauty in his films. Do you think his sunlight through trees is universally beautiful?
AM Yes, light is a huge part of beauty. Light and sound are the components of beauty. The visual only exists through light. I’ve always been interested in light, and I’m increasingly interested in sound and how much space it carries.
GB So have you noticed in your film work that things look difference once there’s a sound track.
M Yes, the difference is huge.
GB And at the moment, everything you do is limited to the human imagination. Do you think that one day Artificial Intelligence will supersede that?
AM Yes, I’m afraid I do. We’re going to have to decide pretty soon whether or not we have any function as humans at all. I just met an amazing scientist from Auckland University who is he’s doing a research project called Baby X. They’ve built an AI baby from the brain out. So they started with the brain and fed stimuli into it and it started to develop behaviour. They connected muscles to it that were triggered by emotional behaviour in the brain and they put a face on that. We saw a live demo of this scientist speaking to the baby and the baby comprehending it. I feel like everything changed for me in that moment. When the scientist walked away the baby’s face started to change and it started crying.
GB Do you think that the baby will ever be able to look at a sunset and find it beautiful?
AM I don’t see why not. That stuff has a function for us. We’d have to work out what that function is.
GB Do you think the baby might make a beautiful painting one day?
AM I don’t think that beauty is the reason for the existence of a painting. Kirsten is trying to express layers of meaning. The amount of decisions made in every millisecond is incredible whether they’re emotional or connected to light and colour. I think that Artificial Intelligence will only really exist when it’s self-motivated, so I think the aesthetics will be driven by very different things and may not be recognisable by us, but you need emotional satisfaction in what you’re doing.
GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?
AM I think that it stands alone, resonant, without explanation and without conscious thought. You don’t need the explanation for this painting to give back to you more than you give to it. I could stand in front of this painting for hours and still come back to it the next day and it would be different. That moment in time that has been captured in the painting remains volatile according to light and distance and my emotional state.