2010 — No. 4

Sarah Morris: Psychology of the Future

by Thierry Somers

Would Sarah Morris be a good tour guide?

Depends on what kind of tour you had in mind. if what you are looking for is, for example, the tired tourist trail through Los Angeles via Rodeo drive, the walk of Fame, Disneyland, Dodger stadium, universal studios and beneath the Hollywood sign, probably not.

If you’re interested in exploring an intriguing or ambivalent biography of a city – both its “exterior” (its geography and architecture) and its “interior” (the psychology of its inhabitants), than yes. Watch Morris’s film “Los Angeles” to experience that: a 26-minute close-up on the week leading up to the Academy Awards. It covers the Oscar rehearsals, the pampering, the paparazzi, the botox injections – all of the effort behind the artifice. What morris calls the “pre-production of the event”.

American artist Sarah Morris has made six films of cities. In chronological order: “Midtown” (1998) about midtown Manhattan; “AM/ PM” (1999) focusing on Las Vegas; “Capital” (2000) filmed in Washington DC during the last days of the Clinton Administration; “Miami” (2002); “Los Angeles” (2004), and “Beijing” (2008) filmed during the 2008 Olympic Games. Morris has also made two portrait films: “Robert Towne” (2006), about the Hollywood scriptwriter of the film “Chinatown,” and “1972” (2008) which features Georg Sieber, the criminal and behavioural psychologist who was in charge of assessing the different emergency scenarios that could occur during the 1972 Olympic games in Munich.

In her city and portrait films Morris captures the surface as well as what’s happening beneath the surface. “All my films are unmediated in the sense that we’re capturing live events unfolding. Whenever you’re filming human behaviour or human action, unwittingly, you’re capturing the underbelly, the dynamic of what is beneath the surface. When I’m filming movie stars on the red carpet for “Los Angeles” or Robert Towne in their environment – moving into space and time – you’re obviously not only capturing just surface you’re capturing them in context. You see how they work, how they function, their methodology and all these thing attest to the psychology of the city or a person.”


Morris works in two mediums in parallel: paintings and films. Her film “1972” is parallel to a series of graphic, vibrant coloured, geometric paintings featuring acknowledging the Olympic rings – multiplied numerous times. “Los Angeles” is paired with a series of paintings with virtual fragments of architectural motifs of Los Angeles landmarks like Century Plaza and Wells Fargo. Her film “Miami” was accompanied by the “Pool” series of paintings based on motifs that appear to be the inside of swimming pools.

For Morris, the two mediums somehow fuse. “Its not a causal relationship; its not first comes the paintings and then comes the films. Its not an either/or thing or binary.” When Morris makes her paintings she is also thinking about the films and vice versa. The process of painting can be very slow and requires a lot of patience and control: it cannot be rushed. But Morris uses this slow process to her advantage. Waiting for the paint to dry she can be thinking about the films and making lots of phone calls. She quotes a remark of Andy Warhol who used to talk about his work with Interview magazine as “an excuse.” “The films are almost like an ‘excuse’ to engage with a lot people who I find very interesting, who I find provocative – or situations that I find provocative – and place myself in those situations.” Filming is quite the opposite to painting; it’s very fast and very collaborative. It has a completely different temporal realm to it. Nevertheless, Morris doesn’t view it as making two different types of work. For her everything is connected. “Paintings and films are basically two sides of the same coin.” Belgian artist Luc Tuymans reaches the same conclusion. In an interview with Modern Painters he argued that the mediums of film and painting are more or less similar. “Some might say they are diametrically opposed, since one is a moving image and the other is still, but that’s about the only really significant difference. Painting is the process of manufacturing an image, of approaching it, and filming is that too. Both are unlike a photograph, where you are in the moment.”

Rather than go to art school, Morris instead studied political philosophy and film theory at Brown University. She read a lot of critical film theory and watched a lot of film. “I lived in a world of books until I was about 21. It was quite extreme; that consumption of knowledge.” It meant that there was never a taboo for her about working with paint or painting. Could there have been had she gone to art school? “I don’t know. I guess the thing about not going to art school, the only thing that that really explains it to me, is why I would have even made paintings.

When you have an education in art history and the production of art you know how difficult it is to master painting and make good paintings. So most people never thought of using painting to sort of bridge architecture, industrial design, entertainment, politics. They would never think to approach it in this manner. Knowing I didn’t go to artschool explains how I started.” Sophie von Olfers, assistant curator of the Museum für Moderne Kunst in Frankfurt am Main, collaborated closely with Morris on her comprehensive solo exhibition “Gemini Dressage” which the museum curated in May 2009. She shares an insight into how Morris’ non-traditional route of becoming an artist might have benefited her. “The path she followed to become an artist is very different from that of many other artists. She thinks conceptually and seeks ways to portray these ideas. She also has no problem with painting even though so many people in her generation chose not paint because of painting having such heavy art historical baggage. I find it extremely rare for an artist to be not too caught up in this art historical referencing: so many artists are caught up in it and as a result end up making art about art, rather than about what is actually happening today.”

Morris began her career with silk screens and text paintings of media headlines. However, she soon realized that something was missing. “I needed to be responsible for my own sort of manifesto or my own index of references,” she recalls. On the website of White Cube, her gallery in London, she describes her films as “condensed manifestos” for the paintings in the sense that they are a compendium of images and situations that could provide the visual source and psychological complexity from which the paintings begin and abstractly evolve. “Midtown,” was the first example of this way of working. The film focuses on this particular part and life of Manhattan. The paintings – reminiscent of the opening titles of Hitchcock’s classic film “North by Northwest” – are linear grids which create a monopoly board of corporate buildIngs in midtown Manhattan: Rockefeller Plaza, Madison Square Garden and the Paine Webber skyscraper.


With both her paintings and films Morris aims to make us feel that we’re part of a larger whole, part of a system. “The paintings are literally just fragments of a much larger whole which could go on to infinity. It is like this network, this social system which is much larger than us and there is no external position, there is no objective position. There is only a position inside of it and once you realize this and except this, it’s actually quite freeing. I think this same things exist in the films: it’s fragments, its points of coordinates within the city, specific people, places, buildings and situations. These fragments can go on to infinity and they look like they are seemingly autonomous from each other but they are not, they are actually all connected.”

Morris uses this fragmentational way of working in all her films. “Beijing,” for example, opens with an image of thousands of ducks in a breeding factory. Subsequent images include a couple of Olympic athletes picking up their bags at customs control. And a rather voyeuristic scene of a teenage boy and girl in a pedestrian subway. People pass them by. The girl stands against a red wall, the boy leans towards her, talking. The girl has tears in her eyes. The boy grabs her arm and she aggressively pushes him away. For some, the image may be troubling, too intrusive. In another image of street life we see a woman near a perimeter fence struggling to put huge plastic bags of trash on her electric bike. She doesn’t give up easily, and eventually cycles off through the busy streets of Beijing. Such varied scenes continue.

Morris argues that there is no private space: “Everything is public. That applies to a person, a building or a corporation. Anything that I can visually consume is public. It is mine for shifting its meaning.” It is a strange argument with troubling ramifications. If there is no private, only public, then aren’t we in the territory of Orwell’s “Big Brother”? Why, one might reasonably wonder, is Sarah’s camera an any more welcome eavesdropper than a CCTV camera?

“Beijing” – as with Morris’ other ‘city films’ – are devoid of dialogue. Although the fragments are very diverse, they feel nevertheless connected. Isn’t it, after all, human nature to instinctively make connections and see patterns in randomness? This is increased by the film soundtrack, composed by British artist Liam Gillick, Morris’ husband. Gillick’s ambient music – which is alternately atmospheric and peaceful and then dynamic and pulsating – contributes to make “Beijing” a cohesive entity.

This combination of image and sound is reminiscent of the film “Koyaanisqatsi” by Godfrey Reggio. Morris saw the film when she was at Cambridge University and liked “the state of being relentless” that the film encourages, but she also remembered she found the film a little bit too spiritual. “The camera becomes too distant from the situation its in and becomes a little bit too much like God.” Usually a film will be edited first and then the composer gets involved and starts to compose the score only after seeing the images. But Morris steps into the editing suite with a number of tracks that Gillick has pre-composed. There she makes the editorial decisions. Sometimes Gillick hasn’t even seen the footage that Morris shot, but according to her that’s not a problem. “Liam has just heard me talking about this mess of this bureaucracy, this pollution or whatever. He might just hear that and nothing else, but he then knows about the themes of the film. He knows exactly what I’m trying to achieve in a psychological realm. I don’t start editing until I have all the music, but it’s just in components, which are non image-specific.”

American actor and director Warren Beatty once remarked to Morris that the exercise of ultimate directorial control is to not let people speak in a film. The lack of dialogue has indeed a strange effect on the viewer. And this is how Morris likes it. “Umberto Eco would describe it as ‘an open structure’ where the viewer projects the meaning onto the work and participates in making that meaning. This is true for my films in terms of meaning and in terms of the fabrication of meaning or the fabrication of fantasy which I think is extremely important. It’s also very important that people understand that my films are not truth. I’m not a journalist and I’m not making a documentary. I’m just using a technique in my films that might seem as documentary, but that has nothing to do with documentary. My films are fantasies, images of the future and psychology of the future.”

Morris doesn’t think that art has a “journalistic” function, nor that it holds up a mirror to the times. “Art is about an inquiry, about a process, a fantasy even, but it is fiction. A parallel reality. It may contain aspects and situations which are social, political, and aesthetic but, again, this is not journalism because it is not about truth. There is not that level of responsibility. In fact, I don’t have any alignment with the truth. In fact, I don’t believe that objectivity exists. I try to present and to create an extreme version of realities. States of contradiction fascinate me endlessly. If something or someone presents a labyrinth I analyze it and try to enter it and have it enter my work.”


The timing of filming Beijing was very important for Morris. She filmed for nearly three weeks during the Olympics as she knew that Beijing would be more permissive as a society then, and knew it would be interesting to film a city on display. “The timing and also the deadline the Chinese set for themselves to begin the Olympics 08/08/08 at 8.08 pm that precision really fascinated me,” says Morris. “And also the idea of having this compression. I could have filmed it any time but I would not have that expectation at that moment and not knowing what would happen.” Morris could not have envisioned the web of Chinese bureaucracy she had to face for making “Beijing,” including the meetings with officials from the International Olympics Committee (IOC) who had to give her access and permission to film in the Olympic stadium.

The amount of Chinese bureaucracy – which she doesn’t call censorship, just bureaucracy was sometimes a burden. “I was having conversations with people about what I wanted to do and had to persuade them that they should be more generous or that they should be allowing me to do whatever I like. Being engaged in these horrible conversations about logistics was extremely boring.” She obtained a pass to the “Bird’s Nest” stadium that was issued to a very select group of people, with the disadvantage that because of its rarity it was not recognised by guards and security personnel, with whom she had to enter into confusing and endless discussions. She compares it, with self-mockery, to being stuck in one of her paintings. “It was absolutely like a diagram of a headache.”


“My films,” says Morris, “are literally a set of coordinates and that’s exactly what the paintings are too.” Her linear paintings, points, coordinates, are connected by horizontal, vertical and diagonal lines which together form a grid. Sophie von Olfers says about the role of the coordinates in Morris’ work: “The origami paintings are based on coordinates, such as geographical coordinates. The structures are developed in a computer program. With this different set of coordinates, a grid in black and white is created, which she then alters and abstracts, adding complication and aesthetics. Then colour comes into play: she imagines some kind of event that is still to come in a certain place and from that point on it becomes quite intuitive as the colours develop from that.” About the coordinates in Morris’ films Von Olfers explains: “The audience is looking at the coordinates of cities. Coordinates are important to these city portraits: the idea of a network and connecting one place or one moment in time with another runs through her work.”


“June Beetle,” “Kawasaki Cube,” “Parrot,” are titles of paintings forming part of Morris’ Origami series. Why the interest in origami? “Firstly, I became very interested in the idea of the beginning of origami which started in China not in Japan. It developed in Japan in later centuries, but it actually started with the advent of paper, which is really the advent of bureaucracy in China. This interested me as a metaphor.” Secondly, Morris likes the way that origami is sometimes used in cinema as a sign of something to come; a harbinger of change, like in “Bladerunner.” Morris explains:

“Something that symbolizes a change, politically, but you don’t know in what direction. It’s open. Basically the future is open, it’s up for grabs. As an artist you can capture this idea of the future and you can sort of co-opt it.” Thirdly, again, is this aspect of viewer participation. “There is an intrinsic aspect to the idea of origami that you can do it yourself. It is after all at one stage an instruction. And also that the viewer is actively mentally folding this thing. What it becomes and this state of becoming is what I’m interested in.”

The origami paintings involve a lot of maths, which is done by computer. Diagrams are scaled and replicated. “Sometimes I play with it and change it or screw it up or I realize something visually doesn’t work in the painting because of colour and form,” Morris explains. “If something doesn’t work, even though it’s real, I discard it immediately. I don’t adhere to following reality that closely, there is a play going on all the time with these things and obviously aesthetics are the most important thing when it comes to making work.”

The notion of utility became the inspiration for a series of paintings based on knots and clips which were exhibited at Morris’ show “General Control” at her New York Gallery, Friedrich Petzel. “I started thinking about this organization of papers in our lives,” says Morris about the trigger point of these paintings. “All these sort of false bureaucracies that we invent for ourselves and that people invent for us. And I was thinking how they’re actually structured, how they infiltrate our lives and I started thinking about the paperclip – which holds all the paperwork together. The paperclip is just a fantastic inventive design – you can’t imagine the world without it. I started researching the history of the paperclip which goes back to the end of the 19th century and it captivated me. When I go to Washington DC I realize that all of these institutions, all of this archiving, all of this pretence of a structure, actually means nothing or it might mean nothing. It might just be some Pynchonesque farce. It looks like a conspiracy but it really isn’t. One of the interesting things after 9/11 is that you realize that a lot of these institutions and governmental structures like the FBI or the CIA really don’t matter much. And what we saw with the credit crisis is that with all these banks and financial institutions and their collapsing structures, no one has the authority. In a way it is good to realize that no one has the authority. And that’s what the paintings try to deal with.”


Von Olfers confirms ones suspicions. “Sarah has this fascination with conspiracies. She is incredibly sophisticated in the way she connects reality and fiction. She creates these very tense suggestions of how the world looks. She is always saying ‘we don’t know anything.’ There is so much going on behind the scenes that no one knows about, as suggested, for example, in her film “Capital,” showing Bill Clinton in the Cabinet Room scene. And she goes to Beijing, during the Olympics, just when the media are more completely controlled and restricted than ever by the Chinese government with regard to the images of China they can send out to the world. But Sarah goes right in there and shows images of China which are not seen anywhere else at all. I think it’s incredible.”

Morris confirms her fascination with conspiracies in an interview with Pierre Alexandre Looz: “I’m very interested in the films of the 70s – conspiracies films in particular – because I think there is a parallel between the methodology of film-making at that time and what was going on politically.” Morris has named her studio “Parallax” after the sinister corporation in Alan Pakula’s film “The Parallax View,” where people work with no discernible purpose. Morris believes this is very similar to making art. “You don’t know in the end where it will carry you. You can have an idea of where you would like it to carry you – and I don’t mean about being successful or anything like this – I’m talking about meaning, but I think there are a lot of things when you make art that are out of your control. I am aware sometimes of the role fantasy and game playing in my work. The desire to build a system that is larger than you. The desire to work for something that is beyond your control. The desire to keep moving, keep thinking, keep pushing is something that is tied up very much with my experiences as a child I am sure.”

But what does Morris think about cameras used as surveillance and the fact that there are more CCTV cameras in the UK per head of population than anywhere else in the world? “It’s insane,” she answers “a little bit George Orwell ‘1984.’ It’s fascinating that England developed faster than America in governmental control by cameras, which I guess started with the IRA bombings in London in the 70s. In America cameras are used for private security in airports or in shops etc. If I speed on First Avenue towards my house, I’m not in jeopardy of somebody taking a photograph of my licence plate. In New York my route through the city is not going to be captured by the government where it could be in the UK.” But this number of cameras on the street also raises fascinating questions for Morris: “How are these cameras used or not used?” she asks rhetorically. “They’re ignored by passers-by and have somehow become almost part of the architecture appended onto buildings – like a given. It’s interesting to take a look at cameras from these different angles.” Morris has sometimes rolled footage when she was told not to roll – she doesn’t want to give specific examples. But she is willing to share her strategy how she deals with this kind of situations. “I usually engage in a dialogue with my director of photography where we make it look like we’re not shooting,” she laughs. “We make it look like we’re having an engaged, thoughtful argument about something and meanwhile the camera right besides us is rolling in order to capture a scene. We create a system of distraction to deal with this kind of situation.”


The production values of Morris work – both in her paintings and films – are outstanding. She has always taken high production values in her work for granted. Her films, for example, are not shot on video, but on 16mm and 35mm, to give them the feel of feature films. She paints on canvasses of between two and three meters wide in household gloss paint. Unlike the works of Piet Mondriaan, the lines in Morris’ work are perfectly straight, the circles are perfect circles. Adrian Searle, art-critic of The Guardian, wrote about Morris’ Rings paintings: “To witness such perfection in a handmade object is wearying. Even Mondriaan was allowed blips. Barnett Newman was positively sloppy. Morris’s unremitting dazzle is somehow soulless and inhuman, which I guess is the intention.” Is Searle right? “There is a long history of a critique of modernism and post-modernism as being inhuman or containing the ideological implications of the supposed inhuman,” Morris responds. “Ultimately it’s all human. I am sure that people as diverse as Donald Judd, J.G. Ballard and Greta Garbo got used to hearing that same critique. My work is the psychology of the future. Frankly it doesn’t look perfect to me, so I would take any idea about the presentation of perfection as a compliment. Perfection, or the goal of perfection, is always about, and contains failure. I only see the mistakes. The diagram of a social headache. With my paintings I usually look for one geometric form, archetype, that I lock into and the rings definitely were that for me. I liked this idea of a chain or this sort of system that is completely interconnected. And all of my paintings deal with this of course – but in my Rings series it’s quite specific.”

It may be, as Morris claims, that it’s “ultimately all human”, but isn’t her work a largely cerebral, rather than emotional, experience? “Yes and no,” she answers. “I think its both. I think it’s cerebral and its serial and its modular and its coming out of an idea and that’s the original spark, but no, for me, I’m interested how it functions as a vehicle. I really believe in behavioural psychology and colour. I really think that people are transported and moved in all different types of way through the use of colour and I am certainly directed and manipulated by colour. I would say there is a visceral reaction in front of my work, even if it is repulsion.” So she aims to stimulate both the intellect and the emotions of the viewer? “Yes, I want to do both, I want to have it all,” she laughs. “I want to be able to have an interesting conversation with the viewer that’s open. That leads to many types of interpretation that are conceptual and visceral.” The conversation continues.