Having run across Sandow Birk's update of Dante's Divine Comedy (packed with wonderfully apocalyptic illustrations), I was extremely intrigued to discover that the first cantica has been adapted to film, via incredibly trippy puppetry and the vocal talents of Dermot Mulroney and James Cromwell (trailer here).
Birk is an artist who's no stranger to projects of incredible scope or acerbic social commentary (see In Smog and Thunder, an account of a fictitious war arising between Los Angeles and San Francisco). I'm grateful to him for setting aside a few moments while traveling to answer a some questions about the past, present, and future of his Divine Comedy.
TB: I'm curious about your religious background and how that affected (or evolved during) the work.
SB: I'm not a religious person. I was drawn to Dante at first by Gustav Dore's fantastic engravings from the 1800s, but once I had picked up The Divine Comedy I was sucked in by the complexity of the poem, by the beauty of the writing, by the glimpse into the mind of a medieval scholar and his view of the world, by the importance of the work in world history, and by the epic-ness of the project. I am amazed and continually fascinated by Dante's poem for an endless number of reasons. After spending a year reading the poem and reading about the poem, I began to see that it -- the poem and the illustrations by Dore (and by others through history) -- could be the starting point for making a new project that speaks about our times, our world, our society, and also that comments on Dante's work and Dante's view of the world at the same time.
TB: Illustrating this work is sort of artistic Holy Grail, like making a Tarot deck. I seem to recall that William Blake died before he could finish his illustrations for Inferno. Do you feel like you've cleared some great hurdle in your artistic life?
SB: I never saw my project as "illustrating" Dante. That's been done many times over the centuries by artists much more adept than I am. And I don't think illustrating Dante is necessary, or the way I want to spend my time and my efforts. What I set out to do from the beginning was to use Dante's poem as a way to do a project that speaks about our times and our society in a meaningful way. I think the books do that in some ways -- in more thoughtful and critical ways that play off the text and the poem, and the film does it in a different way, a funnier, more satirical and more political way. The two are very different projects and they were conceived and done separately.
In answer to your other point about a hurdle, I would say that the project has been the "deepest," most complex, most thoughtful project I've done to date, and it was exhausting. I worked on the books for four years non-stop, and I think during those four years every book I read was either by Dante or about Dante. It was a lot of work, to say the least.
TB: I was impressed by the puppetry in the film and how many sequences really felt like animation because of how smoothly all the elements combined. Do you consider it in any way to be an animated work?
SB: I don't think its "animation" in the true sense of the word or in what people think of as animated films. The film is actually a live, filmed puppet show. There were no computer effects done at all. That was something we planned at the beginning -- if it couldn't be done with paper, tape, wire, string and some paperclips, it wasn't in the movie.
TB: Are there films in the works for Purgatorio and Paradiso as well?
SB: The film project was entirely exhausting and expensive (not in terms of the film world, but in terms of a bunch of artists trying to make a movie on their own). The whole team of us who made the film were worn out after it was done, but enough time has gone by since then that we're starting to think about another film project. Of course I'd love to make another Dante film. There's the idea of doing Purgatorio and Paradiso as one film, so that we'd then have the two-part trilogy, which is funny. But at this point there's not much more than some thoughts about a new project. We're all keen, but we don't have any money, same as usual.TB: You've spent so much time creatively orbiting this subject, working in so many different roles and examining it from all sides. The same could be said of In Smog and Thunder. How do you know when it's time to move on to the next thing, and how do you know when you've alighted onto something that's going to wind up absorbing years of your time and effort? Have there been false starts and endings along the way, with these or other projects?SB: Over the course of my career it seems the projects keep getting larger and more grandiose, which is part planned and part not planned. I've had an arc where I've intentionally tried to expand the scope of my projects -- for example, my earlier paintings were about gang wars in my neighborhood and surfing in Los Angeles; "Smog" was about California as a state, as was the prison project. Dante has been more universal and international in intent. As I get more successful its also been easier to get more collaborations going (which I like) and to get them funded as well. So the two work out well together.That said, not every idea becomes a big project, but once I get an idea that interests me I tend to investigate and work on it more and more and the ideas tend to grow. The "Smog" project, for example, kept growing and growing into other media (sculpture, drawing, audio tours, film, etc.) That project ended when I felt I had done enough and basically got sort of sick of it.The Dante project had a built-in ending when we had ended all of the cantos and the three books. It wasn't until later that the film idea and project came about. But even Dante started with the smaller idea of just doing something based on "Inferno" and grew into the entire Divine Comedy.So yeah, there are false starts and starts that go much further than I could have ever imagined when I take the first steps. But I try to simply find projects and topics that are interesting to me, that are relevant to our times, and that I hope have something intelligent and meaningful to say about our lives and our society. If I can do that, and if I can get people to see it when its done -- that's what I set out to do being an artist.
TB: What are you working on in the meantime?
SB: I've finished a big project of a series of 15 huge woodblock prints and a series of paintings all about the war in Iraq. Entitled "The Depravities of War", the show has been traveling to various cities. It was shown in Washington DC at the Katzen Art Center this fall and its on its way to Heidleberg, Germany in Februrary and to Chicago in March next year. There is a book about the project which is published by HuiPress, who are the publishers of the prints as well.As for my next projects, I'm working on a big one for fall 2009: an ongoing four year project (so far) based on the Koran. It should open simultaneously on both coasts: at PPOW Gallery in New York City in Sept. 2009 and at Catharine Clark Gallery in SF in Sept. as well. I'm going to continue working on it all year.