‘Opałka, One Life, One Oeuvre’ at the International Festival of Films on Art in Montreal

The 30th International Festival of Films on Art (FIFA) is an opportunity for Montreal audiences to see some great documentary films. The film about the famous photographer/sculptor/architect Ai Weiwei (Without Fear or Favour) focuses on the story of his life, his difficulties with the Chinese authorities, and the 2010 exhibition consisting of 100 million hand-made porcelain sunflower seeds spread out on the floor of Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall in London. Since I am particularly interested in photography, it is unsurprising that I enjoyed the revealing look at the controversial pioneer of photography in The Weird World of Eadweard Muybridge. What did surprise me is the extent to which I found the film on Roman Opałka to be thought provoking.

More than half a dozen documentaries featured Opałka in the 1990s. This 2010 film by Andrzej Sapija, Opałka, jedno życie, jedno dzieło [Opałka, One Life, One Oeuvre], is the most recent documentary on Opałka, produced just one year before the artist’s death. Opałka has been using his skills in lithography and painting by manifesting the passing of time through counting up from 1 to infinity using a brush no.1 and white paint since 1965. His work is evidence of the extraordinary dedication to an idea that he had while waiting for someone in a cafe more than 45 years ago. At that time, he was already an accomplished lithographer, but since then, he has worked almost exclusively on the “Opałka 1965 1 – ∞” project. He calls the many paintings that he has produced as a part of this project ‘details’, each continues on from where the last one ended. The numbers painted on the canvas seem to fade since he uses a single brush dip into paint to complete each number; his first work was painted white on a black canvas, following some experimentation with red, he decided to go from dark grey to white, increasing the lightness of the grey background in each successive “Detail”. “Life as an hourglass, that was the idea”, says Opałka, “I was convinced that [art] history needs such an example”.

Sapija’s opening sequence stitches together beautiful cinematography that seems to echo Opałka’s aesthetic, falling raindrops and a figure walking along a path of rolling hills punctuated by rows of fence posts. Opałka began recording himself reciting the numbers in Polish as he paints them, and this forms the audio background to much of the film. Sapija’s film includes fascinating interviews with the artist who generously tells the story of his life, work and philosophy while the film also shows archival photographs of the people and places from his past.

Sapija’s film includes detailed scenes showing Opałka’s work and installation: the setup includes the painting, tape recorder and a camera used to take a self-portrait after every session.

“This program, the calculating or counting of steps”, says Opalka “is a visualization of time.” “When I paint I don’t think about numbers, as one doesn’t think about steps, I think about everything and nothing at the same time…it is only an area for the meeting of interesting questions, it is finding oneself in a state such that the questions arrive by themselves…I have the unique luxury or comfort of the situation such that I can ask myself questions so free as in no other profession or situation… I remember being often told that this is no longer painting, and I would respond, this is painting at last…it is meditation.” Towards the end of the film, Opałka speaks about his dedication to the idea and his existential doubts, “Why do we exist? Why something rather than nothing? Why I? What am I here for? In that,there is of course the drama of existence, there is almost rebellion[…]existence is a misunderstanding[…]can anyone answer me, what is life?”

Opałka died on August 6, 2011, a picture of the final number that he painted, 5607249, can be seen on his web site. Opałka’s works form a part of the permanent collection of many galleries, such as Centre Pompidou in Paris and New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Galleries that represent him feature images of his works online: Galeria Boss in Lódz, Galerie Yvon Lambert in Paris, and Galleria Melesi in Lecco.

[Photomedia Forum post by T.Neugebauer from Mar 20, 2012 ]