It’s late, the subway’s stopped running and I would love to be in my warm bed. On the way home; my cab driver tells me that he used to design hospitals and airports in his home country of Jordan. Over the years, I’ve also been driven around by an aerospace engineer and the odd medical practitioner. I’m not saying all cab drivers are exiled professionals at the mercy of archaic immigration laws, but perhaps the person that’s saving you a very long walk may be a whole lot more than you initially gave them credit for. There might be a lot more to the person we find ourselves sharing a cab with, taking the bus or passing in the hall. Our preconceived notions of worth and merit wrapped up in casual interactions can act as horse-blinders. They only allow us to view what we want to acknowledge and may prevent us from seeing a whole other world right under our noses.
This theme is perfectly illustrated in Jessica Yu’s documentary: In the Realms of the Unreal the Mystery of Henry Darger. In 1973, in a one bedroom apartment on Chicago’s north side an entire alternative universe was discovered. No one in the apartment complex had the slightest notion that they had been living so close to an artistic genius. The artist himself I’m sure was also unaware of this fact. For Henry Darger, this was just how he spent his time; he lived in an alternative reality.
He constructed his world from newspaper clippings, children’s books, catalogues and any other visual resource he could acquire He was a self-taught artist who copied, transferred, painted and collaged massive compositions (some were over 10 feet wide) together. The watercolour paintings were mostly illustrations for an epic tale he was writing that was close to 19 000 pages. Henry Darger was telling the story of the Vivian Girls, but Henry was telling it to no one but himself. His life’s work was only discovered after his death when his landlord had to clean up his apartment. In the Realms of the Unreal tells the story of this discovery and does its best at shedding light on a solitary man who lived like a hermit (only two photographs of Henry exist). The documentary also brings the story of the Vivian Girls to life with a series of readings from the book set to animations of his paintings. The tale of the Vivian Girls revolves around a group of young sisters who are forced into slavery by a tyrannical group of adults all dressed like civil war soldiers.The world he has left us is utterly beautiful, naive and fascinating without a shred of irony.
Mark Hogancamp: the subject of Jeff Malmberg’s documentary Marwencol also approaches his art with an unfiltered eye. Like Darger, Hogancamp has created his very own world that acts as both an escape and creative outlet. Marwencol is the name of the town that is the setting for a story populated by World War II soldiers, Nazis and Barbies.
Mark Hogancamp was the victim of a vicious beating at the hands of 5 men. He sustained severe brain damage in the attack and had to relearn even the simplest of tasks from reading, writing to walking. He slowly recovered but was still haunted by the events of that night. Marwencol is his way of coping. It addresses the horror and the beauty of his experience and his fantasy.
The first thing that captures your attention about this film are his photographs. They are extraordinary at how naturalistic the gestures of his subjects are . Mark is a self-taught photographer who plays with dramatic lighting, depth of field and surprising compositions, all the while telling a dramatic narrative. He painstakingly sets the stage with mail order replicas that represent real people in his life. The documentary provides a touching biography of a man who’s world was taken away from him so he had to create his own alternative. He is now in danger of that happening again when the art world learns of his talent and comes calling to steal it all away.
Both documentaries do a wonderful job of pulling the curtain back on complete and unique worlds created by a couple of self-taught outsiders. Their art was made for no one but themselves, without the self conscious hang-ups of a consumer society. Their societies exist outside the confides of the everyday and luckily for us someone took the time to remove their horse-blinders and take a look.
The Realms of the Unreal 4/5