To acquire wisdom, one must observe

Tommy Hartung speaks about his Rose multimedia exhibit

“Let me tell you some of the stories,” a deep, digitally-distorted voice says, as disorienting, fish-eyed footage of a house in the middle of the desert appears on the screen. The house is desolate, with only a desiccated plant growing inside. The voice talks about strange occurrences, supernatural events witnessed by people, saying, “I’ll show you some of the pictures which were taken by some of them, and I want you to tell me what you think.”

This is how the film in artist Tommy Hartung’s “King Solomon’s Mines” begins. “Mines” is a multimedia exhibit currently on view at the Rose Art Museum, consisting of a 16-minute film, several sculptures and a collection of Polaroid photographs. The movie is particularly spellbinding, luring the viewer in with its initial incoherence and then revealing a surprising depth through its haunting visuals, unique digital art and evocative ideas.  

On Thursday, April 20, Hartung visited the Rose to discuss his work. Speaking with Caitlin Rubin, co-curator of the exhibit, Hartung detailed the spiritual ideas behind his exhibition, his philosophy of multimedia pieces and the artistic techniques he used to realize it.

“I was drawn to the ‘Testament of Solomon’ which is a medieval take on the story of King Solomon building his temple,” Hartung said. “The story is … he gets this magical power to bring out demons and to control them and enslave them to build the temple.”  

Hartung is fascinated by the story of King Solomon. “Mines” is only the second work in a series. His first movie on the subject, “The Lesser Key of Solomon,” was exhibited at the Jewish Museum in 2015, and he is currently working on a third film on the subject.

“There are 72 demons that he summoned in the story, so I had this sort of unlimited content to work with to bring into visual form, and using that as a structure to build the sculptures,” the artist said. Demons and djinns feature prominently in Hartung’s exhibit. They appear largely in the sculptures of “Mines,” where we see the artist’s conception of different spirits, from the weathered and jumbled mannequin of “Blue Boy,” to the eerie graphite faces of “Mother and Child.”

Speaking on the different media in “Mines,” Hartung said, “I don’t really see much of a difference between the photography, the sculpture and the movie. For me, it’s all one world that I’m constructing, and it just happens to be different forms.”

In addition to the film and the sculptures, there is a collection of about two dozen Polaroid photographs that Hartung took while working on the film. He detailed the immediacy that photographing with a Polaroid camera allows, saying that when he first got his camera he used to go to graveyards with friends to try to snap photos of spirits.

This ghostly, otherworldly quality is evident in his pictures, an effect technically achieved by Hartung’s use of double exposure, a technique in which multiple images are overlaid upon one another in a photograph. For example, “Mass Grave,” features a close up of a person’s skeletal remains, with an image of a lone figure in the desert superimposed.

“King Solomon’s Mines” is set in the Tibesti, a particularly empty, contentious area of the Sahara Desert. In another interview with Rubin and Kim Conaty, Hartung told the story of how and why he chose this geographic space for his art. “I had a dream—it was just coordinates on a piece of paper, and that’s all I saw: 26 13 … I looked it up; it’s in Libya, just north of the Tibesti [in Chad], and it’s virtually a blank spot.” In the film especially, this area comes vividly to life through an effective collage of French tourist footage interspersed with shots of Hartung’s sculptures. What is particularly arresting and innovative is that Hartung has digitally painted over the tourist videos, recycling and repurposing footage that originally “promoted the epic, Western idea of a Saharan safari.”

It is this subversion of Western expectations that makes “Mines” transcend, expertly conveyed through Hartung’s use of digital editing tools to paint over faces and other objects in the frames, creating new ideas and subversions. In one shot, Hartung paints a leash and collar over a woman, the leash proudly held by a smiling man. We see tendril-like horns emerge from people’s heads, for example, with a young boy and girl, while the voiceover, audio taken and distorted from Internet videos of a Jewish and Muslim cleric, plays. They discuss the nature of djinns and demons in everyday life as the unsettling video is shown.

Hartung’s use of mixed media in this exhibition is powerful. The different forms his art takes, the sculptures, Polaroids and film, mix and combine in unique ways that effectively create a new world. The sculptures appear in the movie, and images from the film show up in the Polaroids, and the film uses a similar superimposition technique. As a whole, the varied media coalesce into an exhibit that is greater than the sum of its parts, a deep, complicated, spiritual vision that I am still contemplating.

“King Solomon’s Mines” is on view in the Rose Art Museum until June 11, and admission is free. It is quick to get through, and don’t worry about the djinns or demons. Hartung says that he set up infra-sound to emanate from the sculptures, the kind of audio that is “typically used by paranormal investigators,” which he installed in the exhibit “for your safety.”

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