Wilhelm Sasnal’s spooky Christopher Columbus film
The Polish artist and filmmaker draws on the New World explorer's darker side for his new short film
Europe’s discovery of the Americas is a subject fit for big-budget cinema – think of Disney’s Pocahontas, or Terrence Malick’s The New World. So why has the Polish painter and filmmaker Wilhelm Sasnal shot a Super 16mm, 28-minute, home-movie style short film about Christopher Columbus?
As Sasnal told us earlier this year, he became interested in the 15th century Italian explorer as an ambiguous historical figure after he read a contemporary account of Columbus’s mental health, which puts forward the theory that he may have suffered from bipolar disorder. “I thought that was interesting,” the artist explained. “He's viewed as a hero, but some of what he did might not be so good.”
Sasnal expands on this very personalised reading of so consequential a historical figure to create a film that examines the coloniser’s state-of-mind and legacy in an oblique, home-movie style. The work, which goes on show at Sadie Coles in London this Thursday, 8 October, bears similarities to Sasnal’s paintings, which often depict the sinister, or “spooky” side, as the artist likes to put it, of seemingly banal subjects.
Sasnal’s Columbus footage was shot at the artist’s homes in both Krakow and San Francisco, and also draws from the 20th Century Polish tradition of Personal Cinema, which saw filmmakers focus on ordinary aspects of their own lives, as well as simple, half acted out fantasies and masquerades.
A spinning 12-inch record signifies the flat earth as it was seen in antiquity; a dissolving sugar cube stands in for the white brake around Columbus’s ship, while a geometric arrangement of cubes serves as the colonial settlements in America, many of which cultivated sugar cane.
Yet there’s also footage of a boy wandering through the countryside, as well as shaded-in squares of graph paper and shots of radio masts, all accompanied by a dreamy, disconnected soundtrack.
Although Sasnal has made formal feature films, such as his 2014 movie, Huba, he tends to forgo strong narrative structures when creating shorter works. “As with the paintings,” he says. “I just let them flow their own flow.”
View Columbus (which is on show at Sadie Coles’ 9 Balfour Mews space in London 8—24 October) not as drama-documentary, then, but rather a moody exercise in the possible, historical consequences of troubling states of mind. For more on this important contemporary artist get a copy of our Wilhelm Sasnal monograph here.