John Powers on ‘The Somber Vault’ and bridging time with art

The Somber Vault bridges time. Well, not literally. But the avant-garde film, from UW scholar and filmmaker John Powers, draws from three very different artists for a temporal, intertextual conversation. Interweaving photographs and drawings of Michelangelo’s Laurentian Library in Florence, a series of Mark Rothko paintings, and his own photographs taken in Fultonville, NY, Powers splays out a hypnotic lineage of inspiration and reflection in mere minutes.

Doubling as a media production instructor in the Communication Arts Department, Powers plans to complete his PhD on technology’s effects on post-war experimental aesthetics in the coming year. He’ll present both The Somber Vault as well as selections from his forthcoming project, The House You Were Born In this Thursday in the Central Library. I chatted him about editing rhythms and his attraction to Rothko via email:

How long have you been making films?

I’ve had the idea to make films since 2011, but it wasn’t until 2014 that I finished anything I wanted to show.

The Somber Vault has an interest in inter-artistic analysis. What got you interested in the idea of using one artist to comment on another?

Well, broadly speaking, I am very interested in art history, and how artists influence each other. But mostly it was an accident. I started shooting the windows that make up the first section [of The Somber Vault] without knowing what I would do with them, if anything.

So what drew you to Rothko?

When I got back to looking at the footage, I found myself drawn to superimposing different shots and staring at them. Some of them reminded me of Rothko murals, because I would have two solid masses stacked vertically or horizontally. I was reading about Rothko and was fascinated by this story of his commission for the Four Seasons restaurant in New York. He had done these paintings of windows but subverted the idea of windows by painting dark voids that you couldn’t see out of. My windows were also kind of like this, not immediately identifiable or functional as windows, but teeming with weird reflections and colors and little bits of life inside of them. But they were a lot lighter, obviously, almost neon. So, I had the idea to juxtapose my windows with Rothko’s windows. In painting his windows, Rothko was influenced by Michelangelo’s design of the Laurentian Library in Florence, which was also dark, foreboding, and subversive. He called it “The Somber Vault.” So I had the idea of using Michelangelo’s drawings (and photographs of the library) as a bridge between the two sections. So it would be three artists in conversation. Not really like I belong in conversation with Michelangelo and Rothko. That’s a little preposterous. But just that there would be a comparison.

It was also that even though the Fultonville windows are moving images, they are kind of used as still frames, so I wanted the Rothko sections to actually be still frames.

Fultonville is a long way’s away from Madison. How did you find the window set you use in The Somber Vault?

Those windows are inside a pool house at my mother-in-law’s house in Fultonville, New York. My kids were swimming in her pool, and I was having a great time listening to them and shooting the windows. The only thing Fultonville’s really known for is that this season’s winner of The Voice is from there. I just learned.

The Michelangelo sections almost play like an interlude. I feel like there are definite rhythms here.

Right, well, part of it is that the first section (Fultonville windows) and final section (Rothko windows) are superimposed and cut to the same score. I assigned each shot in each section a letter, I think there were 23 or something like that. And I would make superimposition notes/formulas by the frame, like:

2F: ABD + 3F: AC + 3F: ABD + 5F: ACD

Stuff like this, different permutations that were shorter and longer. Part of the comparison is that the first and third sections are cut exactly the same, so they have identical rhythms, except that they don’t in the sense that the imagery itself changes our sense of the rhythm. So the middle section, the Michelangelo part, is definitely an interlude or a bridge. There needed to be a refresher between the first and third sections, like hitting the restart button.

I haven’t read your dissertation (obviously) so I’m making a jump but you seem to have an interest in art’s relationships with history and time.

I’m definitely interested in those things, although it’s less abstract in my dissertation. I look very specifically at artists’ working processes and how they were affected by different technologies, like the optical printer, the film lab, the 16mm filmstrip. And those relationships did change over time.

  • Both The Somber Vault and sections from The House You Were Born In will screen Thursday night at 6:30p in Rm 302 of the Central Library. Admission is FREE.