In the first of a series of what-do-they-do-in-their-spare-time features, Impact finds out how this "action hero" spends his time between set-ups and away from the set. A star of Lord of the Rings he may be, but for Viggo Mortensen, Life is Art - and vice versa. Kerry Glover attended the reception of his latest exhibition in Los Angeles and spoke with him about what drives all his creative work.
Image Amy Graves.
© Globe Photos.
Viggo Mortensen is a photographer of some renown, a twice-published poet and an accomplished painter to boot. Yes, it is probably accurate to say that the guy who so recently and convincingly portrayed Strider/Aragorn, Heir to Isildur and soon-to-be King of Gondor in Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings blockbuster trilogy may very well be an actor last. But that's jumping ahead...
The opening reception on February 2nd at the Track 16 Gallery in Santa Monica for Signlanguage - Viggo's fifth art exhibition, the second at this gallery - was packed. Crowded, a veritable crush, making proper viewing of the displayed photos and paintings difficult at best. Way too loud to figure out the answer to the quiet question "what is the artist trying to say here?"
Meanwhile, the artist himself, entering with very un-Aragorn-like short hair and sporting a plastic Burger King name tag ("Viggo") on the pocket of a pale green suit that must've belonged to someone's grandfather, was instantly surrounded by fans who proffered sundry Lord of the Rings memorabilia for him to sign. He patiently did so, but was prevented from venturing much further into his own show.
Less harassed and seeming much more enthused were Viggo's "fellow" actors, Hobbits Dominic Monaghan (Merry), Sean Astin (Sam) and Elijah Wood (Frodo), there to support their friend. Dominic and Elijah even posed quite willingly in front of exhibit photographs of themselves and offered a few words.
Looking around the room, Elijah exclaimed "Viggo is amazing - talented and amazing - a real Renaissance man. He can do everything." And, it is obvious, Viggo does. Dominic got more specific: "Viggo's art is really rooted to the earth and nature. It's phenomenal. I love the colours. And everything's a little askew. He always keeps you guessing."
Elijah: "Obviously, pictures are one person's perspective. They tend to be almost a visualisation of that person's eyes and what they see. [Viggo's] A very interesting guy and I think you get to see what he sees - to a certain degree - in his photos. I hope that's not being too wanky, but I mean he's just got a wonderful vision and he sees things in a beautiful way. I don't think you can describe it. It's not a perspective that you've seen. It's not like a perfect framing. Everything is slightly off. He allows things to be natural and blurred and I like that. I like that quality."
Several days later, just before noon, the gallery - what Viggo later described as "a fun, good, large space" - was relatively empty and quiet. Viggo, who had spent the interim days hanging out and answering questions, was nowhere to be found. Nonetheless, it was the perfect time to explore the what-is-the-artist-trying-to-say question.
What struck me immediately was that it was the wrong question. The photographs with their atypical camera framing and even less typical (and often out of focus) subject matter do not tell a story. The paintings with their layers of obscured photographs, found objects, sketched leafless trees and scribbled words ("like fading bruises under the paint") do not insist on a specific interpretation.
The right question to ask yourself is: "what does the art say to me?" In the introduction to Viggo's 1998 exhibition Recent Forgeries catalogue (Smart Art Press), Dennis Hopper wrote that art should "inspire reflection" and that "Viggo Mortensen's work comes [...] from the subconscious. The child-creator projects the image into consciousness - you take it back into your own subconscious and have your own conscious reaction." In other words, you make it your own. You have to. Viggo has already done the work, taking, developing and titling the photographs, writing the words, painting, sanding, and repainting the canvas, the process like an advanced, ritualised form of journaling. Now it's your turn. Gaze, contemplate, reflect, investigate... and let go of the hope right now that talking with the artist will answer either of the above questions for you.
A full week after the reception, Viggo telephones. He's just returnd to Los Angeles after a few days in New York spent "in search of gainful employment" As surmised, he would rather not explain his work. "That would kill or limit it."
However, one thing doesn't need explaining about Signlanguage: many of the works were influenced by the experience of filming Lord of the Rings in New Zealand. In fact, Viggo confirmed that "more than two thirds of the exhibit" was created during his sojourn there. As to the experience itself, Viggo said: "I truly valued that time. The Lord of the Rings reflects the spirit of what we did, of what we went through. Peter [Jackson] did a great job. Perhaps not as much poetry, not as much recreation of history, there were (probably necessary) sins of omission. When acting, I try to focus on working at the time, in the moment, with the team that we form there. If I do that, I find the finished work less disagreeable, surprising, frustrating. The end [product] does not belong to me, but to the director and so many others." As an actor, Viggo sees himself more as part of the medium, rather than the artist. On the other hand, "my art is mine. I know that it's directly connected to me."
Dominic Monaghan wanted to know "how did Viggo find his personality changed over his time in New Zealand and how did that affect his artwork?" When this question was relayed to him, Viggo replied: "I don't know that the experience per se changed me. It was an experience that lasted a long period of time. I had more time to work. It's more cohesive as an exhibit, flows better [because of it]. The colours of New Zealand's day, night, sky, landscape were different - like everywhere, I guess - blues, greens, browns. I worked continuously. I had time to investigate the story and the place."
It turns out that Viggo often posts his in-process paintings to himself while on location so that he can continue working on them. "Things, paintings, works... all have a history themselves. I'll ship them to where I'm working or staying for a while and many are well-travelled. They remind me of those places, times, experiences." As to his camera, he is never without it. But while he has been an avid, serious photographer since his early teens, painting is a relatively new pursuit. Perhaps his first serious endeavour as a painter - and certainly his first "exhibition" as one - was in the creation of his character's artwork for Andrew Davis' A Perfect Murder. "I had the opportunity where my character was an artist, so I approached the producers and I requested to do the work. And they granted it!"
An hour passed and there was much talk of artistic process and cognition, Icelandic storytelling and archetypes. Colin McCahon and aboriginal graphics. Gerhard Richter and imagery and revisions, laughter about James Elroy and porcupines and even more about Magritte and it not being a pipe. A pivotal childhood experience or two. There are many things to take away from a conversation with Mr Mortensen, to digest and read up on later. Then Viggo announces that he has enough poetry for a third book that he'll publish soon. So, now the burning question becomes; why does the artist have this compulsion to express himself in so many medias? Fear of commitment? Big laugh "It sounds good, even if it's not true. No, it's probably because I'm restless... or curious maybe. My idea of a nice day is to stay home and do whatever the hell I want."
Which, in Viggo Mortensen terms means: "everything."