It’s a challenge to even describe the experience of watching Kevin Schmidt’s Epic Journey. The film, currently playing at the Musée d’Art Contemporain de Montréal (MACM), is essentially a recording of the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy as it is played on a large screen set up on a boat travelling at night down the Fraser River in British Columbia. In a talk with the artist hosted by MACM, Schmidt admitted that his impulse to make the film certainly has its roots in his personal love of the series, but also from a desire to explore the kind of engagement with an alternate universe for an extended duration of time that The Lord of the Rings demands. In what he describes as a “stupidly literal” approach to this experience, Schmidt has created his own epic in parallel to that of the Hollywood movies as he attempts to film the journey of the projection of the 11-hour saga in a single take.
Although he may not quite succeed in his ambitious endeavour (due to technical malfunctions, the film was shot over the course of two nights rather than one), Schmidt has produced a breathtaking piece of cinematic art. The lights from the industrial landscape along the banks of the Fraser and the glow of the screen are reflected upon the rippling waters of the river, producing a stunning spectacle of moving colours and flickering light. The film’s dramatic soundtrack also combines with the sounds of waves to create a new score, distorting the boundaries between the realms of fiction and reality.
Schmidt’s project simultaneously encompasses the temporal dimensions and physical spaces of the fictional film and the material landscape, with the two seeming at times to work in concert with one another, and at others in contrast. As the viewer tries to absorb the numerous elements at work within a single frame, their focus becomes split and they are constantly caught between the numerous visual spectacles. The ensuing sense of disorientation is Schmidt’s intention, as the film aims to investigate the manner in which we consume visual imagery. It captures what Schmidt described as a “schizophrenic experience… you are never sure where you are or what you are supposed to look at.”
For Schmidt, this idea of a schizophrenic encounter also correlates to the viewer’s relationship with depictions of the landscape itself. As a genre of visual art, landscape occupies a tenuous position as both a presentation of an actual geographic location, and a representation that has been modified and idealized according to an artistic intension. Schmidt described the general understanding of the landscape as a mental construction, and yet “there seems to be this truth to it… [the landscape] at once sucks you in and calls for critical distance.”
In Canada in particular, these oppositional impulses within the landscape genre are extremely significant, as landscape paintings have become icons of national identity. The paintings of Tom Thompson, Emily Carr, and the Group of Seven, aimed to give a fledgling nation a distinct and unified self-image. Our nation’s art has become characterized by a conception of a wild and untouched North that embodies a quintessential Canadian-ness. Schmidt’s choice of the Fraser River becomes significant when considered in this context. Fundamentally, he believes, the function of art is to “make uncomfortable modes of viewing” and destabilize the way we consume visual imagery. Thus the confusion of time, space and spectacle in Epic Journey can be understood as a means of disassembling the primary signifier of national identity.
Whether looked to as an object of contemplation for the complexities of the mythology of Canadian identity, or as an artistic epic in its own right, Epic Journey is a stunning piece that is not to be missed.
Kevin Schmidt’s Epic Journey is at the Musée d’Art Contemporain de Montréal, 185 Ste. Catherine O, until March 13. Entry $6 for students, free on Wednesdays from 5 to 9 p.m.