Public art is ephemeral, but that's part of the appeal. For its creators, it's fulfilling, but can also be disheartening because some pieces last days and others just hours. A sticker gets taken, a wheatpaste gets ripped, a mural gets painted over. There are many factors that contribute to the lifespan of a piece of street art or graffiti. Placement, quality, timing, etc., but nothing lasts forever. It's also why so many photographers and documentarians are dedicated to preserving the work because they want it to last a little bit longer. Robert Janz's art is designed to sometimes vanish so quickly, without documenting it, you wouldn't even know it existed. You have to be observant and fast to keep up with Janz because it’s all about being in the present; being "In the Moment."
"All individual things pass away. Strive on, untiringly." - Buddha
Robert Janz, born in Belfast in 1932, is one of Ireland's most celebrated living artists whose canvas has been NYC for the past 40 years. The documentary JANZ: In the Moment by Joanna Kiernan, follows him for two years bringing you a more intimate look at his work, painting in the streets and in his studio. "Janz brings an awareness of the temporal scale, connecting the enduring past with the fluctuating moments in the rushed city." He uses natural elements, but why would he choose to paint with water and watch it evaporate in five minutes or draw in sand and let waves wash it away in even less time? The brevity of the work becomes part of the story and it's a study in the Buddhist principle of Transience, that all things change. Everything important is impermanent that goes for street art and the work of Robert Janz.
I got a chance to ask filmmaker, Joanna Kiernan a few questions about Janz and the documentary.
Kristy Calabro: Why did you choose to do a documentary on Robert Janz?
Joanna Kiernan: I saw pictures online of the mountain drawings he was doing about town, and I thought they were stunning. I was interested in the way the mountain outline interacted with the site it was drawn across, and how they changed over time, like a mountain narrative. I knew him very slightly, so I called and asked him if I could film him making one.
KC: How long did it take and where was it filmed?
JK: I began in December 2012 with the idea of making a very short film. But Robert was so engaging and willing to show me his work, that I saw a longer film would be a fascinating project of discovery. Most of it is shot in lower Manhattan, between 2013 and 2015. But it proceeded bit by bit, going back and forth between shooting, editing, and raising funding, and some was shot more recently. His work is very cyclical, so this kind of documentation suits.
KC: He uses sticks, sand, water on rock, washable paint; his art isn't meant to last. Without photography and film, many people wouldn’t know about a lot of his work. His pieces sometimes disappear in minutes or they transform into the environment. Do you think that’s why it’s so important to document his work?
JK: It is true that the recent phenomenon of social media creates a great platform for Robert to communicate his transient work. Filming the work amplifies that and also records the performance nature of it.
KC: Why would someone want to create a water drawing that evaporates after 5 minutes?
JK: To answer that properly you need to see the film! It really goes to the core of his philosophy of being in the present. He wants you to see the work, and he loves to show it, but he's more interested in an interaction than an “audience.”
Everything is transient. Everything passes. - JANZ
KC: How does Buddhism influence his work and thinking? “Everything is transient, everything passes.”
JK: He discovered the ideas of Buddhism as a teenager, and it really came to shape his way of seeing the world and his way of life. But it is not a religion to him. It is not just that the moment passes, but the next one is occurring. We are always in the present. And importantly, the world is not made up of individual parts, but is a connected system, universe.
Bisonmen Figure made from layers of Advertisements. Photo by @dustyrebel
“We are inundated with images that are pretty and telling us...to buy, buy, buy. My idea is to say bye, bye. Bye, bye to the stale and cliche." - JANZ
We're what we witness. We witness our will at work in the world. We witness our will at work in the world Working our world Wanting our world Wrecking our world Wasting our world Worrying our world. We witness whether we will or will not. We witness. We're what we witness. -
KC: What surprised you most while making the documentary?
JK: I was continually delighted and surprised discovering different parts of Robert’s past and work. How much he has done, in every medium, and what notable career successes he has enjoyed, which then wash away.
KC: Janz said, "Art is commentary and message, it isn't about being smart." "It's commenting on your world." What is Janz commenting on through his work?
JK: Again it is about being in the present, alert to what is around you, and responding directly by making an intervention, an image, a frame around the event. His underlying philosophy moves through all his work, but sometimes that is quite abstract. At other times, like now, it is more directly “messaged” to comment on something happening. Since Trump came into power he has been making primordial figures he calls “singers.” Sometimes they are shouting in anguish about the state of the world, sometimes they are singing to overcome the negative forces, like protest songs.
KC: What do you hope people take away from the documentary?
JK: My hope is that the film goes beyond Robert as an individual to a wider exploration of living creatively. Robert is the quintessential artist. All artists share many of his qualities and work methods, but he exemplifies these qualities in an undiluted, uncomplicated way. I want people to experience this as they watch and observe and listen for themselves. He inspires people to go out and create.
"Art is commentary and message, it isn't about being smart." "It's commenting on your world." - JANZ
The premiere screening is tomorrow, January 22, 2020, 6pm at NewFILMMAKERS NY Anthology Film Archives, 32 2nd Avenue NY, NY 10003. Tickets are $7.00, you can get them a half hour before at the door and there will be a reception following the screening.