The Third Culture Film Festival 2016 Award for Best Abstract went to All Rot by Max Hattler. Max is a German visual artist. He studied in London, and now teaches animation at City University of Hong Kong. Over a coffee in trendy Sai Ying Pun, Max told us about his work and plans.
I’m interested not so much in traditional storytelling, but in creating a space, environment, atmosphere.
Your film All Rot has a very distinctive style. Is this similar to what you did previously, or did you try something new?
I made a similar film in 2006, basically taking pictures of road markings and re-animating them. This time round I used a mini-golf course. What you see in All Rot are the tracks of the golf course. By increasing the contrast of these pictures it makes them look like a painting. It’s sort of a documentary. I’m taking what’s already there and taking it somewhere else. The inspiration obviously came from the place itself in the first place. Looking at that golf course I started wondering if this could be turned into something else, something more interesting.
The golf course itself is in Germany, near a place where I did an artist residency in 2013. I was at this super weird site, surrounded by mental institutions. It is a very odd place. The institutions surrounding the place are all high-security facilities, where people are locked up away from society because of their mental problems. And then there’s this crazy golf course. It was almost begging for me to do something with it. This whole idea of being locked up because of your insanity, compared to that derelict, decaying site, waiting to die. Imagine being in that situation, locked up, waiting to die. Can you transcend that earthly existence and think of yourself as part of something bigger? What you see in the film isn’t a minigolf course anymore. By distorting it I made it something unearthly. It’s almost like planetary movements. A spiritual thing. Taking this decaying self into something bigger, taking it somewhere completely different.
By distorting it I made it something unearthly
For my style I learned from abstract expressionism. American painters like Barnett Newman were a huge influence. Very minimal, they did things like breaking an image up into two colours. Then there’s people like Harry Smith. He was working with animation, but through painting directly on the 35mm celluloid. Frame by frame. Painting each one with colours. This created this stream of very vibrant, flickering colours. Because each frame is different, the film becomes this crazy, boiling thing. Those were the two main inspirations, but they’re still very different to what I’m actually doing in my film.
Did you bring that element of mental disorder into the style of your film? Cause when you look at All Rot it feels like you’re in the mind of someone who is going crazy.
I think it’s part of that, but I didn’t want it to be an explicit visualisation of mental disorder. The location is more of a backstory. It was the original inspiration, but nothing more. For instance I didn’t want to show the actual images of the place at the end of the movie, that would have defeated my purpose.
So you’re most interested in the visual aspect of it, not the message?
I’m interested in telling people where this work came from and what my inspiration was, but I also wanted it to stand on its own. It doesn’t need the background story to have an impact on viewers. The message is not the point of the film.
So what is the point of the film?
(laughs). I guess it just is what it is. You watch it and it takes you somewhere. Somewhere outside of your everyday existence. You look at the stuff and it might give you something. For me the best analogy for this kind of work is music. You listen to a song and it gives you something. Or not. You like it or not. It’s not like you need to be told what it means, or what it’s supposed to be giving you. But then if you’re interested, you can find out more. You can just google it. Just like people can read this interview for some background on my film.
The bulk of my films… just are.
I think some of my works are more aimed at making an explicit statement, some are more political, or have a clear message. But the bulk… they just are. They focus more on that transcendent element, lifting you out of your everyday life. I think that’s what abstraction is good at. Sometimes it’s still clear what the original material was, then the abstraction can make you reflect on that. Or sometimes it can be so abstract, non-representational, that it allows you to enter a different frame of mind, like a visual trip, sort of like a meditative space.
By the way, do you pronounce All Rot the English or the German way?
Well, that’s another bit of meaning. In English it refers to the decay, we all rot. But in German, ‘all’ refers to outer space, and ‘rot’ means ‘red’. So the German meaning is more about this cosmic aspect, and the English refers to the earthly aspects of life. That being said, I usually just say All Rot the English way, cause that just makes life a lot easier.
Was TCFF the first time you got to screen All Rot?
It’s not the first time it screened, but it was the first time it won an award, so I’m very happy for that.
What did you think of the reaction of the crowd? Did you talk to anyone in the audience? Does that matter to you?
I didn’t really talk to anyone. It’s tricky. Of course it matters to me, it always matters. When you make art, you want it to be loved. But I don’t work with that in mind. When something does do well with an audience it’s really exciting. And of course, now I made an award-winning film! But in the end, I just make stuff cause I want to. When it’s done I send it out to the world, but that’s less important.
I just make stuff cause I want to
Well, All Rot is going to Zagreb, to the AnimaFest, which is one of the big ones, so that’s nice. It’s also showing in Vienna, and a few other places. I don’t really follow up on that. But it’s doing ok.
Then there’s a few other projects I’m working on. On Friday May 20th we opened a project at the K11 Art Mall. I made a pretty huge project over the last semester with my students. We made these visualisations for Gustav Mahler’s 5th Symphony. It’s a romantic classical symphony from the early 20th century. It was quite an intense project. But a nice project to do in a class, cause it’s different from regular coursework. We set up tv cases throughout the mall and people can watch 15 minute segments of the visual symphony. It’ll be there all month.
I always encourage my students to think of themselves as artists. Especially in Hong Kong that’s not exactly encouraged as a career path. For me personally, I’ve always been passionate about making this my career. That means you have to be passionate about it, you have to submit things yourself, cause opportunities won’t just come knock on your door.
Can you make a career out of abstract art? Cause even for you, a large part of your work is in teaching, right? Not all of your students will be able to become teachers.
In the years before I came to Hong Kong I always combined several jobs, sometimes teaching, doing live performances, winning the odd award here and there, basically a mixture of different avenues. Taken together these meant I didn’t have to compromise much to make a living. It didn’t exactly support a family, but it was enough for me. I know it’s more difficult for people in Hong Kong, cause many do have to support their parents or even grandparents. But I think it’s still worth motivating people from a young age to think of pursuing art. Too often they take kids’ pens away when they are drawing, saying painting is stupid and they’d better pursue a career in banking or something.
when you’re in the shit you don’t notice how much you smell
About Third Culture then. You are 100% German?
I am, but I left Germany when I was 20 and I have spent most of my life outside of Germany, first in London, then Hong Kong. I wouldn’t call myself TC, I haven’t for instance lived in HK my whole life, but I’ve always preferred being a foreigner to being a local. It makes me think about myself differently, and changes my assumptions of life. It makes me more open towards the other. If I’m not a local, then I’m much more likely to talk to other people who are not locals, then when I’m a local. I probably wouldn’t engage with people from different places if I was just home in Germany. It’s so easy to be complacent, being a foreigner helps fight that. It challenges how you were brought up to think, what you assume is the norm. If you’re in a situation that’s not your default situation you have to question those things all the time, I think that’s quite healthy. If you stay in the same place you start looking at newcomers like “you’re weird”, and who am I to say that? Maybe the place where I am is really shit, but when you’re in the shit you don’t notice how much you smell.
Will you stay in HK?
I don’t know. I’d like to. At least for a few years.
Do you get to do what you want here?
This is the first time I get to be full-time employed, and although I’ve always loved freelancing, it’s nice to have this security. It’s a bit of a trade-off. Comparatively speaking I still have most of my freedoms. And I like the project I’m currently working on, I like working on this with my students. I feel lucky. Knock on wood…