Behind the lens: Mark Lewis

Behind the lens: Mark Lewis

Posted 14 March 2016 by Ross Turnbull

I’m privileged to have been asked twice to create a #GGArts video portrait. The first featured the sculptor Kim Adams, who won the award in 2014. Previously unfamiliar with Kim's art, I found the experience of working with him truly delightful. I came to understand a little about his process and his arresting, playful pieces. My desire to create another portrait was frankly grounded in that prior, highly pleasurable experience.

This time I applied spontaneously to the call for proposals on the deadline day, and was pleasantly surprised to receive the nod. That said, I've found in the past that not overthinking a project can work: Quickly write up some thoughts and ideas, throw a hat in the ring and see what comes of it. So to get the call from the Canada Council and be told that the video subject would be Mark Lewis, a filmmaker I've certainly heard of but whose work I didn't really know, was unexpected and felt like a gift.


My partner Jennifer and I immediately went to Toronto's Power Plant Gallery, where a handful of Mark's works were shown this past fall. Coincidentally curated by Kim Adams's partner, Barbara Fischer, the exhibition included the masterful pieces, Pavilion and Snow Storm at Robarts Library. The feeling of having received a gift continued there; I found Mark's work extraordinary. It is cerebral, beautifully executed, often mysterious and, without being like Kim's sculptures in applying the same adjective, playful. The ambiguity between spontaneously captured and choreographed action in Mark's work points to both fictional and documentary film practices. The probing camera and expressive movement show the possibilities of image creation in cinema in a way unavailable to other art forms, suggesting its unique richness.

The gift metaphor continued when I was told I'd need to interview Mark in London, England, where he has lived and worked since the mid-1990s. Having never been, I accepted with alacrity the chance to travel to the U.K.

My intention was to place Mark by unmistakably evoking London. I headed to the Thames and among other things, captured images of St. Paul's Cathedral from a balcony at the Tate Modern. I went to the Tower Bridge and filmed London Tower (which to my Toronto eye barely justifies the designation!). I did walkabout for hours—the odd pub visit for British fare mixed in—and frequently rode the Underground. And when I traveled to South London to interview Mark in his studio, he said moving to London was critical to his development as an artist, it altered his art-making and that it was the “best thing” he could have done. I recorded audio on the tube: “Change here...” says the announcer, appropriately enough. My travelogue approach, to capture images of London-with-a-capital-“L”, seemed, serendipitously, to have been affirmed.

As for the rest, I had suggested to Mark that l wanted to select from his work (Ludovica, Mark's able assistant, kindly gathered his films and stills for me); the choice to use bits of his films in the video portrait was obvious. My one, slight misgiving is that viewers will not get an altogether accurate sense of what it is to experience Mark's art. Excerpting a few seconds from his characteristic, oft one-take works, which usually run several minutes long, may not seem to quite do them justice. On the other hand if, as I hope it will, the piece helps to persuade that Mark Lewis is a remarkable filmmaker, then I've done my job.

About the Author: Ross Turnbull

Ross Turnbull has a degree in film studies from Queen's University. He has been making independent films and videos in Toronto for many years, including the feature dramas, Morgan's Fall and Sight Unseen, and the award-winning short, Letters from R. He recently completed Terminal Device, his first feature-length documentary-essay film.

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