"The intention was to catalogue the personalities of the ‘contemporary’ artist"
Artists of the modern age go under the spotlight
School, for me, was pretty boring. There always seemed to be a better use of time, and while I loved reading and those occasions where we were let loose to run around the playing fields, it all seemed a bit flat and pointless.
But there was some punctuation to the general tedium: Art. For two hours a week, I’d perk up and make stuff; my masterpieces over this period included copying the cherub with a cigarette from the cover of Van Halen’s 1984 album, a warped pottery bowl only a mother could love, and an airbrushed epic of a man being eaten by a huge snake on a very purple planet.
However, it was really art history that pressed my buttons, as well as, I’ll admit, a particularly attractive supply teacher, whose name I shamefully can’t recall but whose form lives on in my mind. She introduced our class to the wonders of the Renaissance and Baroque, ages of invention and sheer over-the-top excess, and in doing so, she lit a fire – in me at least.
One text in particular became a favourite: Lives of the Artists by Giorgio Vasari, published in 1550 to document the ‘most excellent’ painters, sculptors and architects of that period and several centuries before. Where Lives of the Artists sits apart from other art history books of that period and the centuries that have followed is that it goes well beyond the work and instead focuses great attention on the personalities of those artists, the highs and lows they experienced, the bitter rivalries, the circumstances of their time, and so on. Did you know that Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo came to blows in the street in Florence because one was heard to call the other ugly? Maybe you did, but for this spotty kid in thick glasses with no clue whatsoever, all those stuffy paintings and shiny sculptures suddenly took on far greater significance. They came from real people.
The Relentless Artist
So roll forward about 20 years and I’m presented with an opportunity to bring to life the idea of Artistry that sits at the heart of Relentless. The intention was to catalogue the personalities of the ‘contemporary’ artist. To Relentless, artists are not just painters or sculptors. Artists are those people who are prepared to make sacrifices and suffer, those who have a vision and will do whatever’s necessary to make it real; they are obsessed, and they make their mark on the world so it becomes a little brighter or more meaningful for the rest of us. Artists exist in practically every domain you can think of.
"Artists are those people who are prepared to make sacrifices and suffer"
For now, though, Relentless is focused on telling the stories of artists in action sports and music. We call them ‘Artists’ with a big ‘A’.
So yes, it’s 20 years on and I find myself hanging out of a helicopter, hurtling down a deep, ice-walled crack on a glacier in Greenland, chasing one of the world’s top freeriders from the summit to the sea. Why? Because we’re shooting a contemporary catalogue of Artists and the lives they lead. And fittingly, after Vasari – and in recognition of his opus – we have called it Lives of the Artists. Where Vasari had his pen and ink, we have the big screen, the richness of film and the internet. With moving pictures and surround sound, it seems we get the better deal!
Lives of the Artists is a documentary feature film that tells the stories of a group of young men who pursue their passions without compromise, and in so doing, demonstrate their Artistry.
Xavier de le Rue
First there is Frenchman Xavier De Le Rue, one of the world’s top snowboarders, the World Freeride Champion for the last two years. Xavier has tasted success in a variety of snowboarding disciplines and will compete in the Winter Olympics this year, but his passion lies fundamentally in the purity of backcountry riding, the search for the perfect line. By venturing into remote, dangerous and often untouched places, he is able to tune into the mountains without the distractions of competition and its attendant circus to test himself and push both his own limits and what others believe is possible on a snowboard.
Xavier, against the odds, survived a horrifying avalanche during the season prior to shooting Lives of the Artists which engulfed him and swept him two kilometres down the mountain before depositing him miraculously on the surface of the flow with the chin strap of his helmet asphyxiating him.
"...he has come under extreme pressure from those around him to abandon his risky lifestyle.."
Pulled unconscious and on the edge of life, he was fortune to survive what he describes as ‘the kind of accident you don’t walk away from twice’. As a husband and new father, he has come under extreme pressure from those around him to abandon his risky lifestyle, but he has emerged with a new maturity, with total respect for the mountains and an uncompromising will to overcome their challenges. A driven and deeply philosophical man, Xavier describes how, when his family and friends left him pondering his future after a visit in hospital, he surveyed the mountains surrounding Chamonix from his window, looking for some kind of sign: ‘All I could see was lines.’
Lives of the Artists witnesses Xavier on what he describes as ‘the best trip of my life’ amongst the remote Fjords of Greenland, where you can ride right from mountain summit to sea level. In some of the most magnificent and challenging terrain on the planet, where almost every descent is a first, Xavier De Le Rue demonstrates his Artistry with uncommon integrity, insight and passion.
The film also follows two big-wave surfers – Englishman Tom Lowe and Irishman Fergal Smith – and their friend – photographer Mickey Smith – to the South Pacific where, on the reef that touches the southern tip of Tahiti, breaks what is arguably the world’s most ‘perfect’ heavy wave. Known as Teahupoo, which translates as ‘wall of skulls’, it’s a killer in paradise. Teahupoo is a point of pilgrimage for the world’s best and most courageous surfers.
When Teahupoo ‘works’ it is an awesome thing, the full force of nature seemingly unleashed, but in recent years conditions have conspired such that the the swell hasn’t delivered. With news of a big one incoming, though, and with only a couple of days’ notice and the boys at opposite ends of the planet, they race to Tahiti. Tom and Fergal, fresh from an inspiring winter’s surfing in Ireland which we documented in the film Powers of Three, resolve to test themselves by
" Teahupoo is a killer in paradise"
spending ten days riding Teahupoo over a succession of swells. Picking up injuries, experience and respect from the local surfers, who are amazed by these two Europeans facing down their local break, the boys are riding high. But this is turned on its head when they encounter a whole new world to the isolation they knew in Ireland. A prediction of the biggest swell for three years turns Teahupoo into a magnet for some of the world’s best and most famous surfers, and with it comes a distasteful circus of chaos completely at odds with the splendid isolation and integrity of their pioneering winter. On a wave where things can go very wrong very quickly, they do, and so Teahupoo reminds all of its power.
Still, in the film we focus on the joys of the boys meeting the challenge of Teahupoo on the biggest day in years – without the darker side of the popular intensity and aggravation that emerge, around which they are outspoken in their disapproval. What’s clear is that for these young pioneers, it’s not about the audience or the adulation. Their Artistry is a private and pure thing that sees them at their happiest and most fulfilled when it’s just three guys versus the might of the cold and unforgiving ocean.
On tour with Gallows
Finally, Lives of the Artists hits the road with UK hardcore punk band Gallows as they tour the USA on the Warped tour. On a soul-sapping and tortuous trek from city to city, playing on a tour where 90% of the bill represents the most commercial and soulless aspects of commercialism – ‘punk for little girls’ – Gallows stand out like a very sore and angry thumb by delivering impossibly intense performances to audiences that just aren’t prepared for the onslaught.
In Lives of the Artists, the three stories are woven together. That could make for a rather uncomfortable and confusing journey through three different realms, but actually it’s the sharp contrasts between these worlds and their domains of performance that demonstrate the common characteristics of the personalities involved: their shared Artistry, with all the vision, ambition, struggle, sacrifice, obsession and triumph they possess.
In snow, in surf, in music – indeed, in life – the same rules apply, the rules of engagement, the rules of mind, body and soul, the ‘Rules of Art’, of patience and passion. There are no easy rides. Suffering goes with the territory, with the terrain, and those who want it most must accept the rules, that you only get out what you put in. The snowboarder, the surfer, the musician, each is the master of his own realm, but they are all just Artists, men driven to extremes, consumed by that singular desire to leave their mark on the world, to carve their own scars deep into its surface.
" Suffering goes with the territory, with the terrain, and those who want it most must accept the rules..."
Lives of the Artists is about those people. To most, they are different men of different ages from different walks of life. But look past the surface details, look closer, and you’ll see the same thing. You’ll see that they’re not so different after all.
They say that memory is more vividly and enduringly imprinted in the presence of adrenaline or some other emotionally charged backdrop. Perhaps my beautiful art history teacher is responsible for my vivid memory of Vasari, of Leonardo and Raphael, brought to life in the pages of a 400-year-old book. What’s certain is that I know I will never forget the experiences of Greenland or Tahiti, or the Circle Pits in Detroit, Chicago and St. Louis, where I witnessed real Artistry up close and personal, in all its visceral beauty.