Courtesy of Hans Neumann

Flying Too Close at the Center of Civilization

In the fifth installment of photographer Hans Neumann's "Ensayo" video poem series, premiering on GARAGE, a modern-day Icarus takes flight.

by Eileen Cartter
Mar 15 2020, 9:30am

Courtesy of Hans Neumann

While the possibility of travel is monumentally in flux, as the temperature starts to get a little warmer and the sun hangs later in the sky, it’s nice to think of the Grecian sea.

Ensayo 5, the fifth installment in what is shaping up to be a photobook-and-video poem epic by Peru-born, New York-based photographer Hans Neumann, is as much an ode to the sea as it is to the tumult on the land that borders it. As a series, Ensayo explores the steady pulse of migration in the world today; GARAGE premiered the third Ensayo installment, featuring the youth of seaside Malta, in 2018. In this latest chapter, titled “Icarus,” Neumann turns to Greece, or, as he calls it, “what once was the center of the world, the cradle of Western civilization.”

“Icarus”—the film and its accompanying photobook, which includes “found poetry” created with New York Times headlines—follows Tariq Allen, a real-life New York trumpet player (playing a mythology-hero version of himself) who embarks on an adventure to this center where “Old World meets New World, [and] jazz melodies turn into dissonant rhythms that later fuse and encounter the harmony of [an] instrument from the island of Syros, the bouzouki.” What can only follow, as its title implies, is a close encounter with the sun, or an arresting fall into the sea. Via email, Neumann detailed his process.

Tell me a bit about the journey of making Ensayo 5 and going to Greece. What was filming like?
Ensayo started as a project that I decided to create to express myself on and about the current state of the world social climate. Trump had just been elected, he was constantly pushing the idea of building a wall; England was in the process of negotiating Brexit and I felt I wanted to say something and explore my views and other people’s views on migration.

The feeling of constant xenophobia really made me feel sad and desperate. It made me think about how, after so many wars and catastrophes, our social memory doesn’t connect us in a common goal; instead, [it] makes us take step backwards and pushes us to more segregation.

Ensayo 1 was the beginning and it was just a social commentary on the diversity of people that inhabits. I decided to stay in the center of the bridge for two days and document as many people as I could. I just wanted to say, "Fuck you Trump, most countries are build by immigrants, we all come from immigrants.” The bridge was just an analogy to his stupid wall.

Then, the project evolved and I decided to mix in documentation in the style of [Allan Kaprow’s] “Happenings” in some of the volumes— Ensayo 2 and Ensayo 4. Ensayo 3 was a documentation of a group of young Maltese artists. Malta being a young independent nation caught my curiosity, but it also helped me evolve the conversation which started shifting towards the idea of community. I felt this was the glue that could help us stick together as a society.

Fast forward to Ensayo 5. Greece is the cradle of Western civilization. I wanted to go to the source, feel the connection with an ancient culture and their locals. For this, as a symbol of unity, I wanted to bring somebody from the new world: when I first migrated to New York, I was always listening to jazz. I felt it was the soundtrack of the city, made me feel one with it. That’s how I thought it would be interesting to bring a native New Yorker with me, a jazz trumpet player.

We spent 10 days between Athens and Pyros—we picked Pyros because it is one of the islands that has the most musical history, and to some [Grecians,] a similarity to the rhythm of jazz. In Athens, I was initially expecting to find easier access to this ancient world, but then realized a lot of it was in museums in different parts of the world. This beautiful city had been sacked by other countries after so many wars. Athens, especially, after the financial crisis, a city that still has some people that worship the old gods, felt a bit stripped away from its past. Some of the locals said to me, “Our country has become just a big marina for rich people.”

That being said, the culture and its people are still there, and that’s what we [came] for. To connect with them through music.

Why is now the moment to look closer at the myth of Icarus? Do you feel like we are flying too close to the sun (or maybe just drowning in the sea)?
[It wasn’t] until we spent some time in Athens [that] the name “Icarus” came to me. Seeing the capital in its current state made me think of the myth and draw the comparison with our society. Athens once was “the center of the world,” [and like] many empires in history it grew too big, it crumbled, it flew too close to the sun.

Our society, the world we live in, I feel it’s doing the same, socially and environmentally. Makes you think about cycles: the city is now trying to find itself again with a new influx of youth and artists moving in. A new cultural melting pot. I think we are flying too close to the sun [and] I just hope we don’t need to drown as a society because I am not sure if there will be a helping hand at the shore.

In some ways, your Ensayo series feels like this Herculean effort, almost like a Greek myth itself. Can you speak to your journey making these five installments so far, how you've gone about getting them made/published?
Hahaha, I guess [it has] been but it doesn’t feel like it, ’cause I really enjoy doing them. In 2016, I published my first book, Nuevo New York, a collection of portraits of Latin Americans involved with art and fashion that live in [the city]. This project was kindly financed by Rockefeller Brothers Foundation; it also was, by coincidence, launched the day of Trump's last presidential debate. All of us [Latinos] felt we were giving Trump the finger, showing him how many talented Latin Americans thrive and live in New York. Unfortunately, he still won.

After this book, I decided I wanted to do a project on my own, [and] that’s how [the Ensayo] idea was born. I self-publish them for now. Each one comes from the process of a lot of introspection, [thinking about] myself in the world and the people around me. Ensayo 3, 4, and 5 required traveling. We take long trips to try to really capture and sink in with the project. Ensayo 3 and 4 were done in seven days total, [while] Ensayo 5 took 10 days. I guess each one of them is its own little adventure.

Can you speak to the Ensayo series as a whole so far? How are the chapters connected?
“Ensayo” means “essay” in Spanish, [and] I think I feel about it as an evolving series that helps me express my current state of mind. For now, the common thread has been migration, society, and community. Ensayo 6 is in the works, and it’s a collaboration with my friend Melissa Levy which also touches the subject of community. But I feel now, after six Ensayos, and exploring these ideas as an immigrant, I am ready to explore what is home and time.

In Ensayo 4, my friend Balthazar and I talked a lot about the idea of leaving our comfort zone to explore something new. I think [it’s] time to go back and re-examine what I left behind, my culture and my past after 17 years.

DIRECTOR Hans Neumann STARRING Tariq Allen STYLIST Esther Matilla CINEMATOGRAPHER Basil Fauchier SOUND Santiago Faucher POST Caffeine Post Studio SPECIAL THANKS Cadence Image, Carole Guenebeaud, and Doriane Louisy

hans neumann