An unconventional film that forgoes linear narrative in favor of poetic expression, Alterman's film doesn't just document Zwanikken's work. It offers a rare look at the unique expatriate life the artist shares with his family at a converted 400-year-old monastery in a desertlike landscape 2 1/2 miles southeast of Lisbon in rural Portugal.
Zwanikken's father, Kees, was a photographer (he died in 1999), and his mother, Geraldine, was a renowned member of the Dutch National Ballet. They moved Christiaan and his brother, Louis, a poet, from Amsterdam to the São Francisco monastery in 1980. Their goal, Christiaan says, was to establish a small community always open to artists from around the world.
"My parents were adventurers," says Zwanikken, 43. "For a year, my mom took us all on tour across Europe with her dance troupe." That gave the family a chance to find "somewhere to start something new" in their lives. "It was a great adventure, especially since we didn't have to go to school."
Zwanikken did go to school. His parents sent him back to Amsterdam, where he earned undergraduate and graduate degrees at two of the Netherlands' most prestigious art schools.
He says he began using skeletons in his art in 1992. His work grew out of his fascination with the way humans "incorporate technology in our lives. . . . Technology has become part of our existential skeleton."
Alterman says he was impressed by Zwanikken's ability to infuse dead matter - skulls and skeletons - with new life using robotics.
"But that's not all," Alterman says. "He uses them to tell stories. All these pieces interact with one another in these little moving scenes."
Alterman, 34, met the Zwanikkens by happenstance during a 2007 driving holiday through Portugal. "They had an ad in Lonely Planet [travel guide], inviting artists and travelers to stay at the monastery." Alterman, who works as a cinematographer on PBS's Art21 series, says he'll never forget his first sight of the convent.
"I was struck by the juxtaposition of this little oasis in the middle of a bare, vast terrain," he says. "Then there was the juxtaposition of all these beautiful, strange artworks made of skeletal parts and robotics [displayed] all over this 17th-century monastery." It was nothing like the simple bed-and-breakfast he expected. ("I did sleep in an authentic monk's cell, which was cool.")
Alterman and the Zwanikkens hit it off immediately.
"I stayed up all night [with Christiaan] drinking red wine and talking about art, dance, and alien abductions." (They're both believers.)
He woke up next morning thinking, "These guys are weirdos just like me."
The family's eccentric lifestyle appealed to Alterman. "Growing up in Northeast Philly, I always had this fantasy as a boy: 'Wouldn't it be cool if my parents were bohemians?' "
They were, instead, "a solid, middle-class family." Alterman's mother, Marsha, is a nurse with the American Red Cross; his father, Neil, runs a repossession company. ("Yep, Repo Man is my favorite movie," Alterman says, referring to Alex Cox's 1984 punk movie.)
Alterman's life changed radically when he enrolled in the acclaimed gifted education program at Council Rock High School and studied under historian, activist, and philosopher Don Ernsberger.
"He was amazing," Alterman says of his mentor. "He taught us Plato by converting a janitor's closet into an actual cave," he says, referring to the Greek thinker's famous cave allegory.
"My world was turned upside down," says Alterman, who learned how to look at art as a creator, rather than a passive viewer. "That's when I decided to become a filmmaker."
After studying film at Temple University, Alterman moved to New York, where he apprenticed under director Charles Atlas in a series of collaborative films with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. The two filmmakers created a video installation this summer for San Francisco's Museum of Modern Art.
Alterman, whose previous documentary, Mott Music, was about a piano factory, says he can't see himself in Hollywood: "I'm just a New York soul, I guess." He adds that his passion is to capture different forms of art on film and allow the viewer to experience them firsthand.
"I wanted to make [Convento] the most mysterious, poetic documentary," he says. "I want to transport you there. I want you to walk away thinking 'I know what it feels like to walk on those stones.' "
Art Film & Art Exhibition
Art exhibition: A selection of Christiaan Zwanikken's animatronic kinetic sculptures will be on display at the Jinxed Gallery at the Piazza at Schmidts, 1001 N. 2d Street. Opening reception 7:30 p.m. Friday. The show runs through Sunday. Information: 215-978-5469, jinxedphiladelphia.com.
Film screening: Director Jarred Alterman's 50-minute film Convento, about Zwanikken's work, will screen at 9 p.m. Sunday as part of the Awesome Film Festival outdoors at the Piazza at Schmidts. Information: www.theawesomefest.com.
Appearances: Zwanikken and Alterman will be present at the gallery reception and the screening.
Artist information: For information about Zwanikken's work, visit christiaanzwanikken.wordpress.com. For information about Alterman's films, visit jarredalterman.wordpress.com.
Contact staff writer Tirdad Derakhshani at 215-854-2736 or firstname.lastname@example.org.