When Mark Lombardi died, at the age of 48, he left behind a controversial body of work—large-scale, maplike drawings that chart connections between the worlds of international banking, organized crime, arms dealing, terrorism, oil, and government—the result of countless hours of research distilled into spartan webs of pencil lines and text. He also left a legacy shrouded in conjecture and mystery. Did he take his own life in his Brooklyn apartment on the night of March 22, 2000, or were there more insidious forces at work? What did a woman claiming to be an FBI agent hope to find when she called the Whitney Museum of American Art, owner of one of Lombardi’s most epic drawings, soon after 9/11, asking to study the piece? A new feature-length documentary, called Mark Lombardi: Death-defying Acts of Art and Conspiracy, takes on these and other questions, and spotlights the sinister links found in Lombardi’s art.
German director and writer Mareike Wegener worked with a small crew for two and a half years to shoot the film, conducting interviews with most everyone who was in some way close to Lombardi: New York–based artists Rafael Vargas-Suarez, Greg Stone, Fred Tomaselli, and James Siena; the owners of Brooklyn’s Pierogi Gallery, Joe Amrhein and Susan Swenson; art historian Robert Hobbs; and Lombardi’s dry-eyed and stunningly honest parents and siblings, in his childhood hometown outside Syracuse, New York. “The visit to his parents was one of the most fraught times, but also turned out to be one of the most rewarding times of the film. All were really up front,” Wegener says. “They were concerned with the possibility of my scandalizing things. But if you look at Lombardi’s work,” she adds, “he’s really de-scandalizing things. He’s putting things together in a very subtle way, and that’s something I’m doing in the film, too.”
Wegener intersperses the interviews with archival news footage that illustrates events detailed in the drawings—Manuel Noriega giving a speech, Oliver North testifying before Congress at the Iran-contra hearings, executives of the First American Bank in a great hurry to leave a courthouse, black-hooded foreign soldiers toting guns—edited in such a way that the clips cycle back and repeat, echoing the formal structure of the drawings. “Mark never talked about people hijacking planes and crashing them into buildings,” says Vargas-Suarez in the film, referring to 9/11, “but he knew about the activities of how these things would be financed. . . . He had a vast knowledge of the networks that would create a scenario like this. His work was showing you the abuses of power. And some of the same people that you see on the news making trouble in different parts of the world—they’re all in the works.”
Death-defying Acts of Art and Conspiracy won Wegener a Rising Star Award at this year’s Canada International Film Festival. The documentary will have its next screening in June at the Sheffield Doc/Fest in Britain.