The horror genre isn’t (or shouldn’t) be beholden to a set of hard and fast rules. As with art, it has the unique freedom to create and establish innovation while simultaneously being acutely aware of its own history.
“On candy-striped legs, the spiderman comes…”
Because I’m always thinking about “why horror?” for a generation of artists, filmmakers, and cultural production, I often ask myself, why horror? I mean, how did I get into this mess in the first place? While there are many layers in answering that question, amongst them being the magical lure many of these films have, actually pinpointing my obsession with horror aesthetics and narratives has come down to this…The Cure’s video for Lullaby.
Twenty-two years after its release, The Cure’s Disintegration (released May 1989) is not only one of the best albums of the late 20th century but also a formative influence in my life. I vividly remember watching The Cure’s music videos, ranging from the earlier and silly Love Cats to the love lorn Love Song to the powerful Fascination Street featured on Disintegration, on MTV with such intensity. Their goth allure appealed greatly (and still does) to my inner depressive and most likely also cemented my enduring love for England and black eyeliner. After recently re-watching The Cure’s Lullaby video, directed by Tim Pope, a flood of memories rushed back and I realized that even before my first horror film scared the pants off me (Halloween 5), Lullaby was where it all began.
Of course now I recognize the filmic references within the video that escaped me at the time. Now I can’t look at it without thinking of German Expressionists Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) or even many years later Werner Herzog’s stunning Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979). The dark-rimmed eyes, creeping human-like figure, foreboding death, being repeatedly consumed, and the fear of sleep are all at play with these films and culminate, with all its British goth pop glory, into Lullaby.
On candystripe legs the spiderman comes / Softly through the shadow of the evening sun/ Stealing past the windows of the blissfully dead / Looking for the victim shivering in bed / Searching out fear in the gathering gloom and / Suddenly! / A movement in the corner of the room!
And there is nothing I can do / When I realise with fright / That the spiderman is having me for dinner tonight!
Quietly he laughs and shaking his head / Creeps closer now / Closer to the foot of the bed / And softer than shadow and quicker than flies / His arms are all around me and his tongue in my eyes / “Be still be calm be quiet now my precious boy / Don’t struggle like that or I will only love you more / For it’s much too late to get away or turn on the light / The spiderman is having you for dinner tonight”
And I feel like I’m being eaten / By a thousand million shivering furry holes / And I know that in the morning I will wake up / In the shivering cold / The spiderman is always hungry…
The first screening of the two-part The Art of Fear series (which will hopefully become a multi-part expanded series) launched last Wednesday to great success with a collection of works by Takeshi Murata, Darren Banks, and Jamie Shovlin titled Pieces. Thanks to all who came out!
Two important strands of thought came out of this initial program (which was also, incidentally, my first foray into exhibiting artist moving images) that I’d like to explore further both in my own curatorial practice and via writing here on TGWKTM…
The first is in consideration of how artist film programs such as The Art of Fear can or should be presented and viewed. My intention with Pieces was to approach in like a gallery context – no seating, no definitive start/stop time, and flexibility of viewership. Meaning, I wanted to embrace the lobby space at Nitehawk not as a dictatorial cinematic space but rather in a manner in which you might approach a static piece of artwork. I’m very interested in an audience encountering a film in a non-time based way, choosing how much time to spend with the work and how entering in different narrative points can alter both the story-line and the audience’s perception of what he/she is seeing. I also embrace the idea of artist films entering into the cinematic sphere, especially as certain artists, like Ben Rivers, produce feature films. It’s simply a matter of context and consideration.
Still, I was surprised the the audience at The Art of Fear was interested in having seating to watch, in its entirety, a program of non-narrative films. In a way I felt as if my curatorial power had been usurped but, in another, it was exciting to see an interest in giving these works undivided attention. This of course has led me to wonder about the sematics of film programming – should this be called a screening? or an exhibition? Are there ways that we, as producers of exhibitions, can set the tone for how the audience will view the artwork or, ultimately, is it that power inherent in the audience? The next portion of the program/exhibition/screening Ghost Stories with My Barbarian, Aida Ruilova, and Marnie Weber is narrative in nature and appropriate for a proper sit-down affair. So the experiment will continue. And it’s going to be amazing so please don’t miss it, whether you sit, stand, or squat.
The other strand of thought involves the question of “why horror?” which is relevant to both my own curatorial investigation and the implementation of horror characteristics by artists. While this question is being visually represented, addressed, somewhat answered in the series of exhibitions I am doing, I believe that an essay series of why horror is of personal, cultural, and political interest is just as crucial. Stay tuned!
Mike Nelson scares me. His installations are claustrophobic and isolating and while no one thing in the elaborately constructed spaces is particularly frightening (clown masks aside), it’s the immediate convergence of all the things that produces an overwhelming intense experience. And I can’t get enough.
I feel like I shouldn’t be in one of Nelson’s rooms, touching and opening doors, searching my way through the maze (not in the literal dark but the tension is just the same). The sense of something being off is palpable and yet, during this feeling of disorientation, I feel totally within my element. Like a good horror film, I feel both displaced and engrossed, enjoying not knowing my way and appreciating the sensory overload provided to me. Indeed, Nelson’s work has a lot in common with the aesthetics and structure of horror cinema such as his employment of architecture and interiors, particularly in the usage of a succession of rooms.
In her essay on Nelson’s Coral Reef (owned by Tate and recently on display at Tate Britain), Helen Delaney says: “Nelson’s use of suggested, open-ended narratives is influenced by filmmakers Sergei Parajanov and Dario Argento, whose ambient, non-linear films present tableaux that absorb and envelop the viewer. The movement from one room to another produces a kind of filmic ‘cut’ between one scene and the next, allowing narrative possibilities to proliferate without coalescing into anything fixed. It triggers a growing sense of unease.”
I could only wander, stop, and stare when encountering his Studio Apparatus for Camden Arts Centre… (1998/2010) at Camden Arts Centre’s now closed exhibition Never the Same River (Possible Futures, Probable Pasts). Consisting of three rooms (dirty entrance walkway and a small reception/office room that led to the larger backyard object extravaganza. In an attempt to focus, record, and re-live the experience I just wrote down all I thought I saw: selection of motorcycle helmets with raccoon takes; slices of science fiction mags; fake flames; slouched body with paper bag head; log fire with face shield, fur, gas cans, wood planks and concreted blocks; space constellations of hubcaps, wire, and balls; latters; antlers; Mickey Mouse with devil antlers; chicken wire; humming radio; fabric mountains; the list goes on.
Each new work I encounter of Nelson’s is a new adventure. I have a long road of discovery ahead when it comes to his work and I’m looking forward to the journey.
Mike Nelson will be representing Britain at the 54th Venice Biennale this summer. Image is from Camden Arts Centre, courtesy of the artist.