Spending time with ghosts. Simon Starling using the cinematic lens to evoke the artwork ghosts of Duveen Galleries past for his Commission 2013, Phantom Ride. Past and present converge in this haunting installation at Tate Britain where previous commissions by Pablo Picasso, Chris Burden, Douglas Gordon, Fiona Banner, Martin Creed (amongst others) come back from the “dead” to live again in the 300 foot long cavernous space. This architectural space (designed by Romanie-Walker and Gilbert Jenkins) was the first public gallery designed for sculpture in England when they opened in 1937 and has become a portal from which history emerges into our contemporary lives.
Images from James Aldridge’s recent solo exhibition, Presence, at David Risley Gallery in Copenhagen…
In Aldridge’s work a tension between the real and fantastic is revealed and establishes a compelling psychological space. The conventions of landscape representation are abandoned in these paintings — horizons disappear and gravity and orientation fail to obey the usual rules. Yet connections between these birds, plants and other animals and the landscape remain, conjuring a strangely atmospheric result. Tension lies in the interplay between decorative and beautiful elements and the implied violence of dripping or vomited blood and nightmarish mutated mandalas.
James Aldridge is included in an exhibition I’m curating at Mark Moore Gallery this June called Empty Distances that explores blackness and the void in contemporary art as influenced by horror.
In 2010 I visited The Coral Reef. It is a non-place, a construction, a fictional other-space housed within the reality of an art museum. Non-linear, abandoned, and claustrophobic. Dirty. No other artwork has ever made my heart pound and my palms sweat.
Here is artist Mike Nelson talking about the re-installation of The Coral Reef at Tate Britain (where I saw it).
Mike Nelson’s 500 words in Artforum (read the whole thing here):
LINEAR NARRATIVE HAS NOT always been important to me, but illustrating the sense of meaning and space beyond what is actually presented in a show is. As a child I was taught that if we want to see a figure moving in the distance as darkness falls, we should look to the side of him to see the movement more clearly. This idea resonates with the way I work: I try to draw the viewer in to focus on one thing in order to understand another. I hope that this way of working is becoming more pertinent in relation to our media-saturated lives. The constant mediation through technology that we face everyday leaves very little time or space for the unknown––no time to imagine or wonder what might be or have been. So few people have the desire or the patience any more to engage with work in this way.
Image: Coral Reef (2000)
The history of horror cinema is a complicated web of socio-political narratives combined with the limitations and innovations of filmmaking itself. What Julian Hoeber’s Where’s the Money (playing now on MOCAtv) suggests is that there is a direct correlation with money (i.e. the budget) with the representation and association of the real (in low budget horror films). And that’s an interesting idea. But because Hoeber’s piece is an frenetic and cursory analysis of horror film, it doesn’t really take us where we need to go by diving deeply or succinctly enough into the very important commentary that can associate horror cinema with the real (whatever that really means).
Where’s the Money skips decades quickly, omitting many films in-between that are certainly part of the evolution of the genre; from Freaks to Scream back to Last House on the Left with a curious inclusion of Fulci’s Zombi. Here horror comes off as second-rate, like a bad video-taped porno flick, rather than embodying its position as a vital component to cinema that allows uncomfortable subject matter to be approached and eviscerated right before our very eyes. I find the idea of associating horror with low culture problematic; it’s not merely about economics but the outbursts of social issues that stem from money, and, subsequently, labor and power that makes horror such a potent genre.
What I’m saying is that horror film is infinitely more complex that what’s presented here and that the notion of economy plays out in horror more fluidly than merely in the way in which it’s created. The provocation of money and the real presented in Where’s the Money would have been better served by a narrower focus. For instance, many thinkers associate Eli Roth’s Hostel (2005) as a manifestation of 9/11 Gitmo torture scenarios back upon unwitting American tourists in Eastern Europe. However what’s really at play is the idea of economy and power. There are only two Americans in the whole film, the rest of the people being killed or doing the killing are from all over the world. That film isn’t about “torture and America” but about a globalized system of exchange and an examination of values. Exploring this faction of Hostel (which was not a low-budget film) or in recent films like Land of the Dead or We Are What We Are or even Hitchcock’s Psycho, Where’s the Money could have taken a more measurable stance about how money influences the decisions we make and how horror evaluates those choices.
Part of an in-progress writing series related to an upcoming exhibition, On the Desperate Edge of Now, that looks at historical trauma and collective cultural memory in horror film and contemporary artists. These writings will eventually be published in volume four of Incognitum Hactenus and as exhibition catalogue. See previous post on Folkert de Jong here and Heather Cantrell here.
“Koester echoes in his investigations the magic at the heart of photography that fold the past into the future and the known into the imagined, a process that arrests time and captures possibilities.” – Lisa Le Feuvre
Joachim Koester’s film and photographic work become persistent ghost stories that meld the historical with pop-cultural and fictional constructions. Seeming to gravitate towards the macabre, Koester inclusion of Charles Mason, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the occult, the opium trade, and speculative fiction writers such as Baudelaire and Dumas as well as H.P. Lovecraft result in a contextual montage that both familiarizes and complicated our understanding of the past.
Koester’s video Numerous Incidents of Indefinite Outcomes (2007) attacks the very concept of time in terms of mining the past and manipulating the present. This work processes textual fragments from the “weird fiction: of H.P. Lovecraft’s The Notes of Commonplace Book through a computer program that generates endless possibilities of speculative musings. This is a never-ending, never-repetitive, constantly morphing process is a theatrical word play visualized. Fusing new connections pulls the past into the present or as William S. Burrough’s observed, “when you cut into the present the future leaks out.”
The video invokes the spirit of H.P. Lovecraft, an early 20th century writer who would, no doubt, be delighted to reach out from beyond the grave, manipulating his own words. Unlike his predecessor Edgar Allen Poe, who was more interested in the ghostly realm, the phenomenological writings of Lovecraft detail unseen worlds parallel to our own reality, often detailing an ancient monstrous civilization that exists on the liminal boundary between the past and the present. His infamous fictional cosmic entity Cthulu appeared in a series of stories as an ancient Elder God worthy of religious worship and capable of universal destruction while others, faceless and formless beings in The Beyond, threaten the limits of scientific and philosophical reasoning.
From The Beyond: “What do we know,” he had said, “of the world and the universe about us? Our means of receiving impressions are absurdly few, and our notions of surrounding objects are infinitely narrow. We see things only as we are constructed to see them, and can gain no idea of their absolute nature. With five feeble senses we pretend to comprehend the boundlessly complex cosmos, yet other beings with a wider, strong, or different range of senses might not only see very differently the things we see, but might see and study whole worlds of matter, energy, and life which lie at hand yet can never be detected with the senses we have…”
Koester’s technologically regulated usage of this “weird realism” adds an additional layer on to the pile of memory, belief, cult structures, and an understanding of our existence being shared embedded in Lovecraft’s ouvre. Numerous Incidents of Indefinite Outcomes fragments and perpetually re-contexutalizes meaning while simultaneously releasing the ghost of Lovecraft (the utilized text was published posthumously) as well as the undead characters in these narratives and the generative ghost in the machine. It verbalizes to us that we cannot trust continuity, or technology, and that variance and change are inevitable. Most importantly it presents and represents an evolving past, playing out in the now and into the foreseeable future.
Tarantism, 2007, 16 mm film installation
The Hashish Club, 2009, 16mm film and B/W photo installation
Morning of the Magicians, 2006, 16mm film
Final scene in Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond, 1981
An essay I wrote on Edgar Ulmer’s 1934 classic The Black Cat in relation to a dual screening I programmed at Nitehawk Cinema (in conjunction with the On the Desperate Edge of Now exhibition I’m curating)…
The displaced American in Europe; Henry James made a literary career out of it, so did Hemingway, and filmmaker Edgar G. Ulmer made one of the most brilliant conflations of the new-and-old worlds in his explosive 1934 film The Black Cat. Himself an émigré from the former Austro-Hungarian Empire working in Hollywood, Ulmer was all too familiar with cultural outsider-ness and he uses it to great effect when he features the misfortune that befalls two naïve Americans traveling through central Europe on their honeymoon.
This Black Cat is loosely based on Edgar Allan Poe’s “immortal” classic but, aside from the fearful presence of a cat that is black, it bears little resemblance to the short story. Instead, there is a complexly interwoven story with much at play: revenge, love, treason, psychological disorders, incest, Satanism, and architecture. But at the core are the eruptions caused by historical trauma caused by World War I with the film asking: what does war make men do? What is surviving or even living? Do free men make their own prisons? Who are the “good” guys? Ulmer’s film places together the past and the present, America and Europe cultures, and the traumatized with the innocent.
The story takes place in an imposing Bauhaus-inspired architectural structure that has been built upon the graves of a battlefield by Hjalmar Poelzig (played by Boris Karloff). The two Americans, Peter and Joan Allen, and a Hungarian psychiatrist named Dr. Vitus Werdegast (played by Bela Lugosi) wind up at the modernist house after a deadly accident in their shared car. But whereas the couple is taken off-course and enters a world unfamiliar, Werdegast is exactly where he intended to be – at the former site of war that he fought alongside Poelzig. Home. He is there to kill Poelzig as retribution for abandoning their battalion and for stealing his wife while he, loyal until the end, was a prisoner of war for fifteen years.
Of course, the war being echoed here is World War I (the Great War) that, with no doubt, had a significant impact on European culture and on Ulmer himself. “The force of their struggle symbolizes the shattered and corrupted humanity left in the wake of World War I. Their personal desire for death, then, is a natural extension of wartime patriotism, and duty: a desire for destruction adopted and internalized.”1 This intensely rich back-story embodies the The Black Cat and forms the underlining profound sense of loss echoed throughout the film; everybody has lost something and has been the walking dead for all these years, coping in different ways with the effects of the war. As a result, both men are mad and self-destructive. As Poelzig says shiningly, “Even the phone is dead here…even the phone is dead.”
In the battle of Karloff and Lugosi (it was the first time the two huge stars of the time had been onscreen together), it’s Karloff’s Poelzig who becomes the void in which trauma has been funneled into. Deeply guilty about his treason and about surviving, Poelzig is never-the-less a calculating and evil monster. He abandoned his team, stole his friend’s wife, killed her (and other women) while she was still young to retain her beauty, married his step-daughter, and is a Satanic high priest capable of human sacrifice. Living in his Gothic mansion, albeit a modernist masterpiece, he has isolated the outside world and remained living in his own contamination. So it is with little surprise at the vehemence in which Werdegast attacks his nemesis; he destroyed his life, the world destroyed them both.
Considered the original “King of the B’s”, the mysterious Edgar G. Ulmer notoriously made his films on the cheap side (mainly do to the fact that he was blacklisted in Hollywood after marrying the already married woman of a Universal Studio chief). Along with The Black Cat, his films Damage Lives (1933), Bluebeard (1944), and Detour (1945) are an incredible combination of horror, noir, and German Expressionism, near perfect in their expression of loneliness, pain, and failure. In fact Detour is rightly considered one of the best films in cinematic history. What makes Ulmer films so special is how seemingly anachronistic they are, utterly daring in narrative, cinematography, and acting they are. It’s difficult to come to grips that these films were made in the 1930s and 40s! The Black Cat is particularly bold in showing a satanic mass (something more
culturally associated with the Anton Lavey 1960s) and Poelzig being tied up then flayed alive (who can come to terms with a shirtless Boris Karloff being skinned?!).
Brutal in its subject matter while inventive in its depiction, The Black Cat is, and should be rightly considered to be, one of the classic forefathers of horror cinema. The inclusion of two young Americans symbolizes the culture clash of the time and, as Paul A. Cantor writes in his essay The Fall of the House of Ulmer, “The Black Cat suggests that, unfortunately, Americans would not recognize a European horror story even if they wandered right into the middle of it.” But would we now? Through its self-reflexive (and explicitly meta-texual) combination of histories (personal and cultural) played out on the big screen, it is possible that as the horrors of past wars continuously haunt us through cinema, we are being forced to comes to terms and deal with these traumas still today.
Part of an in-progress writing series related to an upcoming exhibition, On the Desperate Edge of Now, that looks at historical trauma and collective cultural memory in horror film and contemporary artists. These writings will eventually be published in volume four of Incognitum Hactenus and as exhibition catalogue. See previous post on Folkert de Jong here .
Los Angeles artist Heather Cantrell uses portrait photography as a means to construct and, ultimately, deconstruct singular and collective identity. Performative elements of her subjects as well as theatrical backgrounds function very much like a movie set in which the actions of her “characters” become exaggerated, solidified in an ever-static moment of the past.
In the very personal Corpus Battaglia (2004), Heather Cantrell set a cultural and personal stage as she identifies her familial history with the haunted battlegrounds of the American Civil War. The title itself references the “body” and “battle” and, presumably, the profound influence that one can have upon the other. As a photographic series, Corpus Battaglia entangles (our) national and (her) personal trauma by conflating public and private histories of the American South: the mausoleum-still landscapes of the Gettysburg, Antietam, and Valley Forge battlefields along with the iconic portrait assembly of the artist’s own southern “fore-fathers” (her mother’s four previous husbands).
Here, the still landscapes of Civil War battlefields resonate with America’s collective past, now hauntingly placid tableaus but once the site of bloody horror, while the images of war memorials imbue trauma as remembrance. The Civil War, pitting family against family with cultural and political values at stake, lead to the formation of the United States as it exists today. Cantrell parallels our country’s upbringing with the turmoil of her own by juxtaposing these landscapes with representations of her four fathers who, by default, also symbolize her mother. Her biological father Ivo is the only human figure in the series, her other fathers are depicted through objects – a house, a semi-truck, and most eerily, an urn (one of her stepfathers, Sam, tragically committed suicide).
Perpetually revealing one specific moment, photography itself is a conjuring up of a spectral past. Based on the historical usage of photography by scientists and occult practitioners to capture the presence of ghosts in “spirit photography” in the late 19th and early 20th century, the very foundational concept of the photograph can be seen as a spectral site, a place where the dead are re-born and re-placed back into the land of the living. Therefore, the idea of “medium” here is twofold: a physical medium (the photographic image) and spiritual medium (a channel between the living and non-living). Corpus Battaglia is therefore a ghost, conjuring up America’s collective formative past when a nation was at war with itself along with the artist’s individualized experience of growing up; manifestations of America and a young American.
The title of this project (and its inspiration) is the first episode of Adam Curtis’ blindingly good BBC series called “The Living Dead.” It’s about how the past bleeds into the present, how it cannot be ignored, and how our memory of current/past events is a construction.
Confronting (and that’s what it is, a confrontation) Ed Kienholz’s The Ozymandias Parade at Pace Gallery is a wonderfully jarring experience. Profound and silly, meaningful through a montage of manipulated meanings, the installation is intensely dark and scary because, like all of Kienholz’s work, it hits way too close to the perverbial home. As always, the marginalized reflects us, our struggles and our history. Historical trauma manifested, shown in all its grossly entertaining forms. Kienholz is an utter master at revealing that which society prefers to keep under wraps but shoving it in our face – his works cannot be ignored. They are shockingly beautiful in their ugly honesty (with a big middle finger implied).
The centerpiece of the exhibition is the incendiary large-scale installation The Ozymandias Parade (1985), an opulent allegory of the abuse of political power, with a parade of figures and symbols representing elements of society. The decadent, nationalistic “ship of fools” is capped with nearly 700 blinking lights, which change with each presentation to reflect the colors of the nation where the work is being displayed. Addressing the corrosive effects of fear and propaganda, the tableau depicts a chaotic world turned upside-down: an armed general rides on the back of a fragile female figure who is lured by the “carrot” of a crucifix; the vice president’s horse has toppled off of his roller skates; the menacing, headless vice president faces backwards, blowing a trumpet and waving the flag; the sinister president clings to the belly of his horse, a red phone clutched in his hand and a yellow rubber ducky on his head. Whether the parade’s president shows a YES or a NO across his face is the result of a poll conducted in the weeks leading up to the installation’s opening, comprised of just one simple question: “Are you satisfied with your government?”
Gary Simmons’ mini-survey featuring selects works of the last twenty years at Metro Pictures reveals a complicated history of race and culture in popular culture (cinema, sports, music, painting). That America’s culture industry can simultaneously perpetuate and challenge stereotypes, politics, and society through representation is the provocation here. I associate Simmon’s work with ghosts and it’s because they evoke the familiar, foreign, forgotten, but ever-present past. The power contained within this sort of representation can bring forth a critical understanding of the effects not only of occurrences on the scale of war but that of the everyday America; its contributions and confrontations. Like the horror film, this work is subversive in nature but revelatory in its origins.
It’s not simply about popular culture but our complicated societal culture as well, including lynchings. The entrance gates, with an inversion of the racist connotations of the “law n jockey” by replacing the figures with the Klu Klux Klan, are an imposing welcome to Gary Simmons’ works that conflate popular culture imagery with their historical associations. Particularly on point is Fuck Hollywood, a row of shoeshine stands with beautifully embroidered towels of celebrity figures like Elvis. The entertainment industry is built upon the mining of others (an issue still very much relevant today) and this work bluntly pits the representation of the black working class against a system that simultaneously exploits and neglects.
Simmons’ ghostly, vibrating, cinematic paintings are a personal favorite of mine but when combined with other media, their qualitative power compounds greatly. His dark paintings that are static moving images, caught in an in-between state, in-between frames and movement, the haunting ghosts of American history reemerging and reconfigured as a critical reminding marker of where we have been and where we have yet to go as a nation. The erasure technique that he applies to create his simultaneously static and moving imagery recalls the smoke of ghosts, like faint hands from the past reaching out, through the scene, through the canvas, into the present. One painting screams “House of Pain” with skulls behind it while the painting of the cinema (Bonham Theatre, 2010) stilly spins; a static film still of itself. History never goes away in the promise of a new day.
The embalmed objects of our cultural past are on display as memento-mori: a moonshine set up, boxing gloves, and boom box with record crates. They are starkly white and completely immobilized relics of the last century. But it’s his latest piece, a multi-panel plywood sculpture mounted with drawings of 1930s fight posters, that near perfectly conflates all sorts of media (sculpture, paintings, design, sports) and encapsulates the message contained within this exhibition. Significantly, this work includes a painting of a dangling old-school boxing microphone so elongated and furiously still. This mic looks like a backbone, in fact it is a backbone, a stand-in for the sport, racial and political history, and the artist’s oeuvre to date. To me, this look back at Gary Simmons’ own past is actually quite an exciting look into the future (his, ours, America’s).
Installation views, 2012. Metro Pictures, New York.