Oscar Wilde’s The Portrait of Dorian Gray is the quintessential merger of visual art and horror. The classic British tale of a young man and his portrait painting that houses all of his evil doings gets the Italian horror film treatment (and a cravat) in this 1970 movie directed by Massimo Dallamano.
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For some reason it always comes back to Bava. And while I know that the skulls in Mike Nelson’s exhibition More things (To the memory of Honore de Balzac) is not a direct reference to the skeletal figure in Mario Bava’s Planet of the Vampires (itself a direct influence on Alien), the similarity between scale and presence is striking.
From literature to the theater to the screen. Narrative and meaning shifts with medium changes as films like Frankenstein and Dracula often differ greatly from their book predecessor.
The following is what I hope will be the first of many writings about the work of Mike Nelson. This particular essay stems from his recent exhibition More things (To the Memory of Honore de Balzac) at Matt’s Gallery in London and our conversation about architecture, horror films, and narrative implications.
In Richard Lester’s 1969 post-apocalyptic comedy film The Bed Sitting Room, a select few find themselves living in the strange aftermath of nuclear war in London. Their natural attachment to objects (the city is littered with shoes, suitcases, millions of discarded things) and the old order of life shifts again when, suddenly, a new post-war effect takes place…they begin to turn into things themselves. A bed sitting room, an armoire, and even a bird (all with the power of human consciousness and speech) are the mutated forms of life. Although designed for the audience to laugh at the absurdity of this new existence, the film reveals there is a real horror in acknowledging the possibilities of what might happen when the world changes.
Mike Nelson’s latest installation at Matt’s Gallery, More things (To the Memory of Honore de Balzac), produces a similar provocation. Inversing the architectural structures he has become known for, Nelson has laid out a series of objects that are a series of suggestions or, as he put it, a “semblance of atmospheres.” The absence of an established “place” in which to house these things, aside from the gallery room itself, creates a sequence of open-ended narratives, connections to be made as one wanders through the room, stepping over objects, encountering mysterious forms like glancing giant skulls, trash cans grounded in cement, and long-form boards that are too low to be benches but high enough to become intrusive.
What’s most compelling about Mike Nelson’s work is that it gives permission for this kind of immediate interaction. The passivity associated with art or film viewership cannot occur in his installations and, unless you only stand in the doorway at Matt’s Gallery, certainly can’t happen here. There is an active engagement of looking in More things (To the memory of Honore de Balzac) by walking over, through, and around these inexplicable objects that navigate and determine our bodily movements in this framed space. Whereas Nelson’s architectural environments provide an obvious context of our experience, the items usually contained in those places is now dispersed and fragments our associations with them. We become the last people in London who traverse the new landscape.
This goes back to Nelson’s idea of a “semblance of atmospheres”, an uncontained atmosphere that suggests a narrative rather than providing a linear and literal reading. Much like in The Bed Sitting Room, there is a confusion of forms and their readings, a conflation of organic and inorganic that conveys a strange new world or, at the very least, the remnants of an old strange world. The absence of figures in the installation is outlined in pieces that imply human form; a deflated work suit complete with a hat hanging from a metal backbone and a shoe with spikes underneath (the other “foot” is a stick) lays in the corner while a similarly deflated sleeping bag holds court in the middle of the room, dirty and barren. Animal skulls dangle from re-structured chairs suggesting that, such as in the film, living creatures are now components of material form. Scalped masks lay frozen on the floor. More ominous are the wooden sticks (charred and jagged) formed into something between a grave marker and crucifix or the scarecrow-like figures with animal skin draped as a body and a tambourine.
Though lacking an overriding or oppressive narrative, Nelson does subtly drop hints that could mark the cause of this barren landscape. As in his title reference to Balzac, there is no escaping politics and society here. Specifically, there is one sculptural object housed in the back corner that consists of a broken crate from Jaffa, Israel alongside a near-destroyed caution sign (enter at out risk) and hanging plaque with Arabic writing. There is the suggestion of a former architectural structure that seems to have been blown apart. A reference to the volatile and ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine, the dispute of land territory and agricultural ownership, this near obliterated object could contain the meaning to the end we are witnessing. That there are giant skulls framing the room doesn’t dissuade this argument. This is what could remain.
Both The Bed Sitting Room and More things (To the memory of Honore de Balzac) connote a very powerful presence through absence and explore what exists at the liminal boundary between the two. By acknowledging the unknown and a non-reality, they depict a possible reality of a new world born from and within the destruction of the old. And isn’t this what science-fiction, horror, and art do best? Show us possibilities of an existence that we cannot begin to fathom or visualize or formulate by ourselves? Providing a visual reference to the unthinkable, the unrepresentable, my reading of Mike Nelson’s installation is just that: disparate forms coming together to imagine what remains and what is possible in an unimaginable plane of existence. More things (To the memory of Honore de Balzac) doesn’t require an architectural guide to convey the abject terror of disassociation from the familiar; the sculpture entities are alone a frightening implication that we humans are not a part of this new other world.
Images by Caryn Coleman, courtesy of Mike Nelson and Matt’s Gallery.
Burnt Offerings is the second film in Nitehawk’s series THE WORKS – KAREN BLACK. It is the only horror film featuring Black in the program that also includes Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, Airport 1975, Family Plot, and The Day of the Locust. The following text was originally written for Fangoria…
Burnt Offerings is pretty much the perfect horror movie. Psychological, mysterious, and haunting, it breaks away from many of the more gruesome exploitation films of the early 1970s while being very much distant from the American slashers that were to follow. Featuring an all-star cast of Karen Black, Oliver Reed, Burgess Meredith, and Bette Davis, Burnt Offerings offers a truly original take on the haunted house. Rather than the home being an area that the dead occupy, as we’re accustomed to seeing in haunted house films, the home here is very much alive…and it needs to be fed.
Fairly faithful to Robert Marasco’s brilliantly vivid 1973 novel of the same name, Dan Curtis’ (also director of Trilogy of Terror) version of Burnt Offerings retains that fuzzy, hazy, confused and uncomfortable sensation that pulsates throughout the narrative of the book. Epitomizing the phrase “if it’s too good to be true, then it probably is,” the film centers around the Rolf family (Ben, Marian, and Davey) who have rented a gothic country house for the summer as a means to escape their hectic life in the city. The strange owners of the house, the Allardyce siblings Arnold (Burgess Meredith in a wonderful flamboyant performance as the wheelchair bound “brother”) and Roz (an in-control and raspy voiced “sister” Eileen Heckart), should have been the young family’s first warning. The ridiculously low rental price for the summer announcement following by the catch that the Rolfs would have to take care of the Allardyce “mother” during their stay should have been their second. But the lure of the house is too strong for Marian and so she enters her family into ruin.
Immediately Marian becomes obsessed with the house. She cleans, straightens, swoons over its interior as the life begins to drain out of her. She spends increasingly more time in the never-present Mrs. Allardyce’s room, becoming one with it. Her hair becomes gray, clothing becomes Victorian. And she’s not the only one who changes. Aunt Elizabeth, a spry swearing-smoking-cursing 74 year old (played by the powerhouse Bette Davis) literally begins to crumble before our very eyes while young blood Davey becomes the main target and Ben (the manly Oliver Reed) descends into violent madness. Ben’s hallucinations include one of the more unforgetable images in horror film: the thin, grinning chauffeur. He is the source of Ben’s nightmares (presumably stemming from the funeral of his parents at a young age) and, subsequently, the source of nightmares for numerous viewers since Burnt Offerings’ release.
Architecture, domesticity, and women are the narrative backbone of haunted house stories. From The Castle of Otranto on up to Psycho, the role of the woman and her downfall are often told through the relationship to the home. So, while Reed’s “Ben” is the character with whom the audience identifies with on this horrifying journey (he trys desperately to save his family even when in a near catatonic state), it’s Karen Black’s “Marian” is the one whom the story centers around. Marian – her body, soul, and mind – become absorbed into the Allardyce house and, through the deaths of her family, experiences a re-birth which places her as the new motherly soul, the beating heart if you will, of the home. One could very much view Burnt Offerings as commentary on the second wave of feminism, much like The Stepford Wives, because it firmly and forcefully re-places the woman back into her proper place as “mother” and caretaker.
In a role that could easily be over-the-top, Black plays Marian with a quiet subtlety that has to be one of the best performances in horror film. Black establishes her obsession with the house so steadily and convincingly that when she returns back into the house, we don’t yell at her to not go up the stairs as we do in other horror films. Instead, we sympathize with her compulsion recognizing, as she has throughout the film, that what is about to happen to her is inevitable. Because we know, through Black’s depiction Marian, that the Rolf family structure has to be obliterated to preserve the Allardyce family. This can only happen through the rejuvenation of the home and this home is vampiric, sucking the blood from its victims in order to become new again, everlasting, to remain part of a mysterious other-worldly cycle.
Our mother…is back.
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.
Jennifer and Kevin McCoy’s Twenty One Twelve (2012-2013) at the Moving Image Art Fair in New York this past February was a mixture of sculpture, moving images, and new technologies. Or rather, a combining of new technologies with a series of landscapes of defunct technologies, the remains of a previous life; future and past collide.
It immediately recalled the post-apocaplyptic British comedy The Bed Sitting Room (1969) a film that traces the new everyday (and weird) lives of a handful of survivors. Sitting on trash, traversing amongst the ruins, and clinging on to old routines, The Bed Sitting Room shows a similar visualized collision between the past and the present into one transformative future. Architecture and a sense of experiential place are exploited in both works.
The Bed Sitting Room (Richard Lester, 1969)…
“No organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.”
– First paragraph of Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House (1959)
-Image from Robert Wise’s film The Haunting (1963)