The Burning Church in Rosemary’s Baby


Rosemary’s Baby, Roman Polanski’s masterpiece, is known for many things, mainly for the subtle and undetected way in which all the clues of what are going on are woven into a seemingly everyday plot. But only Rosemary Woodhouse, of Omaha, noticed something odd during their first visit with the Castavettes. They took down the paintings, she says: and it is ignored. I’ve enjoyed that scene many times, and never once took notice of her remark, or attended to the fact that she was right, there are lighter areas on the walls, and above the mantel, where paintings have been removed. We later find out that they were in fact removed when Rosemary breaks in through the secret closet and comes upon two examples of their art collection, all up, in place. The first one, directly through the sealed door, is a panoramic painting of a fiery conflagration, the burning of a cathedral. It is in full flame, I do not know its author, but its fiery sky gives it a kind of John Martin quality, it is a statement of anti-church rhetoric, verbally expressed by Roman at the dinner, but held back on out of politeness. The nave of the church is engulfed in flame, and the extensive redness of the flame relates this image to red sky portents of disaster. It is a disaster image. There is also something physiogonomic, and of a satanic sort, in the fire-smashed rose windows, and one tower is caught in the active state of falling, allowing the viewer to participate in the depicted destruction. It is a “scenic painting” or “action painting” which, it has been noted, is a convention of horror movies, and particularly European horror movies, derived from the tradition of the quadreria. Why is the painting pictured, in the movie, directly as Rosemary comes through the closet door? One, in its fiery quality, it reminds us of the fire and police department having come to the building after the suicide of their previous tanis-wearing ward. The blood on the sidewalk is returned to the redness that normally meets such response. However, the truth is it is rare to see full flame fires in real life. The trope of meeting a next door neighbor in New York through a tragedy, as if that is the only thing that will break the very thick ice between residents of the city, is a common one, and happens too in real life (note: as it did for me). Just as red on the sidewalk, and red paint on her breasts, belly and hips, have initiated her into the cult, so here she is brought in entirely. Two, the movie also plays on, from the very first scenes, when Elisha Cook shows them the apartment, the urban legend of the sealed door, a former access between apartments blocked off by recent residents. The sealed door as a reality, as something that happens in real life, is creepily ambiguous, as, while it is now a wall, and marks the space this side of it as yours, and the space that side of it as theirs, it remains a door, and creates a vulnerability, and an uncomfortable closeness, almost an intimacy, between two lives either side of the door (the inadvertent shared door, in an old hotel, for example, is a variant on this motif). (Note: in New York, I lived with a sealed wall, a wall put up to divide a formerly whole apartment; a door wall, or large door serving as a wall; and an authentic sealed door, a door sealed to make a wall). Rosemary has been feeling this pressure throughout the movie, now she has broken through, and, opening up, she “bursts upon” the fiery conflagration, so it serves as an initiation picture. By the way, she stares at it for quite a few seconds, she takes it in. It is right there, though one guesses that few viewers pay attention to it. This painting, then, as an act of art direction, is cleverly inserted to speak of the dynamics of the story. It’s a nice fictional work of art in a movie, it has belief agency, but mainly initiation, sacrificial agency, it is addressed to Rosemary.

And then in an adjoining room there is a smaller painting, it looks like one of Goya’s witch paintings. Two things about these paintings. First, this would be an example where the “scenic paintings” of an owner specifically declare their belief system, and may even serve, in the case of the Goya, as visual manuals describing ceremonies. This sort of scenic painting is a common element of horror movies, but such a specifically related declarative statement, and with a one to one parallel to his verbal statements, is rare. And, then, second, that is why they had to take them down. They did not want Rosemary seeing them, and turning her away from their plot to have her be the mother of Satan. In Hitchcock’s The Lodger, of 1927, the Lodger makes a little adjustment to his rooms, he removes all of the paintings of actresses that encircle it, and, in the Man on The Third Floor, the Jack Palance remake in the 1950s, he turns them to the wall. But this was an act done by a guest or temporary resident to a suite of paintings or pictures that were already in place, and did not express his beliefs. They were taken down because they reminded him of something, that he did not want to be reminded of. The same sort of thing happens in The Hands of Orlac, when Jose Ferrer has to take a print of the guillotine down off the wall of his Riviera hotel room, because it irritatingly reminds him of something. But a self-censoring self-iconoclasm undertaken on the scale of this deception, one has not heard of this before: and may be why this goes so often unnoticed. This couple, who belabor preparing drinks, and dinner, before their guests arrived, had to, or have to have had someone else to, remove all of the offending pictures. And so their rooms seemed even more dowdy, marked by dust free spots on faded wallpaper, as if it was poorly cared for or underfurnished. If you look closely at these scenes, the evidence is right there. Most flamboyantly, the spot where the haunted portrait of the ancestor goes, above the mantel, is marked in this way, empty. And then when Rosemary comes back in at the end to take charge of the care of her unnatural child, the picture of Adrian Marcat that Hutch found in a book, is restored in the format of a large painted portrait, a classic, rather unremarkable, prototype portrait, in a straightforward relationship with the presider in the room, not unlike in Son of Frankenstein. Therefore, in Rosemary’s Baby, her tour of their satanic art gallery is the flip side of a very rare thing, in the manipulation of portraiture in horror, a calculated and preemptive act of self-iconoclasm and subtractive deception as part of a wider plot of seduction. The purposeful absenting of works of art in a deception is still another way in which human agency involves art in its evil twists and turns in horror.


Meme Art: A few thoughts


An interesting article by Michael Sanchez in Artforum online (retrieved June 10, 2013) about how the iphone and internet is generating new kinds of art. He thinks there are two, encouraged by the fact that most art is first seen by way of Contemporary Art Daily, then liked, or tweeted or shared, and so the art is consumed digital image first, gallery presence second. For him, this has caused two kinds of art to gradually come to dominate the art scene, starting, he said, in 2011, when a critical mass developed. First, he talked somewhat uncertainly about a small scale, simple, grey, pastel-like gallery art, minimal, digestible, which he believes is tailored to the fact that it will be seen by digital imaging first and especially by iphone. I reject this thesis because art of this look first emerged as a routine presence in the art world during the neo-geo period of 1987, and so its appearance as a visual norm considerably predates the arrival of internet-based consumption and must be attributable to something else. More research, then, will be needed on this point. But Sanchez’s second type is much more interesting, he calls it meme art, broadly surrealistic imagistic almost humorous art objects juxtaposing things in such a way as to pack a wallop on screen, and, more  importantly, strong enough to become something that people will then want to tweet, and share, and, in the process, make it into a meme. (A meme, pronounced MEEM, as I understand it, is a viral trope, a convention, but one which is played off on rapidly and often in an immediate culture, acting like a virus, infecting all). This is highly possible, as, I have also noticed, the notion that movies might now be consumed on small screens has begun to shows signs of altering the way directors are thinking of movies visually as well. In any case, Sanchez’s idea, that meme art is of a certain style, is interesting. But then I coincidently gained more insight into the nature of Meme art watching a TV show that is a comedy all about new media and how it affects politics, Veep on HBO. In one episode, Selena is caught checking her emails, while in the crisis room at the White House. This embarrassing gaff is then tweeted out, against her will, embarrassing her again. But then her communications chief runs in and tells her, frantically, that it has turned into a meme (Confused, Selena then yells at him, “get out of my office with your….syllables”). Clearly, what he meant, at that moment, is somewhat different than what Sanchez meant. What he said was that the image had become, or turned into a meme: that is, a meme is something that an image with a certain quality becomes, changes into and not just a trope that is passed rapidly from one visual artist to another. How did it become a meme? It started to become a Meme because people thought it was so funny or embarrassing that they shared it, impulsively, quickly, in the manner of a virus. And, then, it became a meme because people then began to photoshop the image of Selena checking her cellphone during a crisis onto images of the signers of the Declaration, Iwo Jima, 9/11. And it is when the original image becomes the model for other images, taking an element of it and situating it in another image, that is the point at which “checking your cellphone in the middle of a crisis” becomes a meme, all of this against the original will. This is a much fuller picture of the changed agency involved in the germination of a meme. The image is put up against the will of the subject, it then began to be shared, but, finally, and only at this point did it become a meme, people began to insert it into other contexts, in order to elaborate upon the joke. And then it all died down. What Meme art is, by this model, is more than a simple matter of style, of needing a startling surreal image to touch off such a chain of events. Meme art is art made by an artist but then something happens that what gets online is not quite what the artist intended (this part of it is difficult to work out, the point is, the artist’s supreme modernist agency is compromised in the making). Then the recipient, strangely, responds not just by laughing, but by him- or herself appropriating the image, and, in effect, making another variant of the artist’s work of it (this also means then that Meme Art must be eminently imitable by the recipient, meaning that the artist cannot depend on specialized knowledge, arcane technique, industrial process or even traditional learned artistic technique, and possibly that meme art cannot be made or exhibited in art galleries at all, the devices of the art must be imitable, doable, simple, art must again be of the “my kid could that” quality, presuming the kid is a digital native, technically). And then the recipient makes a copycat work of art (that is, the viewer acts like an artist too, which is great for everybody-is-an-artist liberal arts culture today), and sends it along, and, if that happens, let’s say, three more times, it qualifies as a work of meme art. The most interesting thing about this scenario is that the agency of the artist is compromised and the recipient or viewer of the work of art is given much more agency, and, in fact, responds to the work of art by making a variant of the work of art. This will be a test to artists, how far will they allow their work to be memed? (I know of a few examples of artists pulling back when memed). Sanchez describes such a circulation, but as type of hive mind among artists, a kind of visual art jam session between artists that nonetheless leaves artists and their creativity in control of the imagery (I noticed odd coincidences in works of art like this in rounds of galleries years ago but never had a vocabulary to put this into words, I detected it as part of what was called neo-conceptualism in 1990, it’s always been there, its “in the air,” that sort of thing, new media folks tend to exaggerate the newness of this quality), this is a circulation, but one that does not compromise artistic power. A model adopted from nonart political culture, however, foresees a more recipient-oriented circulation (and I am not sure if I am talking about artists acting as recipients). This, if this is what Meme Art is, interpreted by agency, means that Meme Art has the power of altering established norms of artist-audience relationship that have stood in place since the emergence of the modern artist as primary agent of art-making two hundred years ago. It could get interesting.

Amityville: A New Generation….of art

Intriguing extra little spin of Amityville lore, as it seems that in addition to the house-related first spate of movies, it then spun off into ostensive storying based on the fact that after the Lutzes moved to California its contents were sold and because they were in the house on the night of the murder they carry some of the evil of the house in them too, and so Amityville gets to be carried off to track housing in California, in A Matter of Time, and then even to an artist’s studio in the west, in A New Generation. In this one, a typical 80s loft artist, described here in 1993, is given a strange mirror from his family, from a homeless person across the street. We then have a very interesting set up, as everyone involved in the story live in a loft building, with open access between studios, the kind of space I know well indeed.

am 1

Once inside, the mirror is haunted, having seen evil, so like the mirror in From Beyond the Grave, and in Dead of Night (1945), it embodies a demon, and since the mirror reflects oneself, it reflects one’s dead self, and projects evil into one (all of this based on traditional folk fears of mirrors as soul-stealing and spirit-trapping places). In this set up, the art is just art, but, then, backed up by the mirror, it becomes haunted painting, or painting which is a straightforward creativity-denying projection of artist angst, in this case their being possessed by the devil. So, in murder one, a spurned pickup comes up to Suki’s studio where the mirror is and begins a full on episode of revenge iconoclasm, destroying her paintings, because they represent her, he will probably slash her, if she shows up too. So, we see paintings punctured, it looks like modern art and Jack the Dripper too, but, no, it is not art (Fontana), it is anger, destroying art. And then when in his state of hauntedness, the demon having come into him, he looks into the mirror, with, by the way, rather implausibly gothic efforts in the frame, he sees himself possessed by the demon, and marked for death.

am 2

And then, from deeper in, behind even the demon, the true source of the demonic force, the house, which is the structure that makes the mirror itself as object haunted, the eyes of the house.

am 3

This is a not entirely terrible explication on how the agencies shift, when art is haunted by real fears behind it, and odd because it combines mirror, mirror behind art, and art itself. A much better sequence then happens when Suki herself becomes possessed. Fortunately, her possession first takes the form of a creative spurt, in which she furiously creates all in one day, exploiting a cram model of creativity that young folks often adopt, and which is subject of a whole campus mythology, all of demons, the demons in the picture, channeled through her. In order to reinforce the groundless source of this creativity, and her relationship with it, these paintings are not stretchered on an easel but hung free, then suspended by rope from the ceiling (I know of many artists back then who installed their work groundlessly, i.e. not on stretchers, but hanging them from rope doesn’t come to mind), and the artist can even pull the ropes to make them rise and fall like curtains. It is an installation, 80s style.

am 4

Two details: the fact that altogether the pictures create a maze or funhouse effect adds to the model of possession by a demon, they fashion their own haunted house space, which isfun; second, in addition to the ropes, some ropes are let hang loose, and then noosed, to signify that this is expressionistic art, the art of angst, and likely suicidal in nature, or at least motivated by suicidal ideation (the oldest stereotype trope of mad artists in horror movies).

am 5

The fun begins when David Naughton comes in to say hello and the pictures begin to move on him, and they will move again a lot, and for Suki too, and as a sign of possession, I have only ever seen this idea, having all the paintings of a collection bounce about, animated by movement, as the demon moves through them, in the Italian movie The Antichrist, so this is an original expression of this idea in American film (however, there, the possessed woman made them move, here the green demon races through them). It’s very good. Then Suki makes her appearance, but she seems possessed. She acknowledges his acclaim, that she has done great things, but she also is crazed and moves around him in a stalking manner, and, then, too it has to be pointed out that she is wearing white painter overalls and nothing else, and most of top and sides of body are naked. The straps of her overalls (how many women artists dressed in this clichéd alluring artist fashion back then?), and the closure of her arm on her sides, now become as the noose, it must be pulled, the straps of that top must be pulled down, and so they are. She brings Naughton to the mirror, and they are joined together in a kind of black mass matrimony under the sign of the demon that possesses her and is in her art.

am 6

So she drops her top, and they begin to make love (this movie is rather tame in sexual matters, and is in fact a nipple movie, using a flash of nipple to signify full nudity. This then is interrupted and later when Suki is back alone at work the pictures now rise up possessed and here again like in The Antichrist (its on youtube), she is fully negatively possessed in a way that causes her to hang herself, its quite a sequence. The agency is clear, it’s a chain reaction, evil house haunts evil mirror, haunts person who looks into it, if person is artist haunts art, and, after haunting, pushes itself through all these chain linked referrals of the original evil agency and this is too much for a human to take in, so she has to kill herself, to break the circuit. Its very well done, conceptually.

am 7


I also want to mention that this movie had a number of uncanny almost-like-my-life tracking moments, watching the movie, meaning that, the movie itself, as an agent, bulged toward me, and came to almost possess me, by reminding me of something in my life in art, and in the sequence where Suki seeks cover under some of the fallen painting, and crawls out, I am reminded of an installation video Cheryl Donegan recorded at Basilico in 1995 (I wrote the catalog essay, which is a keeper) in which she crawled under the canvas too, and I related it then  to being under the bed, bogeyman style, struggling with painting, as a video artist, so here is the idea, in popular culture, weird.

am 9

The movie then veers off, about half way through, out of the loft and out of art back into life and we find a typical boy finds hidden secret and abreactive block to deal with, and so in this the movie subscribes to modern horror basic Freudianism, most of which is a bit belabored, but with some good elements. Interesting that in this telling Amityville where the original crime took place and was witnessed by a mirror which, for its witness, took its evil into it, happened in upstate New York, not Long Island. Finally, we have dark room stuff, a la the Exorcist, as the artist can’t seem to product photos that do not turn out with a blur of a deaths head on them, and then he comes up with the idea for creating an installation at a gallery opening featuring life size cutout figure photo collages of the problems encountered at the original dining room table. A few things here: the art opening reception has about it a type of casualness, it is renegade, and one wonders where the screenwriters got the details, because it reminded me of my participation in Value, an exhibition in a raw space on Prince Street in November, 1991. This is why: Richard Roundtree, still with that wonderful gleam in his eye, makes an appearance as a veteran artist who makes an installation of him sitting in a chair watching an old tv mounted with a loaded rifle (channeling Chris Burden, whose act seemed to mark artists as weird, in popular culture, for a generation), this is weird, not unlike Eric Oppenheim’s piece in Value’s Rock Bottom gallery, a mounted buzzsaw that turned on when you approached it, with the chair being Curtis Mitchell’s taped up salvaged street chair by it (if only I had had a picture taken of me in that chair, facing that buzzsaw, that would have been the piece, and Mitchell in fact didn’t like the installation, and I had to call him on a public phone to sort it all out, only because the buzzsaw was pointed at his chair, I turned the chair around, problem solved.

am 10

And then, amazingly, the main set up of the star artist’s installation is a recreation of the dining room table back in Amityville, and the bad things that went on around it, just as I had a Laurel Katz long dining room table piece set up as the table in the middle of the main gallery in Value, and then the haunted mirror is behind it, just as I had a Katharine Howe exhibit one of her De Kooning-deconstructing portraits of little girls behind it, as a haunted portrait, as I explicitly theorized (Brian D’Amato also had a piece in strange bad taste, more like the mirror in the movie, and then he went on to write horror novels a la Dorian Gray). As an installation, the resemblance is uncannily similar. The only difference is that this being a movie it is activated out of art and into bodies so artists sit at the table and then the artist himself comes in with the loaded gun taken from Roundtree’s piece (and Oppenheim’s piece scared the shit out of so many people, I’m surprised in retrospect we got to exhibit it) and acts out the drama by threatening to kill them all, like his father did, but then at the last minute not killing them but killing the picture, but it is touch and go for a bit, so he finally gets his agency straight. And when the audience applauds after the police tracked him down and almost shoot him with the gun in his hand and the police say, are you all crazy?

am 11

As, in fact, stereotypically, art folk are to popular culture and especially in horror movies. It’s an interesting art into life and life into art moment, a genuine nexus between art and life, and however basic the Freudianism is in keeping with modern horror, it did give me a frisson of the uncanny as with the one piece, then this one, and then all the critics showing up, and in a renegade space, and done in 1993, which means the script was done in 1992,  it did seem to echo in too many ways to the Value exhibition of 1991, and “track” to Value of 1991, and draw out, in horror, some of the themes that I could then only refer to minimally in the context of contemporary art (I ought to call the screenwriter to see if he did his art world research in Soho in the Fall of 1991 and maybe stopped by Lafayette Street). Also, the fact that the mirror witnessed a murder, and that the prototype for all this is the murder in the Amityville house of a family, and children, means that all this art is an acting out of a hidden prototype, and part of a psychic recall of it, meaning that in structure this exhibition also mimics that of my Tabloid show in 1992, during the time of the scripting, at Sally Hawkins Gallery, which I found out last May (2012), I had curated as a “scene of the crime” over the space which has been revealed to be where Etan Patz was killed (this still tentative). It is hard to say, have to still work this out, but it spooks me. But because this movie roused all this up again, it surprised me, it is a movie rich in mad artist agency, and a very thoughtful little exercise in relational conceptualism, in the middle of a junk movie.

Lead Break

Two years ago I reviewed Martin Scorsese’s Living in the Material World, about George Harrison, and protested. I’ve finally begun to act on the promise of this review



Unnnumbered. George Harrison: Living in the Material World, two and half stars, Scorsese

This is a very sturdy, efficient and thorough treatment of the life of George Harrison, but for me does not capture the essence of Harrison. I suspect this is because Scorsese is the Beatles’ age and sees the Beatles as they lived life for those of their age, and for that reason focuses most of his attention on the breakup and the subsequent evolution of Lennon and Harrison. This same syndrome plagues reviews of the life of John Lennon, with Yoko Ono working behind the scenes to value his own years, not his Beatle years, even though, here, as in documentaries of Lennon, the bad reviews given his solo career are briefly noted. The movie also focuses on his songs, as if songwriting is what makes him equal to Lennon McCartney and pictures the All Things Must Pass period as a career climax. There is no doubt that this Harrison influenced me immensely, and I liked all those songs. But at the same time I have not listened to them in years, and years, they have left no permanent mark in my memory structure.  For me, the only key and truthful moment of the movie, getting to the heart of George Harrison, was when McCartney mentioned that he did not write the riff of And I love Her, George made it up on the spot, not enough attention was paid then to how good of a guitarist he was, how artful and incredibly sublime his lead breaks were, I was thinking Id call a revised version of the life of GH Lead Break, and talk about how his claim to fame is his mastery of that art form, a true genius, and in that regard, in terms of structured, riff guitar, before the effusive lead solos of the hippie era took over, Harrison excelled even Clapton. But in this version, everyone remained in place, most of the breakup, Clapton, Patty, the attack, the wife, all that, all was canned stuff we’ve heard all before. as eulogized and hagiographized by hippie lore and self-serving memory of the great days.  I am also interested in the Crackerbox Palace GH of Friars Park, they did get into that some, but not enough, and the film filled in on his Monty Python era too, where I think GH got into the whole English Country Gent thing, including a taste for horror. In my view, then, that Krishna GH, the All Things Must Pass GH, has passed, but his tight, abrupt, liquid, clear as a bell, perfect solos, in song after song, in all of the early albums, they endure, they are the legacy of GH and if he felt secondary because the emphasis was on songwriting, too bad, because as a guitarist he is and remains I think the greatest guitarist of his generation.  

Ray Harryhausen, this written May 7 2013


Here again, one of those days. All those in my generation interested in special effects, fantasy and horror, are held within the continuous culture of the movies we saw when we were young, and all the movies of Spielberg, Lucas, Jackson and Burton, all in that culture, by the oversight of the elders, by the living on of the prototypes, the original masters. And when they die: then, since they are no longer there, to comment on what’s going on now, to compare them to us, to approve or not of what is being done now, a ground is lost. It’s fun to be part of a long-term culture held together by the living of those who made the works of it a long time ago. And when that it over, then there is a sense of loss of the culture, and coherence. So, the role of the prototype in a culture.

The death of Ray Harryhausen Tuesday in London is another one of those moments. He was the master, and having him around to preside emeritus over the evolution of special effects was important. For me, personally, there was Joyce, and Eliot, and Sir James Frazier, and others, there was art, and there were movies, and of course in my growing up I outgrew Harryhausen, but it is an easy case to make that Ray Harryhausen might have been the most influential artist in my life as a viewer of movies and even a writer. I was exactly the age of movie goer who was innocently exposed to his special effects as the signal achievement of Saturday matinee culture. There is little doubt, anyone who ever reads my accounts of movie culture, that The Three Worlds of Gulliver, especially the Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, and, copied from him, but not Harryhausen, Jack the Giant Killer, were key and profoundly influential movies in my Saturday matinee era. I am 100% convinced that I saw all these movies in a Saturday matinee at the Fox Bay theater in Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin, in 1962-1964. The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad is arguably one of the most influential movies I ever saw. The Cylcops, in that movie, is, in my view, and copied again by an follower of in Jack the Giant Killer, with Torin Thatcher villainously presiding in both, is by far the greatest stop motion creation Harryhausen ever made. I continue to lecture about the wild space in the imagination, and believe that del el bahri in Egypt and the Valley of the Kings was so important to the Egyptians because it was where their imagination went to play, a wild space. And I think that I fixate on that place because it is an adult transposition of the Valley of the Cyclops in Seventh Voyage (an image repeated in the dazzling valley of bronze figures, featuring Talos, in Jason and the Argonauts. Though there were many things that I saw in my childhood that disappeared for a time, I seem to recollect that my acknowledgement of the influence of these movies never did. When I rediscovered the cultural legacy of these movies on the shape of my creative culture in the early 1990s, informing my fiction from that point on, Harryhausen was there. I do not know exactly when I saw Jason and the Argonauts but of all the Harryhausen movies I watched it more than others. I still watch it, when it is on. I also like all the later Sinbad movies, and just mentioned Eye of the Tiger a couple of a days ago. I like Clash of the Titans, and wanted to compare it to the remake a few years ago. I also consumed in one way or another, though possibly on TV, Mysterious Island, From Earth to the Moon, and then recaptured earlier viewings, probably all on the Late Show, of the Beast from 20,000 Phantoms and Earth Versus Flying Saucers, which well could be the Quatermass II of my more conscious American sense of the sci fi and horror origins of my visual culture. In short, still today, and pretty much without a break or suspension, through all of my life as creative person or critic, Harryhausen has persisted, he is by far one of the three or four artists who directly and immediately influenced how I viewed and lived in the world (though the fact that he put in me a taste for the fantastical may mean that I spent most of my time on earth in a fantasy world). In terms of Rommer Reviews, I do not remember which of his movies I have reviewed, though I recollect that I reviewed Valley of the Gwangi last year. But in honor of his passing, I will put all those reviews on the record. Ray Harryhausen, the prototype.

Finally, Harryhausen and his concern for realism was noted in the review. But then he personally seemed to think that something was lost in the pursuit of realism in current CGI. This is a recurring issue with me: something has gone wrong with CGI culture. I complained about when reviewing Cowboys and Aliens, The Wolfman, and even this past week, Argento’s Dracula and even Mama. In all cases, the main problem is that the CGI and the filmed part of the movie never come together and so the CGI seems extraneous and disconnected. That is a problem. Then, it seems rubbery, and slippery, and hard to get hold of. Realism or not, fantasy or not, the main problem is not only the uncanny valley, but, as I said, the uncanny peak, the failure of the effects to be convincingly sutured into the movie so that for a moment the viewer comes to see them as real in the context of the movie. Harrryhausen simply developed a technical arsenal, using stop motion, rear projection, and glass in front, upon which the live film was projected, that was able, miraculously, to create that effect. And then it did not create that effect always, and of course it does now and then look fake, and unconvincing, but it was able to now and then crossover and make contact and for a minute, you sat up, whoa, it was real, in the film. So, his work did not suffer from the uncanny peak. Second, it was also possible that the slight awkwardness resulting from stop motion and rear projection in fact gave some extra quality of unintentional realism to Harryhausen’s suturings. These awkward side-effects para-special effects are fissures, perhaps annoying to current practice, but the secret of their success. His models were always independently lit, and as a result seem sharp and threatening on screen. They existed in their reality on a plane of reality either behind or in front of the filmed segment of the scene, and as a result there was a distance, especially when behind, as when Talos stalks to the inlet to take up position to grab the Argos in Jason and the Argonauts, this gives his models a tremendous grandeur. It is distancing technique, perhaps just a side effect of the process, but it really worked, it made his models seem momentarily imposingly, impossible real, and enormous, in an optical illusion, on screen. And then when the model lunges out of the plane and crashes into a model set in place of a plane and they come together, it was a great effect (the least successful Harryhausen effect was when a rubber model picked up a hero and he had to insert a rubber hero in the model’s hands, never worked). And finally, third, the very awkwardness created by the process of stop motion, which was never able to iron out the micro-glitches of successive shots of a models eeked ever so slightly forward for the next shot of action, gave to them a strange, otherworldly quality that one equated with insects, reptiles, creepy crawlers, hunt dogs, shy girls, monsters, Frankenstein, and that too was thrilling. The fact that in some cases, like the figurehead that comes alive and gets up and walks in Eye of the Tiger, the figure was wooden, or was stone, or was a substance become real, and now alive, gave a rationale to this awkwardness too. And this added to the power and grandeur of this imagery. Therefore, through suturing, through distance and through stopmotion awkwardness, Harryhausen found a technique that allowed him to create convincing special effects, of a painterly beauty, that momentarily did come alive, and make us sit back in our seats, scared, enthralled, forever marked. CGI today completely lacks this quality, and seems unconcerned with its realism vis a vis film in movies today.

So, it is not a matter of realism versus fantasy, it is matter of the integrity of the film, and the ‘realism’ of the effect in the context of the film. The effect must, to be effective, come alive, it must become, for a moment, invested with the spirit of the monster, with the reality of the thing, the filmed effect must become the thing, it must, then, become a cult sequence, within a movie, a spot touched by indexicality, like a miracle spot in a renaissance painting, the spirit and force of the prototype it refers to, entering into it, and scaring one. Without it, it does not work. When it is there, and it is amazing to me how basic and simple the effects can be, but if they acheive this effect, they work, it is magic, without it, it is just eh and nobody cares.

The fact that Harryhausen repeatedly posed with his models seems to suggest that he was trying to communicate subliminally to the CGI people of today. The key was in the model, and the model as a cult statue, as an encultured object, imagined as the thing to which it refers, and utilized by one with a duty to make it real on film too. That religion, that paganism of special effects, is what is missing from CGI today. My apologies to all the experts in media and effects and animation and all the superstructure of schools and degrees and companies and all the money and men and women and work and all those impossibly long crawls after movies of the so many effects people on the movies, but because not one of the people on that list is a true believer in the art of making the prototype of the monster come alive through the artifact of the model and the process of it being submerged in film, which is instrumentation of the paganism of special effects, they make poor effects. The King is dead, the Harryhausen era ended in 1981, but his oversight of the cult died yesterday. And now what will happen? More rubber indulgences in a disconnected extracinematic artisanism, just shopwork, not art.

635 Miasma, the pavilion and Sarah Sze Jun 4 2013


Finally, artists at the Biennial often will employ, escalated as there are by the institutional support of nation and biennale, men, workers, trucks, cranes, etc etc, logistics takes over as the main instrumentaiton of the thing, and in this regard the artist is inflated in the system to a kind of director of operations. The results of this are usually fatal to art, as artists are being asked to undertake a task they are ill equipped for, meaning that in reality they are only figureheads. As figureheads, the artists’s touch and presence became attenuated, and the work lacks and has to lack a certain personal quality. The agency of power that they have wrestled to them in the modern period, and on the basis of which we expect to see some evidence of in their touch or idea, is undermined by the involvement of so many others.

Because of all the institution gateways that the art must pass through en route from idea to execution to exhibition it is also true that more often than not a work of pavilion art is as the light of a planet that died eons ago just reaching earth the precipitate of an idea or notion of art that is at the very least twenty years old. I thought of this seeing Alfredo Jaar for Chile, an artist who was at some cutting edge in 1993.

The belief system behind the basic instrumentation of so much the art of the Biennial is, find an issue, presumably a global issue, then find a lot of stuff out there in the world that can refer to it but also fill a gallery, hire trucks and men and all that to bring all that stuff from over there, to over here, in the gallery, deposit, arrange or not, and, voila, a gigantic material display of refuse or objects at industrial scale of multiplicity, and, it is thought, you have brought the issue attached to the thing, the miasma of the issue,  into the gallery, and people are meant to catch it or be infected or touched by it, the badness of the air of the thing, as a result. According to this theory, change is contagious, in a literal way: expose people to the issue, like bad night air, and, voila, they will catch the outrage and move to change things. (When in fact they will only change things if their physical comfort is negatively affected in their life in the  economy). No, it does not, and, no, they do not. Miasma theory, the artist gargantuanized into a figurehead depiction of the whirlwind of effort that brought the miasma of a deploring issue into a haunted palace, to make us feel it, is not valid: it is magical thinking, art world superstition. The entire instrumentation and intention of most festivalist art is entirely obsolete as an idea. It is based on an obsolete notion of the world, as well as of art. The fact that just about every single national pavilion has art created based on the exact same instrumentation and intention means that the problem is exacerbated by repetititon, and monotony, and the effect is further muted.


This is why I think the Sarah Sze installation does not move me very much, in Venice. Having followed her work from the get-go, Sze always worked best in spaces, or, more precisely, going into spaces, into crawlspaces, under the stairs, etc., that were little worlds of makebelieve inside the infrastructure of the world. The dynamic was that you would go in, come out, go in again, come out, it was enthralling. Out here in the big bad miasma curing industrial Mr Clean world of Biennial pavilionized art it seems like—more or the same. The special intimate pinch in her work, that drew you in, surprised and delighted you, then let go, and let you wander a bit, and then get drawn in again, so that you go through it in the manner of a Rube Goldberg machine, or a puzzle to be worked out (was always intrigued by Saltz’s theory that there was a secret number code in one piece), all of that is washed away by a broader template of seeing in the pavilion context. The nuance of mind required to appreciate the micro fluxes of sensation in taking in her work are wiped away by the seven league boot issue stomping of the global art world (again, I want to point out, I have no problem addressing issues, the question is, having been cured of this once before –which qualifies me as a picture doctor– how much capacity does art have to address them?).

Note, in accordance with the Greenbergian idea of at-oneness and instantaneity, I concede at present that this is my review is based entirely on first impression, and on media depiction, which tends to accentuate the first impression. I also use as documentary evidence people looking at the art from Venice, and, with Sze, as with all others, I see the same gawking eye boggled mind what is it blankness, the Biennale stare (as distinct a nystagmus as subway eyes in New York city), a very particular kind of blindness that strikes a population of people in the swamps of Venice during early June (I suspect that after the opening hoopla the blindness recedes, as people are in Venice for other things, and do not marathon on the art).

The eye of the Biennial visitor is the eye of the Plague Doctor, round, goggled, blank, warding off, protecting itself, from the miasma of big issues borne in from abroad. They need to be cured of their fear.

Li Hong Bo and the honeycomb Jun 9 2013

li hong bo


For various reason, I like honeycomb figures. Whenever I get a good new honeycomb figure now, I usually go on a few day tear with my smartphone camera, taking closeup shots of its perforation against lighning in ways that delight me, its almost as if I am a cat with a string, enchanted by a particular look. Of course, I then looked for an artist who worked with the mode. I was thinking maybe there might be an artist who made extra use of the honeycomb method as Urs Fischer made use of candle art to create a new kind of agentic statuary, statues reproduced in wax that burned down in the course of the run of an exhibition. I found one artist to date who works in honeycomb, Li HongBo from Beijing. An editor, living in a world of paper, reinforced by a culture with roots in deeper paper culture, as in, for example, its painting, not to mention its paper cutout art, Hong Bo studied the decorative objects that are made in China for hanging at festive occasions. When he took apart the apparatus he discovered that the process was not that difficult (it still seems very difficult to me). And so he figured out how to escalate the practice to provide him with a ground on the basis of which he could make art. He glued sheets of tissue together until he arrived at a sixfoot pile of paper then took a jigsaw to it, and cut out a figure. The first efforts were shown at Eli Klein gallery in Soho. I do not care much for them. In them, HongBo overly focused on the material, so felt that the color aspect of the most popular manifestation of the honeycomb in culture should be edited out. Then, he imposed upon his raw material grasp of the medium a formal exercise, carving out a figure. The effect does not seem that much more sophisticated than ice carving and butter carving, and, imposing a figure on the medium, does not hit the spot. Then, I would think, he felt that he needed something to emphasize the honeycombness of it and latched upon the fact that when honeycomb shapes are unhooked they accordion out and fold up and so he caused the heads of the figures  to accordion off then liked that effect so he extended it ad infinitum so that the necks snaked all over the gallery, all of this work still in paper white. In this, Hong Bo made, in my view, a wrong turn, he tore through the idiom of the honeycomb, to the materiality of the paper, then exploited the perforatedness of it as an afterthought to create a clarifying effect which only seems weird. I am sure that people responded to the realism, as it is like a topiary or other craft forms of that ilk, and to the weirdness, but they are unappealing and not very sophisticated as art. For reasons which are not clear to me, now, however, Hong Bo then shifted his focus. He went back in a more pop art spirit to the idiom in which the honeycomb appears most often in culture, to festive paper objects, usuallys fruits, holiday figures, turkeys, santas, ghosts, wedding bells, lamps, etc etc., it is a rather limited vocabulary because the figure has to have a rotund nature, and then kept the delightful color that is joined to the form and worked from an acceptance of that bright and pleasing package, and, grasping form, color and festiveness altogether, expanded upon them. And then he saw that these idioms, somewhat limited, can be elaborated, to expand upon their delight, by being enlarged and multiplied through an installation. And the result is an enchanting playground of honeycomb paper forms rhizoming out across a gallery in a way that keeps and expands upon the idiom of festivity and form which identifies the art in culture. In this, having made a misstep by imposing Chinese academicism to a popular art form, he lightened up, resigned his snobbery, retracted, returned to the pop art spirit and now has created a sculptural form of pop art that lives in a completely different family of contemporary art objects: and is very good contemporary art.