Horror of Children’s Drawings in Children of the Corn, Mama and Sinister

585 Horror of Life byline– The Horror of children’s drawings in contemporary horror movies, May 11 2013 (all screengrabs obviously used for critical purposes only)

Reviewing some recent horror movies, the theme of sinister children, and children’s drawings as an expression of their evil, emerges. This theme was brought out in Paranormal Activity Three (2011), where we find out that the girls are being groomed for membership in a coven,

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and one of them kills their father,

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fueled by Asian horror, where the scary girl with pale skin and black hair is everpresent, and has become so critical an identifier for horror as a genre that even in a movie with absolutely nothing to do with it,  this face must pop up, as here in the abysmal Silent Hill: Resurrection

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The theme of the evil child, and drawings expressing it, was continued in two more recent movies, Mama and Sinister. In Mama two girls who are victims of parental irresponsibility, and almost family annihilation, get trapped in a country cottage, and for the next five years are raised by a spirit of the woods, which they call Mama. When the girls are discovered and brought back to civilization, they bring the demon back with them. It is their parents, or nonparent in the case of Jessica Chastain who is in trouble. Then in Sinister, tracking Paranormal Activity Three uncomfortably close, winding a path through secret symbols, visions of evil on media and the discovery of a cult of family-killing children, again it is the adults that are in danger from their children. The horror of what is going on in their children’s mind, then, is the main repository of fear here. These are movies expressing the angst of parenting toddlers, but not recommended for viewing by those parents. In both movies, the medium by which access is gained into the childish mind is children’s drawings.

The history of children’s art in movies is long and deep. The Citizen Kane of the use of children’s drawings in movie is the original Children of the Corn (1984). In that movie, we begin to see the trouble in the town of Gatlin in children’s drawings of street life, all the children with bloody knives in their hands,

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We also see domestic scenes, with the problem that the parents have been murdered by knife wielding children

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We also see images of the new cult itself, with he who walks behind the corn, and the postman crucified in sacrifice to the crops.

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Like a Swiss woodcut print of the 16th century, we also see acts of iconoclasm, and the destruction of things children might like, like TV

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All of these pictures appear in the credits. We later discover them to be situated in a classroom in an abandoned school, and in this shot we in fact get an image of their new god, he who walks behind the rows

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A particular dimension of the artistry in Children was that as the children aged out they took their iconoclastic creativity out on icons of Jesus, such as here,10 sin child

And they even create more mature art too11 sin child

All through the movie, these drawings work to help us see into the minds of children brainwashed into the cult. And what we see is hatred of parents and adults, and devotion to the cult, in the way that children will be devoted to it. The fact that the drawings perhaps track a bit too closely over the plot itself suggests their spurious creation, from the minds of art director adults not kids, but they are still impressive. As part of the art direction of the movie, they speak to the phases of initiation and action that the children are involved in. Fantasies of hatred have been exploited and turned into actual killing as part of an actual cult. As acts of iconoclasm, these drawings are cultlike, in so far as they involve resituating the sacredness of the cult object or entity to the master and the cult itself.

The representation of inner thoughts through art is exemplified in the study of children’s drawings. In normal art, the relationship between the art and the artist is tenuous. In popular gothic culture, however, the tradition of the weird or mad artist always wants to see the work as a reflection of the artist being a psycho. Expressionism in particular is not that, but psychoism. In this situation, the agency of the artist as creative person has been stripped back to a more elemental level. There is a one to one correspondence between the art and the mind of the artist, and the structure of this correspondence is that in order to come out in art like that what is in the mind of the artist is psychosis. Thus, illness, psychosis, is a prototype condition, and the art is simply a literal reflection of it. This is a diagnostic view of art, exemplified by the method that developed with Robert Coles in the 1960s when in fact children’s drawings began to be studied as evidence of psychological problems in youth—and have been ever since. But this notion is a variant of the mad artist meme, and in it art is reflective of horror.

I remarked about the movie Mama (see review, RoMMerreviews, WordPress), that in its use of children’s drawings it might well assume the new mantel of being the Citizen Kane of children’s drawings in horror. In Mama, the drawings come also in the opening credits, and we do not like what we see

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When the house the girls were trapped in is discovered we learn that even though they could not or did not speak, they were plenty busy with their drawing, telling, in fact, in epic fashion, the history and myth of their situation13 sin child

When the doctor gets them back into the safe house, for study, with the youngest especially we see that she continued to draw more than she talks, and that she draws because it is medium which allows her to communicate, through the intermediary of moths, with Mama.

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The manner in which the drawing is unboundaried, spreading compulsively over walls and right onto the doors and sides of dressers, represents the automaticity of the act. This suggests that she is under some kind of spell or in an altered state of consciousness. This goes well beyond the childrens’ drawing in Children of the Corn, and as such represents an expansion of the meaning of the drawing, adding a new level of compulsivity and hauntedness to an already psychologically close state of mind.

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This is nice–it is good art direction, it communicates a clear message: not only is children’s drawing a straightforward record of a psychological state, but it is a transcript of her relationship with Mama and has in it information that the adults would have been well advised to pay better attention to. The key moment of the instrumentality of the drawing in the movie comes when Chastain thinks she hears something in the closet, and goes to open up the door. She does not know what is in the closet, but the little girl does, and, not only that, we do, because the little girl has told us what is in the closet by drawing an image of Mama, in the lower left hand corner of the wainscot. The fact that the girl would venture so close to the place where Mama was and even make an image of her suggests placement geared toward making sacred the place where the spirit lived. On one level, then, directed to Chastain, the girl uses drawing to warn her of danger, on another level she has previously placed that drawing there as a token of devotion and connection, as a sacred cult image.

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(the antlike image of Mama is directly above Chastain’s right wrist, of the hand she is about to reach out, and use to open the closet door). This movie thereafter veers away from childrens’ drawing, but its use of it to describe the tensions of the agency of the girls is quite good.

Finally, in another movie of 2013, Sinister, children’s drawings again emerge as a primary vehicle of communicating what is going on in the minds of troubled children. In this movie, children’s drawings are first shown as benign, as the girl, having had to move to a new place, uses drawing on the walls to territorialize, to make the room hers: these are iconic images, cult images, in the drive to make her private place sacrosanct and also, by the way, protect her from the loose endedness of a new home and a new place to live. But then after Hawke begins to screen some old film on an old projector and through that process lets the cult in, the daughter is contacted and groomed for participation, and after one nighttime haunted walk, Hawke looks in on his daughter, who pretends to be asleep, when, in fact, she is lying awake with her face away from her father conferring mischievously with a ghost girl, gesturing to her to be quiet, with her elaborate drawing of the image of the hanged children Hawke had seen on the tape, and the Mr Boogie who manages the cult, on the wall.

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Later on, after Hawke screens all the film, and draws out toward him the cult, he sees some historical “children’s drawings” consisting in the horror genre of 16th century German or English woodcut prints, or old prints in books that might have been quoted and shown in early books on the subject, of Bhuguul or Lugal a Mesopotamian demon and child eater.

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He explains that the images are portals, instruments of abduction, by which the children are drawn into the cult, and pass over into the cult. I have not heard this instrumentation for children’s drawings before. The only parallel I know to this explanation of what an image can do, in art history, is with the phenomenon of the Egyptian false door. That was an adjunct work of cult art for the use of the spirit to pass over into the beyond, and back. It had a special magic purpose, and, for cult purposes, an extreme agency. This agency raises the important point that while the drawings originally provided us entrée into their minds, they also can reverse the trajectory, and drag away the children, into the cult that their state of mind represents. In this sense, the light of an old projector was seen as comparable to the rays of light that zap up abducted people into UFOs, it provides entrée, it also takes in. What this agency assigned to images means for the film is that as Hawke has been screening the film he has been groomed for victimhood and he has opened up the portal of the imagery and let the ghosts of the children in. But this also means that after a certain point the flow will reverse itself and the light and the images will abduct them in. He has also exposed his daughter to the cult, it has drawn her in, and given her weapon with which to act: same medium, different agencies. And so now we see this agency rolled out: the daughter is now seen documenting her crime, for she has already killed Hawke and her family (this feels like a quote from Children of the Corn, it cannot be coincidence),

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Then, the old home movies are playing again, but now the cult members come down a hallway in them and so they are moving in the movie toward the opening of the portal, calling her,

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And, then, once in the hall, in the film, we see examples of the more extreme children’s drawing done, in the cult, in celebration of the sacrifice or murder, or whatever it was. Only these children’s drawings are much more extreme, an almost maturely psychotic, drawn not in crayon, but in the blood of the victim

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the cultic sign marks the place of the cult, the sacred space of the cult, its presence, limits and reach, images, with a cave drawing quality, document the history of their initiatory crimewave. It was also part of the sequence of a sacrifice to a cult in ancient Greece that after the goat or victim was killed, some of its blood was spilled on the altar to demonstrate or show the god that it was done, so this also has about it the agency of confirmation of sacrifice.

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And, at the end of the hall, on the door, on another portal, is the sign off by Lugal/Bughuul, saying I was here, I did this thing, this thing was done in honor of me, by my acolytes, by the children. All of this, then, twisted up in various ways in the agency of children’s drawings inside the haunted film. I admit that I have not seen the meaning of children’s drawings expanded upon in this way before. For the movie to have ventured to assign this extreme purpose to children’s drawings, represents a kind of bravery. It also deepens and explains why the home movies box was a trap, a lure, to fish for and find another victim. Having made use of the conventional elements of children’s drawings on the bedroom walls less than thrillingly, and without distinction, the movie then assigns an agency to them that opens up a strange ending.

All in all, however, children’s drawings in contemporary horror seem derived from the fear by adults of all of the life the children are draining away from one, in care, resulting in a guilty parenting that imagines that their children hate them, and because it is so difficult to tell what is going on in a child’s mind children’s drawing have emerged as the convention which will explain it all to us.








Blue bra art in the Egyptian revolution: the life of a symbol (excerpt, Mohammed Abla)

But what if the trajectory goes the other way? That is, rather than starting on the street, becoming graffiti, then graffiti art and then art, what if what happens on the street influences the work of an already established artist? What happens then? This is what happened in the case of what looks to me like the best example of the use of a blue bra in contemporary art, in Mohamed Abla’s Wolves. Abla is an established artist, at 60, too old, he says by his own admission, to engage in revolution. But he has in his work always been a watched of crowds, and developed a figure-ground language in a post-neoexpressionistic painterly mode to say some things about modern life. And then the crowds of Tahrir Square walked into his art world. Abla spent a good deal of time in the square, later he organized art workshops for children in the square. He is an art activist. He also documented the events in his way. In his series, Wolves, he captures the inhumanity of the SCAF soldiers as they attacked crowds in December, 2011. His Wolves image with the woman with the blue bra is unquestionably the singlemost expressive and moving piece of revolutionary art to come out of the events of the time. Since he was accustomed to finding a way to present crowds in a painterly way, it seems evident that he saw a video of the soldiers beating the woman in the blue bra and catching a glimpse of the fact that their face masks altered their profile, had a thought, they look like animals. And that profile, that shape, as the mask slants down over the face like a snout, made them into wolves. In the evolution of response, Abla chose the simplest response, to recreate, like early graffiti, pictures of the event: that already had become a kind of sign, he would work with that. This is evidence of the realism behind his expressionistic style too: he seeks a connection with real life.

In Wolves Abla focused on the woman with the blue bra, placed front and center: the painting is fast and commanding. Composition is always critical in art, it makes things clear, when in real life they are murky. The management of positive and negative space in this work is masterly, as, in every case, human hand is contrasted with animal paw. Especially inspiring is that Abla captures the soldier stomping on the woman’s chest (and her representation is a masterly rendition of abjectness), with bare, hairy claw, sharply underscoring inhumanity. The soldiers are multicolored, some seem to smile, they have about them a reckless style, like they are enjoying themselves. In other accompanying paintings, they menace other figures, all but ‘wilding’ on them. Abla captures a police riot, not a police action. It is a simple idea, a mythos, one easily understandable by any humanist against inhumanity. In his use of color and in his transformation of soldier to werewolf he captures the social chaos unleashed by violence. It is a very difficult thing to do, to capture social chaos in art. It is rare, in movies, only a few scenes in Blood From Satan’s Claw and Herzog’s Nosferatu do so: it is not a matter of depicting a riot in an explicit manner, it is a matter of tone, of unruliness, of inhumanity. There it is, the blue bra, but made a symbol of martyrdom in the face of inhumanity, this series has about it a sinister Goyaesque quality, they are inspired.

Even more so, being a neoexpressionist, Abla would likely be a painterly romanticist. By that I mean that neoexpressionism itself began in graffiti and on the street with an idea of making painting meaningful again in the flow of life. A figurative, painterly style, which communicates clearly to nonart people is what was and is called for. Even so, one recollects a story from Simon Schama’s Citizens, about what art can do in a revolutionary time. After David painted his portrait of Marat in the Bath, he presented it to the committee. In that context, and their admiration, it instantly became a political icon, a religious representation of a martyr, but in a political context. For this reason, they began to behave ritualistically around it. The picture very quickly came to represent the revolution. It transformed from a work of art into a petition, a statement of principle. For this reason, the members of the crowd picked it up and carried it through the streets of Paris to the Louvre to forcibly hang it in the Salon of the Revolution, a moment in time in which art and life were one, and art influenced the course of events in history. A romantic moment, one, perhaps, every expressionist artist dreams of. A thing moreover I imagined belonged to another time. And then news reports indicate that Abla first showed this painting in an open air exhibition on Tahrir Square in 2012. One report says that when a soldier saw it he cried, we were only following orders, he lamented, seeing himself depicted as an animal. Later, another report indicated, the picture was, in fact, picked up and paraded through the streets of Cairo as part of a demonstration, transmuting, then, into a literal icon, and into a banner, but more than a banner, a one of a kind thing, a piece of the revolution, with, perhaps, moving power, power to convert, to make clear, to convict and convince. This is truly a great thing for a work of art of any kind to experience. It is certainly a wonderful frame of reference for the experiential provenience of the work: this work, this painting, was shown in the open air, on Tahrir Square, it was seen by soldiers, who felt shame, it was picked up by demonstrators and carried with them, so that others could see it. It was executed by Alba’s hand, it was validated by the hands of many others. It was not a remote artistic comment on the situation, it became part of the situation. One wonders if Abla will ever have a moment with his art like that again, and feels glad that at 60 he was able to experience a close and direct connection with life that no doubt, as an expressionist, he wished to have with art all his lifeMohamed Abla

Folk Devil, group show at David Zwirner, through August 9

Folk Devil, curated by Zwirner gallery associate director Rodolphe von Hofmannstthal, through August 9, 2013, is a very scary little summer group show. This is much more meat than one has come to expect from the airy whims of summer exhibitions. But its well timed as mid-July, after all, is the annual flashpoint time of year when bad things happen. Folk Devil is mainly about Stanley Cohen’s thesis that societies facing unspecified fears project them onto groups of people, even label, us-versus-them-ize, stigmatize and scapegoat a group that might not have been a group beforehand, in a state of moral panic, to vent their fears and anger onto them. Cohen devised this idea in connection with the not very terrible riots between the mods and rockers in 1964 along England’s Riviera, blown all out of proportion in the press. The terminology folk devil links the practice to folkloric fear of bogeymen, and the main one is of course the devil. But even in secular ages this practice has become standard procedure in most public discourse.

The odd thing is, the art world always stays out it. The politically correct abhor their creatureliness and worst of all traits of the creature that is man is fear and acting on fear itself (oh, FDR knew). Horror movies and newspaper headlines and talk shows and pornography all live to manage fear. Art remains out of it, pretending, somehow, that it is above something so uncouth as fear. The only exception to this came in the early 1990s during the grunge period, when abject art and other nihilistic things came to the surface.  So, just for that, it’s good to see contemporary art that has a trans-gallery, other side of the white cube wall vibe to it: that suggests that contemporary art, just as traditional and popular art, can continue to serve us well to manage fear.

In fact, apotropaic art, or art to ward off evil, is one of the most common types of art in the world. Used to be that we only acknowledged such face making in “primitive art,” now it’s clear everyone does it. And the face is key: it is what human beings apophenically (connecting the dots) see first in the dark: and what we marshal in art to fight off fearful faces. Faces, then, per se, presented in art in certain exaggerated form, are the fundamental element of apotropaic art. And there are some very good faces here, and a good deal of, surprisingly, figural art.

As for scary faces, the best are from the Brits involved, Spartacus Chetwynd, Mike Nelson and Brian Griffiths. Interestingly, both Chetwynd and Nelson are known for other things than discrete gallery art. Chetwynd does daft (to use my favorite British word) aristo neo-fairy neo-folk rock neo-magic ceremonial Mad Max future performances, which, even as they invite the audience to participate, in doing so (because that is always uncomfortable) have about them an unmistakable sinister edge. The essence of British “madness,” the absolute conviction that what mad thing you are up to is perfectly sane, from Guiness building the bridge over the river Kwai to Christopher Lee presiding over joyful human sacrifice in The Wicker Man, gives British art a sharp edge that American art lacks. And Chetwynd’s three heads, Gatekeeper (2011), Blue Head seems best,

Fo Gatekeeper blue head

Red Dragon bloody red, trailing behind them a veil to cover a body, no doubt Chinese dragon-like concoctions from a performance, stand here like guardians of the mad tribe, they are apotropaic in a classic, folkloric way.

Fo  Spartacus Chetwynd Gatekeeper

But an extra strength here, and with Nelson too, is that von Hofsmansthal has installed the show so perfectly. The placement of objects just so, as figures in the ground of the overall wall, and the white cube, is sweetly perfect, the tails just touching the floor, meaning that you feel pressure from the wall around it, as if all of Chetwynd’s absent performances throb around, and feel too some other unconsciousness beyond the wall.

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The same tension is apparent in Mike Nelson’s spare piece: Amnezi Skalk Kask (2012), it is simply a stick, and the lining of a helmet, which, to Nelson, Picassolike, looked like a death’s head (really uncanny that the same idea surfaced for the get up of the biker group The Living Dead in the 1972 rocker moral panic Brit horror movie Psychomania; I call it a “remote quote,” from a shared unconscious, highly unlikely that there was conscious influence) and a few bones (the most direct movie parallel to all this would be Joseph Losey’s bizarre These are the Damned (1965) with Viveca Lindfors as a geometry of fear artist, and Oliver Reed as teddy boy–that for another time). Here, too, Nelson is mostly known for creating strange, sinister, scenes of the crime, paranoid spaces, but, really, with more of Peter Walker than Ilya Kabakov in them, carefully set with creepy objects that make one shiver with what the hell’s. Perhaps this object comes from a site: there was a stick and a skull on a clerk’s desk in one of the dingy offices of the psycho space in the Essex Market back in 2007, for example. In any case, again, all of that pressure recedes behind the full white wall von Hofsmanthal has given to this lone and minimal object. The pressure is intense, and, situated in a figure sweet spot on such ground, the work has acute moral panic pertinence as, I think of the lousy partner in Andre de Toth’s House of Wax, all you need to set a tinderbox on fire, which Nelson specializes in, is strike a match, and the deed is done.

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That’s all it takes for a moral panic against a folk devil to escalate into violence: a stick, a mistaken identity (a helmet part that, in a moment of panic, looks like a skull), an impromptu effigy, nothing more. It’s not nice, this piece, reminding us how very close we are to the animal state, still.

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Finally, Brian Griffiths’ The Body and Ground (Or Your Brittle Smile) (2010), exhibited in England, is in itself a strange thing, but then again installed in a gallery space just enough not big enough for it to make it throb out ominously at you even more. In this patchwork flimsy tent, but which is not one, I was reminded of Fritz Lang’s attempts to visualize the exotic camp of Attila the Hun in his silent Siegfried. Europeans seem to want our most primitive selves to live in a world so terrorized that everything in it is a screaming or scary face. Perhaps this is rooted in the medieval hellmouth motif that terrorized medievals (Chetwynd used this idea in a performance), transferred, by way of Boboli gardens, to become a staple of horror, the door that is a mouth, the entry that devours, the house that watches, the presence that is looking at you. Its not clear that Griffiths intended his teddy bear to be so scary (though at that scale, it will be; however, a head in a subway station seemed rather benign), but its placement here squeezes the moral panic out of it, it becomes a makeshift tent gathered at by a totemic mob preparing another assault on the folk devil of the day (to reread it according to the show).

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For me, the Brits form the heart of this show. Which brings us to Lynn Chadwick, his Teddy Boy and Girl (1979), wow, when was the last time I saw a Lynn Chadwick in an American gallery? I half remember that Marlborough up on 57th had a public Chadwick out for years, which I walked right by without giving it a second thought. To critics of my generation, he could not have been more out. But as one “looks back in anger” at the British 50s and 60s it becomes apparent that the entire culture was involved in managing its fear. The World War II vets never stopped fighting the war, they went right on to the A-bomb, the cold war, aliens, Quatermass II, brainwashing, mod and rocker moral panic, satanic cults, serial killers and on and on. Chadwick was the sculptural voice of the armored self who never stepped down after the war (Herbert Read picked up the vibe when Chadwick and cohorts all showed at the 1952 Venice Biennale, all sharing what Read called a “geometry of fear”). His abstraction of the figure oddly made his figures into weird one-man tanks, they all have a repressed energy, like a bomb about to go off, they are existential, Francis Bacon as sculptor, they speak exactly to their time but, oddly, now they may be more about their time in life, because they have begun again to speak to me. Teddy Boy actually refers to a variant of mods, which we back in the Midwest US called hoods or greasers, bad boys who dressed all Edwardian to do their rioting in. The sculpture in its angularity captures the inherited apotropaic potency of their posing (the cock of bronze elbow or knee—always the narrow spindle leg look for Chadwick, alien, but very Carnaby Street skintight jeans look too—echoed in my memory on the highly stylized pose of the Beatles in the picture on the backside of Meet the Beatles, 1964, all collarless suits, and oh so formal get ups). The way that the teddy boy part of the iron triangle puts his armoring (sic) around the shoulder of his “bird” is sweetly protective: but it remains a study of a man still inside his suit of wartime armor, I suspect he was not much of a mate for his sweet brit bird.

Fo Lynn Chadwick Teddy boy and girl 79

Finally, I respond to Sophie von Hellerman’s Fighting on the Beach II. Though mentioned in the release almost as an illustration of the beachside riots of the mods and rockers in Margate in 1964 the painting succeeds both as a relic of an event, the kind of picture you might see put over the mantel of a house with a family curse on it, and as an adept figure-ground decomposition in which the swinging arms and struck blows of the melee rise up out of paint strokes that look like they were administered by the heel of a shoe or the abrasion of a tire.

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In all this work, then, the art represents the surfacing of all sorts of unconscious impulses beyond the canvas or the wall. In sum, the exhibition has what a good group show should have: a good reason for being, a corrective purpose against prevailing art world trends (or a persistent art world problem), culture at large timeliness, terrific works of art and excellent installation on behalf of showing off the art at its best.

note:  all photos from Zwirner.

World War Z. two and half stars, July 4 2013


World War Z with Brad Pitt is an ok way to spend an afternoon, but it does not entirely succeed as a movie in its own right. The first part of the movie is too reminiscent of other movies, I particularly was channeling Shamalayan’s movie set in Philly, and Tom Cruise in War of the Worlds, so now Brad gets to go through these motions, most of which were fine, but pretty presold. He plays a retired SAHD who is reluctant to get back into the game of international health security, or some such, and only when after being evacuated to an offshore aircraft carrier and they tell him if you don’t help us your family is going back to Philly, he joins up again. Its nice to be wanted, the joke being that SAHDead is usually how jobsites respond to a dad who leaves the workforce to take care of his kids, better if reluctant. But, for all that, and for the fact that we follow Pitt from locale to locale, and he is the star of the movie, it was never entirely spelled out why he is so special. He advises a Latino man in an apartment in a Newark project to leave, because he knows, barely makes a rooftop escape because the special agency pick him up by helicopter, finds chaos in Korea, though finds that sound attracts the zombies, which is why they ride bikes to the plane, flushes zombies out of the back of the transport plane, ends up in Jerusalem, where hes there to witness the touted Israeli’s defense against the zombies with a wall give way, as in prayer they make too much noise, sending the zombies over in a massive and physically unbelievable pile up of bodies, and then he makes an observation there, to see the zombies rush by two men, which gives him his not very novel solution to the problem, later, and barely gets away again, taking up with an Israeli female soldier who loses her hand to the disease, then its off to Russia, but then a detour to Wales, which ends up crashing, because the Zombies in coach break through against the humans in First Class, so Pitt blows up the plane to flush them all out again (a second airborne flushing), and then we get to the finale in a World Health Organization lab outside of Cardiff. The mis en scene is ragged, meaning it doesn’t quite know if it is an action movie or a horror movie, so its up and down from way too rubbery action sequences to claustrophobic suspense sequences. None of it is particularly bad, but nor is it exemplary. As for the zombies, I know that the running zombie is the newest latest fanboy craze but to a traditionalist in zombie lore their hyperactivity makes no sense, turns everything from suspense horror to action terror, and then even their zombie state is never quite entirely explained. As a zombie movie, it would seem that what should distinguish one from another is what you do with the zombies. These respond to sound, otherwise loll about without direction, then, when they attack, move like scurrying insects or, as Pitt mentions, water around a rock, all of which forces them to morph in all sorts of ways that are more animalistic than zombie like. But a lot about them is simply taken for granted from presold zombie lore. The fact that the zombies usually were the residents of housing projects, people living on the other side of the Jerusalem wall, Koreans outside the military base fence, coach versus first class, and worker versus manager, began to create a kind of ugly aftertaste in my mouth as the movie proceeded. As the number of Pitt’s real close calls pile up, moreover, as he even walks away from having a whole section of plane pierce him through, surviving a plane crash, one begins to think that he is imagined in a fantasy religious way as a kind of benign, humble, all knowing, Jesus figure, I strongly suspected I was being fed Christian propaganda (in addition to government is the only thing you can depend upon anymore propaganda) under the surface of the film. Finally, I want to say that by imagining the zombies as more hyperactive moblike, Pitt’s almost-getting-killed incidents as much more dire and impossible to escape, and then he does, and by stressing how pervasive it all was (an a bomb blasted off almost as an aside, as if to say we are so past that), the sheer weight of antipathy toward all mankind, in a movie whose surface seemed to preach love your brother, was amazing, with Pitt killing literally countless former people, and at the end showing us mass extermination of a whole race of zombies, including mountains of their almost corpses piled up high then torched, a kind of uncomfortable ring in a movie that featured Jerusalem. I don’t know, for a movie to not even be able to ward off the second thoughts until it brings the credits down, this usually means that its ostensible plot is a very thin cover for some much deeper, uglier messages. An uncomfortable movie, then.

Ai Wei Wei’s S.A.C.R.E.D.

Ai Wei Wei’s S.A.C.R.E.D., at the Zuecca Project, Venice, consists of a half dozen large iron boxes set like a Richard Serra in the main aisle and nave of an 18th century baroque/rococo Venetian church. The imposing presence of the objects, per se, makes one think that here is an occupation of sacred space by some intrusion from without. More secular Biennial art, one pshaws. But then one sees that each box comes with a door and a stoop, as it were, which lets one stand up, look out over the top of it, and then down through an aperture to the contents of the box. And in each box is a miniature diorama of the captivity of Ai Wei Wei in prison in 2011. The piece is mysteriously called S.A.C.R.E.D, for Supper, Accusers, Cleansing, Ritual, Entropy and Doubt. The contrast between the enclosure of the acronym, bespeaking sacred space, and what the letters represent, is undoubtedly ironic. But the elements of his detention measured out by the letters also captures the process of a day, perhaps, or of the whole of the detention. In Total Organizations, which prisons are, every element of self is stripped away, so that one becomes an unthinking cog in the machine. Supper is a nice way to start, at least they offer food, but right away the accusers are there, cleansing is ironical, either literally being allowed to wash, or being brain washed (the lore of the Chinese brain washing goes back in Western movies at least as far as the Manchurian Candidate), and then the dependence one develops on ritual to create order, and to tiptoe, desperately, over repeated, and, progressively, more frequent episodes of falling spirits and entropy and doubt. The acronym is a map of the trajectory of a daily dynamic intended to drain the life out of a thinking individual. Just as acronym and represented words clash, so too the presentation. Ai Wei Wei did not present sketches from captivity, or other relic artifacts of his daily effort to keep his sanity. Rather he gives us meticulous dioramas developed in the aftermath, as he confesses to having obsessed over the details of his captivity often in the two years since. This means that this art derives, specifically, from the post traumatic stress disorder dysfunction of re-experiencing, and it is the chisel, as it were, of this obsessiveness in memory, fully figured out materially, which makes these works so powerful. Reexperiencing of this sort is met by depression, anger, retraumatization and every possible effort to make the thoughts go away (drink, drug or medication). Dioramas of the sort shown here usually are to be found in natural history or historical museums to show the life of an ancient people, or the discovery of Pikes Peak. The art is usually rather shoddily practiced, and so it happens that even elementary school children end up laughing at the posed awkwardness of the dioramic demonstration. One would think that dioramas also routinely populate government funded historical museums, and have the air of the official story about them, and perhaps (a point to research) there is a separate tradition of the diorama in Chinese state museums. In any case, it is difficult, in a new media age, not to gaze upon these quaint efforts to depict a way of life ironically, even comically. For Wei Wei to choose the art form of the diorama to depict his captivity then is a distancing device, he wishes to give himself some distance, by objectifying the experience and turning it into a public event which he can now get out of his own mind. Again, irony comes into play: The standard use of museum dioramas to demonstrate a way of life is turned upside down by showing the prisoner showering, eating, and sleeping, and always having two guards in uniform watching over them. If this is factual, this kind of personal-space invasive surveillance, given presence by two human beings in uniform as opposed to a surveillance camera, constitutes a  form of mental torture: especially chilling, as one searches for what must be going through the minds all of involved, is the soldiers standing by urinals watching Ai Wei Wei shower, or standing over his dinner, and, worst of all, a thing that could implant a bogeyman of fear into you for the rest of your life, standing just inches from his bed as he tries to get to sleep (and the prone, almost mortuary posture of his sleeping also resonates). I have not read reports of his captivity, so cannot say if these guards talked to him, or developed a kind of human relationship with him, but presented here as silent standards, their presence is chilling, a critique, then, by medium, by subversion of expectation of medium and by sharpness of carving, of inhuman treatment.

But then too here is where he twists the knife back onto himself, perhaps exploiting Chinese traditional art’s expertise in miniaturized carving Wei Wei’s diorama, while retaining that stiffness, are so detailed that at times they almost want to come alive: so they also represent the unwillingness of bad memories to stay put or stay down, they keep coming up at you. So their realism may represent his reported obsession with his experience, and his desire to not think about it anymore. Overall, then, the work can be viewed as a materialization of a therapeutic effort to work through and put down traumatic memories causing him re-experience—and struggling. No doubt in public discourse when asked how he is doing the artist will say, I’m fine; in private, these works make clear, he is in trouble. And what, then, is his larger purpose? Ai Wei Wei, because the West likes nothing more than a foreign artist or writer who gets into political trouble, etching in relief as it does our easy freedom, giving meaning to life again in a black and white way (in the West writers are silenced simply by not being hired), is likely now to become a kind of cult figure, or figurehead of a protest against elements of the Chinese government. One could forgive Ai Wei Wei for picking up on his cult status and exploiting this. If these dioramas were sideshows of celebrity, that would be OK (it is a common form of therapy for victims after all, becoming an advocate, starting a charity or foundation). But I do not think that there is a cultic purpose here. Why? The organizers or Wei Wei himself chose to place the six large iron boxes, like some sort of sensory deprivation tanks, in the middle of the nave of a baroque rococo Venetian church. The installation is imposing, my first impression was a cheap secularization. But while the church was emptied of its pews, the confessionals remained, and, oddly, these boxes, with door, and window, and even a built in looking down on, reminded me, in this situation, of confessionals, or standing wooden boxes behind a screen where you kneel to tell a priest your sins. Confession is one of the oddest experiences of being raised catholic, and, because of that, has become a situation for horror in some movies, but it did carwash away sin for a time and actually, oddly, seem to work (Tortured by having felt up Cindy Friday night? Go to confession, by Saturday at six it was off your mind). In the more otherworldly time of the rococo a worshipper at that church might have left a votive behind to thank god or some saint or it looks like a virgin in the side chapel for granting their wishes. SACRED, as an acronym, is easily jumbles to SCARED. The iron boxes represent the black box Wei Wei wants to submit these memories too; their placement makes them offerings of thanks for getting him out, whomever or whatever he prayed to, praying for it to all end, and overall in its placement and installation the work feels like a votive left by one who seeks to turn something that truly marked him negatively in a more positive light, as a kind of offering up. Artists are not, generally, as thick skinned as political activists, when Nelson Mandela was released from prison after 30 years, he just picked up where he left off and the rest is history. One suspects Wei Wei’s imprisonment was more in the manner of Oscar Wilde’s, self-breaking, we see in this work not an artist providing heroic relics for a cult of the self but an aggrieved man desperately trying to get past an event that has marked him and that he actually does not want to talk about. I am reminded of something Tony Soprano said (fictionally), discussing a sensitive issue with his crew, say something now, because we’re not talking about this ever again.