Seeing. Movies. One Door Opens and another Door Closes: Michael Corleone’s transformation in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather

January 14, 2014 · Print This Article

Guest Post: This essay is part of series by David Carl

One hour, one minute, and 39 seconds into The Godfather, Michael stands outside the hospital where his wounded father lies. Seven minutes and 6 seconds later he stands outside the same hospital and lights a cigarette for Enzo the baker. In the course of those 7 minutes everything has changed in the life of Michael Corleone.

I’d like to move slowly through the hospital scene, lingering on a few specific images that provide us with visual clues to this transformation, and say a few things about the techniques Coppola employs to create what I consider to be the scene of maximum dramatic tension and suspense in the movie. It is significant that this moment of maximum drama is also the moment of transformation for the movie’s main character.

Before examining the hospital scene in detail I should point out that, at one level, nothing really happens in the scene. Instead, the action is devoted to avoiding what could happen, or what will happen if Michael doesn’t take firm and decisive steps to prevent it. We might say that the action in the hospital scene is internal, rather than external. The action takes places within Michael, and within us, as viewers and interpreters of this internal action. For other than brief interactions with a nurse who remains virtually faceless throughout the scene, with his speechless father lying in bed, and with the civilian baker Enzo about whom we heard but who we did not meet in the scene in the Don’s office during Connie’s wedding, Michael plays the scene alone.

Throughout the hospital scene there is no actual violence, though the end of the scene is punctuated by the violent moment when Captain McKluskey, brilliantly played by Sterling Hayden (see Nicholas Ray’s 1954 Johnny Guitar, Kubrick’s 1956 The Killing, and Robert Altman’s 1973 The Long Goodbye among others), breaks Michael’s jaw. Coppola creates the moment of greatest suspense in the movie through suggestion and possibility, rather than through direct action. In comparison, the scenes in which Luca Brasi is garroted, Don Vito is gunned down in the street, Michael shoots Sollozo and McKluskey, Carlo beats Connie and Sonny beats Carlo, and Michael’s hitmen eliminate the enemies of the Corleone family, are all more intense “action sequences”, but they lack the suspense and excitement of the hospital scene created by the tension of the possible as opposed to the actual.

As I said, the hospital scene begins at 1:01:39 and ends 7 minutes later at 1:08:45. It consists of a total of 72 cuts and shots. Walter Murch, who was a close friend of Coppola’s during the shooting of The Godfather and worked as the editor and sound editor on several of his movies said this about editing Coppola’s Apocalypse Now:

“. . . at the end of it all, when the film was safely in the theaters, I sat down and figured out the total number of days that we (the editors) had worked, divided that number by the number of cuts that were in the finished product, and came up with the rate of cuts per editor per day—which turned out to be . . . 1.47!” (Walter Murch, In the Blink of an Eye)

Granted, Murch’s example from Apocalypse Now is offered as one extreme of the editing process; but if Murch’s average did hold true for this particular scene in The Godfather it would mean that an experienced editor, working 8-hour days, would have needed 7 weeks to edit the hospital scene. That’s a minute of film per week. Averaged over the entire movie, that would mean it would have taken 3 and a half years to edit the entire three-hour movie. These numbers help us appreciate that each of the 72 shots that comprise the hospital scene is part of a carefully choreographed and well thought-out vision of the effects the scene is intended to achieve. Some cuts last nearly 30 seconds, others last an instant, but every one of them has been constructed to lend to the overall impact of the scene as a whole.

 The scene starts with the hospital entryway: the archway framed by feeble but colorful Christmas lights offers virtually the only bright colors in the movie for the next 7 minutes. This façade may remind literary viewers of the arch under which Dante passes as he enters Hell which bears the warning, Abandon all hope, ye who enter here. And for Michael this scene does represent the end of one particular kind of hope.

Of the 72 shots that comprise the hospital scene, this initial view of the archway framed by twinkling Christmas lights is the longest at 28 seconds. The scene opens with a view of this archway, allows a taxi to pull into frame and deposit Michael into the scene without cutting, and ends with Michael moving toward the building he is about to enter. The camera angle makes Michael look small in comparison to the looming, ominous archway and staircase he is about the climb. Small and virtually lost in shadow, Michael approaches the staircase. Seven minutes later, when Michael is again on the stairs, the camera angle is shifted and medium close-up shots are used so that Michael looks larger and more significant.

We linger for a full 28 seconds on this shot to build suspense, which the music in the soundtrack emphasizes, and because it is beautifully composed. The use of light, shadow, color and camera angle create a beautiful image of a threatening façade that Michael must penetrate as a first step in his own journey toward replacing his father and becoming the Godfather. This archway serves as a frame through which Michael will pass and, in the course of a few minutes, be transformed, entering into a stage of his life that his status as a “war hero” and his relationship with non-Italian Kay suggested he had been able to escape. But his passage through this eerily lit archway into the hospital is also a passage into a life that neither he nor his father had ever wanted or expected him to take.

The first cut is to an empty hospital hallway. Throughout the hospital scene empty hallways are used to create tension and suspense. Some of these shots only last a few seconds, but they have a significant dramatic effect. (There’s an interesting bit of trivia about how George Lucas helped Coppola add these empty hallway shots in after the scene had been shot to build dramatic tension. This footage was found among originally discarded strips of film.)

As with the shot of the entryway, this shot starts with a fixed view of a stationary location into which motion is introduced by means of a side entrance. In the first shot an arriving taxi; here, Michael who is now inside the hospital. The taxi’s entrance is from the left of the screen; Michael’s entrance balances this motion by coming from the right. These establishing shots first introduce the audience to the setting, and then allow action to move into the frame that has already been established by the stationary camera.


There is something beautiful about the nauseous hospital green of the cramped corridors through which Michael walks and through which he and the nurse maneuver the bed bearing his helpless father. The camera work is confined to these narrow passageways, which restrict our view, leaving us with the impression of the ominously unseen. This sense of the ominous is further increased by the eerie music of the soundtrack and the bizarrely repeated word “tonight” that echoes through the building, though whether as part of the external soundtrack or an inexplicable part of the ambient sounds of the hospital I can’t say. It is one of the strangest phonic devices in the entire movie. Although there is no dialogue in the movie for several minutes, these sounds are accompanied by the ambient noises of an empty building with its eerie creeks, slams and footsteps.

When I watch movies I am particularly interested in walls and doorways. Doorways, of course, are obviously important: they are both passageways for the entry and exit of characters in a scene, and they are also excellent frames for action. Just as the movie screen itself is a frame that allows the director to establish a specific shot for the audience’s contemplation, so too are doorways frames within frames. They serve to further highlight a specific image or action that appears on the screen. The most famous example of this in the Godfather, and one of the most famous in the history of cinema, is the final image in the film, during which the door slowly closes between Kay and Michael as he is receiving the loyalty of his new mafia retainers who kiss his hand and address him for the first time as “Don Corleone.” We see here most explicitly, if we did not realize it before, that the Godfather of the film’s title is not the character of Vito played by Marlon Brando, but the new Godfather played by Al Pacino.

Kay hiding

This closing door in the final scene of the movie is more than just a symbol—it is also a physical portrayal of one of the main themes of the film: the gulf between the personal and “business” that grows wider and wider over the course of the film as the old way of doing business is gradually overwhelmed by a new way which threatens the family values that underlay the criminal empire under Vito’s control. Michael speaks of “my business” when talking to Kay, whereas Vito always spoke of “the family business.” This is characterized in the film by the never shown but often alluded to drug business, which is the precipitating crisis in the Corleone family’s fall under the old Don and rise under Michael.

Because doors are on hinges, they are not stationary frames, but swinging ones, which open (as in the scene in the hospital when Michael opens the door to his father’s room) or close (as in the final scene with Michael and Kay) in order to build tension and suspense or introduce a sense of possibility or finality. One might say that the door Michael opens in the hospital, to reveal his father whom he must first help and eventually replace, finally closes in the final scene of the movie when Michael’s transformation from “civilian” to “Godfather” is complete.

Once Michael enters the hospital we have a series of shots, some stationary, such as the medium close-up of the half-eaten sandwich, suggesting a hasty departure, and some tracking shots, such as of Michael’s movement through the hallways, that start to build up a sense of dramatic tension. A realization is dawning on Michael, as it is on us the audience, that all is not right here. What started out as a routine visit to the hospital has transformed into a crucial moment for Michael.


The realization is marked first by the close-up of Michael’s face, in which Pacino’s eyes and mouth express the first signs of concern. This is immediately followed by a shot of Michael running. In all of these shots, the camera remains stationary, which means that characters move towards or away from it, coming in and out of focus and obscuring the camera’s line of vision with parts of their bodies.

After his hurried motion through the hallways Michael slows to a walk as he approaches the fateful door to his father’s room. Here we have the cautious opening of a door onto a new world which I have suggested is the compliment to the closing door between Michael and Kay at the end of the movie.

Until this point, the hospital scene has been silent except for the soundtrack and ambient noises. The first spoken lines, by a minor character in the film, are a question and a statement: “What are you doing here? You’re not supposed to be here,” the nurse says. Her comment is more right than she realizes. Michael is not supposed to be here. He has tried to stay free of the “family business,” but the pull of family, and perhaps of business as well, is more powerful than he knew. In response to the nurse’s question he must assert an identity which his military uniform during the wedding scene and his relationship with Kay, obviously strained in the scene immediately preceding the hospital scene, has tried to deny, “I am Michael Corleone,” he says, as if acknowledging it for the first time. “This is my father.”

As Michael and the nurse are moving Vito’s bed, the soundtrack introduces the sound of Enzo’s footsteps. Waiting for the person who these footsteps precede, we see the striking close-up of Michael’s face, the right side obscured by another doorframe, as if to suggest the dual nature of the character who is being faced with a life-changing decision—a decision which will gradually lead to the eclipse of the “right” side of his character, as the left, “sinister” side comes forward; in literature the left side is the side of “Satan and all his works” which Michael claims to denounce during the baptism scene at the end of the movie—at the very moment when it is most apparent.

Michael hiding

This shot of the left half of Michael’s face is followed by the gorgeously composed shot of an empty hospital corridor we first saw as the second shot of the scene. There is nothing unusual about this shot, which is precisely what makes it so striking. There is an exit sign, a bulletin board visible at the far end of the hallway, a fire extinguisher, a pair of benches and a hospital cart for wheeling patients. The shot is lit by hospital lighting that gives an eerie glow to the sickly green but immaculately clean walls and floor. At the end of the hall is a staircase, from which we expect, given the expectant tension on Michael’s face, to see some unknown figure emerge at any moment. But the hallway remains empty. Again, nothing happens, but it is precisely this “nothing” that carries the tension and suspense of the scene.

Perhaps this shot feels so real because it is not a set, but an actual hospital. But now seen with the added intensity created by this scene in the movie, it is a hospital corridor as we have never seen it before. It has become, due to the dramatic tension of the film, almost hyper-real, and we as viewers have been brought to a heightened sense of observational awareness. We are looking at the corridor of a hospital we might never bother to notice if we actually found ourselves waiting there for a doctor or a sick friend. As an object of dramatic and aesthetic contemplation the film doesn’t merely ask us to look at this hallway, but educates us in the art of seeing as well, training us to become more observant and better seers of what we are watching and by extension, of the world around us.

Now the cuts come more quickly, building dramatic tension, and culminating in the shadowing figure of Enzo’s back as it emerges from the staircase, his arm cocked and hand concealed as if holding a weapon. He is dressed in the long black coat and hat we’ve come to think of as the gangster’s uniform in the movie (as opposed, for example, to the military uniform worn by Michael earlier in the film, or the tasteless civilian garb of characters like Freddo, Carlo, and Mo Green). But with the next cut we see the innocent face of Enzo, carrying not a gun, but a bouquet of flowers for the injured Don. Enzo has come to show his respect, and to express his gratitude for the Don’s help in resolving his emigration problems. And here Michael repeats the nurse’s question from a minute ago, “Who are you?” It seems that the hospital scene is intent on confronting Michael with this central question of identity: who is Michael, and how will he come to realize who he really is? Enzo’s offer to stay and help if there is going to be trouble, “for your father, for your father” he repeats, is the first sign of loyalty to Michael that we will see symbolized by the kissing of his hand at the end of the film. This gesture too is mirrored by Michael, who kisses his father’s hand after telling him, “I’m with you now.” Only Michael’s kiss is quite different from the kisses of deferential respect he will receive at the end of film, or that Vito receives from Bonasera the undertaker at its beginning.

Michael’s “I’m with you now; I’m with you” brings a tear to his father’s eye, which in the context of this scene looks like a tear of paternal love for a son he thought had grown away from him, but by the end of the film, especially in light of the scene in which Vito confesses his aspirations for Michael, that he might have become a judge or a senator, may be read as a tear of sorrow that his favorite son was unable to resist the pull of the “family business” and make a new life for himself in America, just as the dreams of Bonasera the undertaker in the possibilities of America are dashed by the assault on his daughter and the impotence of the American justice system in the face of this crime.

Michael flowers

At 1:07 we have the beautiful shot of Enzo’s face, waiting on the steps outside the hospital for Michael. Now Michael will exit through the archway he passed under only 6 minutes earlier. Six minutes which, whether he knows it or not, have completely changed his entire life. Now the colors of the Christmas lights are complimented by the color of the flowers Enzo carries. Flowers of gratitude for the Godfather’s favors and protection, but also flowers which may remind us, because of the link between Enzo and Bonasera in the first scene of the movie, of something ominous and funeral. Significantly, Michael will briskly toss them away when he comes out of the hospital to prepare Enzo for the illusion of being a mafia bodyguard. Flowers have no place in this new world he is preparing to take up residency in.

This transformation is given visible expression in the famous scene of Michael lighting Enzo’s cigarette and noticing, without surprise or elation, but rather with a kind of detached observational objectivity, the steadiness of his hands. It is as if Michael is realizing, despite years of attempting to deny it to both himself and those around him, who and what he is. The steady hands are a sign of this internal identity, brought forth by the crisis threatening his father’s life that he has just faced and overcome.

Perhaps Enzo is framed so beautifully because he is the final image of the life Michael could have had and rejects, partially out of love for his father, and partially to fulfill a destiny he was born to and could not avoid. Earlier I referred to Enzo as a civilian. This is how other characters refer to Michael, despite the fact that he first appears in the movie in a military uniform, when they are preparing him for the meeting with Sollozo and McKluskey. But they are wrong and the uniform is right: by the end of the hospital scene, Michael is no longer a civilian, if he ever really was one in his heart. He is “with his father”, and forever separated from the world of bakers and undertakers represented by the beautifully shot Enzo standing alone on the hospital steps. Enzo now represents the world that Michael can protect or exploit, do or extract “favors” for or from, but it is not the world he will occupy. Enzo is an image of the Michael who could have been.

Finally we have the dramatic climax of the hospital scene, where Michael and Enzo stand on the stairway outside the hospital and Michael reaches into his coat for a gun that isn’t there in order to scare off the hitmen who have come to kill his father. Here too we have a moment of suggestion rather than actual action. Michael scares off the men with his confidence—with the threat of violence rather than the act of violence.

Michael smoke

At 1:08:45 the hospital scene ends, with the smoke from Enzo’s cigarette partially obscuring Michael’s face, as if to again emphasize the internal transformation with external visual cues.

In many ways The Godfather is a violent movie and also a movie about violence. But is there not another kind of violence, done to the movie itself, by the viewer who engages in the type of analysis I’ve been doing here? What about the hermeneutic violence performed on the film by the critic? We have lingered over details that would be almost invisible to an audience watching the movie as it was intended to be experienced, in a theatre, without the luxury of a “pause” button and the high resolution of dvd and Blu-ray technology. There is a sense in which this kind of analysis performs an act of violence on the film, tearing apart and looking in isolation at images which were intended to be seen as part of a smoothly flowing whole. But there is another sense in which this kind of artificial viewing attempts to recreate, in order to more deeply understand and appreciate, the acts of creation that gave birth to the film as a work of art in the first place.

When we recall what Walter Murch said about averaging 1.47 cuts a day while editing Apocalypse Now, and then think about the 72 cuts that comprise the hospital scene, we can appreciate the painstaking care and attention that goes into creating each scene in a great movie, a care and attention that both warrants and demands our own thoughtfulness and reflection at their most attentive. When we watch a movie we discover the same truth we encounter when we read a great work of literature or philosophy: there is great pleasure in the having of an idea. And it is in the service of this pleasure of ideas that we perform such acts of analysis and interpretation.

David Carl is a member of the teaching faculty at St. John’s College in Santa Fe and a co-founder of the St. John’s College Film Institute. He is the Director of the College’s Graduate Institute, a Research Fellow at the Institute for the Study of Cultural Artifacts, teaches for Curious Oyster Seminars, and has written several books, including Heraclitus in Sacramento, Fragments, Forecasts and Predictions, Meditations on Initiating the Apocalypse, and Further Adventures in the Unsubconscious. He watches movies in his living room in Santa Fe, NM.

TOP 5 LISTS for 2013

January 6, 2014 · Print This Article

Guest Post by Britton Bertran

I didn’t get out to see a lot art in Chicago this year as I was too happily busy being a Dad to the best little boy in the world.  Nonetheless, here are some lists of what I did see, what I didn’t, some predictions and some things I’m anticipating.  I know we all have a love/hate with these kinds of lists, but this should be pretty easy to digest.  Click on those links.

Exhibitions I saw:

  1. Amalia Pica at the MCA
  2. Fragment: Sampling the Modern at the Elmhurst Art Museum
  3. Wendy White at Andrew Rafacz
  4. Andrew Holmquist at Carrie Secrist Gallery
  5. David Salle: Ghost Paintings at The Arts Club of Chicago

Best Spaces:

  1. Queer Thoughts
  2. Roots & Culture
  3. Western Exhibitions
  4. LVL3
  5. PLHK

“Emerging” artists:

  1. Matthew Schlagbaum
  2. Kate Ruggeri
  3. Allison Wade
  4. Alice Tippit
  5. Danny Giles

WTF moments:

  1. Vivian Maier
  2. EXPO Chicago
  3. AIC’s Modern Wing’s closed 3rd floor
  4. The Way of the Shovel at the MCA
  5. Chicago Sculpture International’s Sculpture on the Boulevards
Mike Andrews at The Suburban

Mike Andrews at The Suburban

Exhibitions/Events I didn’t see:

  1. RH Quaytman at the Renaissance Society
  2. Medium Cool
  3. Steve McQueen at the AIC
  4. Matt Nichols at Corbett vs. Dempsey
  5. Mike Andrews at The Suburban

Anticipating in 2014:

  1. The Whitney Biennial
  2. William J. O’Brien at the MCA
  3. Christopher Wool at the AIC
  4. Christopher Williams at the AIC
  5. A new permanent space for Threewalls

2014 Predictions:

  1. The Whitney Biennial fails in the eyes of critics
  2. A major commercial gallery in Chicago will close, another will open
  3. A storied institution will lose it’s curator
  4. A galvanizing work of public art will really piss people off
  5. A better year than 2013

HAPPY 2014!

Bio: Britton Bertran ran 40000 from 2005 to 2008. He currently is an Instructor at SAIC in the Arts Administration and Policy department and the Educational Programs Manager at Urban Gateways. An occasional guest-curator, he has organized exhibitions for the Hyde Park Art Center, the Loyola Museum of Art and several galleries. You can find him trying to be less cranky about the art world on twitter @br_tton.  


December 20, 2013 · Print This Article

Guest post by Lise Haller Baggesen


Dana de Giulio@ The Suburban Photo: Lise Haller Baggesen



… in the fossil fueled states of American gloom and doom, we are headed south on LSD, a donnerwetter looming on the horizon as a tic in the corner of our left eye. Shot-size raindrops splatter against the wind-shield from the sky turning from gunmetal grey to violaceous to petroleum green behind the silhouetted skyscrapers, swaying gently in the balmy November breeze as the wind picks up and a tornado warning ticks in on the mobile device, interrupting Kanye West suggesting that this would be a beautiful day for  jumping out the window/letting everything go/letting everything go…

Indeed it is a beautiful day!

This apocalyptic weather, reminding us that the doomsday prophets were probably  right, that this is not the 11th hour, that we are already fashionably late, makes it the perfect day for checking out a couple of shows in Chicagoland contemplating our species’ self-destructive impulse.

Hamza Walker’s modern day vanity Suicide Narcissus at the Renaissance society reads like a visit to the men’s department at Barney’s: tight and tasteful grey-tones with a splash of lush jungle green thrown in. Not unlike, in fact, its 17th century’s Dutch counterparts careful rendition of bridles and soap-bubbles, tulips and skulls, reminding us that the world is forever coming to an end.

The super symmetrical show is arranged on both sides of a corridor leading up to Katie Paterson’s All the Dead Stars, a map of said stars corresponding to the place on earth from where they were discovered laser etched into a matte black anodized aluminum sheet, creating an eerie map resembling a burnt out earth as observed from space. Observation posts glow-in-the-dark with the half-life luminescence of radioactive material, our radio signals still on their way to infinity and beyond long after we’re gone. From here we can turn left or right (or right and three quarters or maybe not quite) but either route will coil back on itself into a cul-de-sac, a dead end from where we can only retreat the way we came.

Each of the works in the show display the mechanics and dialectics of their creation in plain view, if not front and center to our reading of the works, like the endlessly similar variations of rope, pulley and mirror of Thomas Baumann’s perpetuum mobile Tau Sling or the dead pan unedited single channel registration of Nicole Six and Paul Petritsch’ Spatial Intervention, showing a lone figure hacking his way through the ice, in a circle surrounding himself. Not really sure if this unromantic reference to Kaspar Davids Friedrich’s Eismeer (the Sea of Ice from 1824), is going anywhere outside of its own hermetic picture plane, but whether we are witnessing a painfully slow suicide attempt here, or just some Sisyphus slow-motion slapstick, as a viewer you feel as frozen in time as the lonely man on the ice.

The row of vitrines that make up Harris Epaminonda and Daniel Gustav Cramer’s Infinite Library display a collection of reappropriated books -by the looks of it European post war encyclopedias and reference books with faded color reproductions of artworks and plants, painted over with geometrical figures that seem to suggest some obsolete world order, while Lucy Skaer’s Leviathan’s Edge, a whale skeleton boxed in a drywall space, opened up in three narrow slits, through which we can only partially admire the brittle grandeur of the beastly remains would not be out of place in a gentlemen’s explorers club, that other society, where adventurers who come back to tell the tale can compare their booty- Jolly good!

In a darkened cinema space, similar to a home entertainment den, Daniel Steegmann Mangrane’s 16mm, 2009-2011 the exhibitions only truly juicy work, is contained -as if its lush Amazonian green would otherwise spill out and contaminate the rest of the show in a toxic spill of unbridled fertility. Like decorative kale in a millionaire’s front yard its nutritious value is rendered void, and we are left with eye candy. This is our reward. The five minute 16mm film loop leaves us ample time to contemplate the cable running near the top of the picture frame along which the camera pulls itself still further in to the heart of darkness, the whirring of the projector behind us competing with the dense cacophony of jungle sounds on the soundtrack of the projection before us, until the movie without further ado comes to a dead stop and the screen goes black. The End.

On the surface, Suicide Narcissus mainly examines and admires its own elegant rhetoric. Initially I considered this the exhibition’s demise, but on reexamining it I have come to think that perhaps this is exactly its point: Like Nero playing the fiddle as Rome burns, you find yourself confronted with your own disengagement, as you consider the aesthetic possibilities and fashion choices of the world going to hell in an evening clutch. It is an uneasy notion, like deleting yet another petition appeal from you e-mail inbox.

As an antidote to this tasteful ennui may I suggest a visit to Dana DeGiulio @ The Suburban, which will tear you out of your inwardly spiraling anxiety attack and throw you right back into the real with the welcome catharsis of your friendly neighborhood suicide bomber.  The battered backed-up Buick sedan is ramrodded into the cinderblock structure that makes up the central exhibition space at The Suburban with a precision that sits in the sweet spot between demolition and embellishment.

The curious fact that the car is damaged front and rear gives the impression not so much of a drunk driver swerving out on control, tearing through the front yard in the early hours of a sleepy suburban Sunday morning, but more of the feel-something- anything of a soccer mom’s revenge, later same morning, her anniversary.

And the shattered head answers back And I believe I was Loved I Believe I loved Who did this to us?

Because we can only contemplate art from our personal vantage point, just like we can only imagine Armageddon in our own time, I will approach this from the angle of Burn Out with their totaled car park in the center of Copenhagen and their smashed up ticketing booth for De Appel’s Crap Shoot (-a memorable show that culminated for my own part in a visit to the ER after a visit to the exhibition’s socially (un-)engaged Absolut-free-for-all-vodka-bar and a subsequent act of cycling under the influence ending abruptly when my front wheel got stuck in an Amsterdam tram rail and sent me to a dead stop against the wet asphalt). Curiously, these works originated round about the time when the 1996 LeSabre was still a classy car, but seem almost quaintly didactic now, in their 90s engagement with institutional critique, compared to this work which points only to its own calibration of annihilation through acceleration, suggesting that we are all flying solely by our instruments by now, no line on the horizon: In a godless universe you need to rely on your own moral compass, or perhaps some secular religion. Art for arts sake can be just that. It can be it’s own means and end.

It is an appropriation and an approach, but how do you approach appropriately, being in a banged out car and your aim the feel of not to feel it?

This is subtle and has to be premeditated. Premeditation is available in the form of a brochure which contemplate the estimated market value of the Buick before and after impact as compared to a circular silverpoint painting by Michelle Grabner, as consigned by Dana DeGuilio to James Cohan gallery and sold before the Buick hit the brick wall, perhaps to offset the costs of a second hand car and a cinderblock shed? The end is a zero sum game.

On the 10th anniversary of the suburban, this will be that last one for this building where it all began. Now structurally unsound, It will be torn down at the end of the show, or when the Oak Park police and zoning inspectors step in and say that it is time to clean up the mess, whichever comes first.

In Michelle’s own words: “This is the end of the suburban as we know it!”


Credits: Dana DeGiulio would like to thank her pit crew. I would like to thank you for reading.


Anonymous art criticism: sharp, succinct and to the point!
Photo: Michelle Grabner


Lise Haller Baggesen (1969) left her native Denmark for the Netherlands in 1992 to study painting at the AKI and the Rijksakademie. In 2008 she relocated to Chicago with her family, where she completed her MA in Visual and Critical Studies at the SAIC in 2013.

In the meantime, her work evolved from a traditional painting practice toward a hybrid practice including curating, writing and immersive multimedia installation work.

 Her book “Mothernism” will be published on Green Lantern Press and The Poor Farm Press in 2014.

Ben Gest: Laboring to Enact the Real

December 18, 2013 · Print This Article

Guest post by Virginia Konchan


Photography must annihilate itself as medium to be no longer a sign, but the thing itself.


—Roland Barthes


Ben Gest’s photorealist photography, comprised of stark, neo-classical tableaux, depicts alienated subjects engaged in workaday and domestic tasks, and carries a full fetishistic load in an image saturated culture—that of the evacuated figure, from painting, as well as the signature of the “author,” as declared dead by structuralist critics.  The “surface reading” strategies of Sharon Marcus’ and Stephen Best, Francois Dosse’s call for the “descriptive turn,” and Bruno Latour and Erving Goffman practice of “flat” reading based on actor-network theory (the game model of human interaction) connect to the “flat” or two-dimensional evacuation of depth fields, suggesting that as the text is now being “read” like a screen (the orthographic significance of the word alienated from semantic, affective, and cognitive percepts), so too are the visual images (in figurative art, the appearance of the other), we consume.

For Roland Barthes, this surface quality was a limitation of medium (the photograph is undialectical, as a denatured theater where death cannot be contemplated, reflected and interiorized:  the foreclosure of the Tragic excluding catharsis), yet this slickness of surface is also a function of the occluded depth of capitalist subjects, wherein intimacy, futurity, and affect, because unable to be represented (priced, and sold), ceases to exist first as a cultural value, then, as a cultural experience (temporally, of duration rather than instantaneity).   A privatized market first commodifies then distributes the sensible (Marx’s dream of the  ‘liberation of the senses’ of unalienated individuals in unalienated communities) fueling desiring-machines to demand, yet never receive, aporias of meaning:  presence, aura, soul.  [i]


Header Image


The digital reproduction of the photograph and the text share an analogous relationship, foremost in hierarchies between the word (letter, or sign) and image (symbol, or referent).  Today’s medium specificity (Clement Greenberg’s belief that “the unique and proper area of competence” for an art form corresponds with the ability of an artist to manipulate those features specific to a medium) is now metaphorized in the relationship between a reader and a text, or a viewer and an artwork, not as an encounter or relationship, but an interfacing, between user and electronic text, or screen (N. Katherine Hayles’s media specific analysis in “Print is Flat, Code is Deep”).  Barthes’ descriptions of photography as “messages without a code” describes the limitation of the medium, for the photograph, yet this obviation of meaning has become an conscious aesthetic in post-structuralism, evacuated of content and intention.   For Hegel, “art” was only art in subordination to meaning:  modern art, in a post-Reformation world, for Hegel, wasn’t therefore “art,” but rather abstracted potential.   [ii]   The desire to decode photography’s “message without a code”  may be what constitutes the dream of absolute (not reified) presence (Barthes’ Winter Garden Photograph):  the “the text of pleasure” or sublime (dynamic or technological, wherein perceptual synthesis temporary collapses in experiencing the material force of a supersensible idea, whether of beauty or horror).

Affect theory provides a rational-empirical account of what we know intuitively:  the sublime has a life of its own.  The jarring quality of paintings such as Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks,” Edvard Munch’s “The Scream,” Francis Bacon’s apocalyptic friezes, and Frieda Kahlo’s self-portraits, fix such images forever in our collective imagination, for giving form to a mediated, yet still felt, aspect of human experience.  Just as Cézanne sought to capture the “apple-ness of apples,” and Russian formalist Victor Shklovsky the “stony-ness of stone,” any discussion of the sublime returns us to logos (language’s ability to embody, and evoke, objects).




(Francis Bacon, “Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X,” 1953)

The absence of meaning in photography is its power, conveying its “message” through semiotic rather than semantic means.  In writing, an absence of meaning can take, according to Derrida, three forms:  mathematical meaning; agrammaticality (“abracadabra”); and the social contexture of meaning (preestablished symbolic and linguistic codes), implying that the limitations for what one can “say” are scripted, in photography, by medium, and in the text, by culture as well as genre:  the associative logic of poetry requiring a different reading strategy than that of linear prose.

Modernist paintings, like Egyptian hieroglyphs or the intricate symbology found in the Lascaux caves, complicate the boundary between image and text (Cy Twombly’s abstract expressionist paintings were inspired by texts from Stéphane Mallarmé to Alexander Pope, incorporating baroque themes and titles, such as Apollo and the Artist and traces, or erased marks of textual inscription).  Belgian surrealist artist René Magritte, of course, creating the watershed moment in art history when the act of visual representation was, in his 1928 “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” rendered counterfactual (ironic) through the insertion of text.

Flatness is not always the image’s refusal to yield meaning:  it can be its apotheosis.  As Aloïs Riegl says:  “Bas-relief brings about the most rigid link between the eye and the hand because its element is the flat surface, which allows the eye to function like the sense of touch; furthermore, it confers, and indeed imposes, upon the eye a tactile or rather haptic, function . . . ensur[ing], in the Egyptian ‘will to art,’ the joining together of the two senses of touch and sight, like the soil and the horizon.” [iii]



bas relief



During the 1920s, Russian film director Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov explored the technical potential of montage, developments new media theorist Lev Manovich claims to underlie the aesthetics of contemporary video.  Eisenstein believed montage could create ideas or have an impact beyond the individual images (two or more images edited together create a “tertium quid” or third thing making the whole greater than the sum of its individual parts).   How is this “tertium quid” experienced in a photograph, or, for that matter, a text?  Gests’ figures are “all end” (terminal subjects, trapped in contingency) and flat to the point of disappearing from the surface of the plane.  To say, however, that flat images are a “realist” or photorealist art, or that visual art depends upon language to enter signification has troubling implications, refusing to consider the bounds of perspective (from the artist, the medium, and the spectator).  Yet, in exploring photography’s medium (indexical and reproducible), we can begin to understand how the assignation of “post-photography” relates to that of “post-literacy.”

Even Dickinson understood depth perception (phenomenologically, and politically, in the granting of subjecthood, rather than treating the other as an object or manipulable industrial machine – vending, milking – in the service economy) to be predicated upon metaphoric hierarchy:  “ . . . We can find no scar,/ But internal difference,/ Where the Meanings, are–“).    The rise of the image and subsequent degradation of language to emoticons is a function of technocapitalism, advertising and marketing blitzes, and bipartisan racketeering, whereby independent thought is crushed by neo-fascist fears of the unknown (the wizards behind the screen?)

Rather than aspiring to the denotative powers of text (a Gordian knot, interpretatively), highly stylized photography (Gest, Thomas Struth, David LaChapelle) suggests a desire for the image to become purely connotative, appropriating the iconicity of the mirror (the only purely indexical object).  Struth:  “Photographs that impress me have no personal signature,” and yet this depersonalized aesthetic doesn’t impede the sheer pathos of his museum photographs, juxtaposing spectators at the Louvre with, for example, the shipwrecked figures in Théodore Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa.  Struth’s museum-goers observe rather than participate in history (religious and mythological narratives), formalizing Western Art’s debt to Christian symbolism, but not attempting to subvert or parody this tradition.



(Thomas Struth, Hermitage 1, St. Petersburg, 2005)


Reading demands, as Guy DeBord says, making judgments at every line;  how does this description of literacy accord with an accurate perception of the imago, as a two-dimensional object?  [iv]  Modernists’ dream to find forms of representation adequate to experience of phenomenal “reality,” once declared a failure, in morphing from the rejection of authority, the subject, and meaning, to a worship of the object, now worship the frame (material context) itself.  For visual art the context of the image is doubled:  the literal frame, as well as the cultural space in which the work is displayed, distinguishing it as an objet d’art, worthy of consecration in a public space.The shifts, in constructivist and futurist movements, between art’s use-value (e.g. painter Alex Rodchenko’s poster art, furniture, wallpaper and fabric), to l’art pour l’art, had aesthetic and economic implications (the feared aestheticization of politics and politicization of aesthetics):  today, conceptual art trumpets its value-lessness as a form of waste aesthetics:  resistance to cooptation by the market, and utilitarian ideals.

Following suit, Gest’s figures, while ranging in age, largely white and middle class, are pictured in nuclear family couplings, or alone, tending to tasks in well-appointed homes and state-of-the-art kitchens, en route to work, or at the workplace itself.




(Gest, “Joe Finishing Lunch” 2005)

In Gest’s work, these quotidian scenes (shaving, shelving books at a library), are a form of anti-epic:  representing the habitus of daily living.  In “Ben and Dawn” (below), the couple is preparing dinner:  Dawn manifesting the vacuity of non-presence, and Ben, absorption in his task (forming meat patties).  How to read these allegories in which narrative is supplanted by the gaze (either off-center or vacant)?  Gest heightens the post-Enlightenment collapse of progress narratives and a unified self by refusing the viewer a vanishing point or horizon line:  his subjects’ expressions are frozen in shock or ennui.  The unmitigated solitude of many of Gest’s subjects also suggests the impossibility of self-knowledge or consciousness, particularly of class.  Mired in transitional situations, and rarely facing the camera directly, these subjects, as they water the lawn, or pause before exiting a brand-new SUV, manifest an innocence of themselves as complicit agents in or victims of commodity culture—or, as posed subjects.  Sentience is indeed on display in Gest’s portraits, but this sentience is often in the service of material entrapments rather than the subject’s experience, shown benumbed in these portraits of status quo maintenance without the promise of deliverance (through class ascension, religion or theater).   As Baudrillard says, we live in a “jungle of fetish-objects”:  in order for an art object to free itself from fetishization it must first emerge as a “newly victorious fetish,” then work to destroy itself as a familiar object by becoming monstrously unfamiliar.  “This foreignness is not the strangeness of the alienated or repressed object,” he adds.  “It excels through a veritable seduction that comes from somewhere else . . . by exceeding its own form as a pure object, a pure event.”  [v]






The fantasy of art qua object is a desire for it to eventually become, in a Zarathustrian sense,  event:  Brechtian theater, Jerzy Grotowski’s “theatre laboratory” (Teatr Laboratorium), the Opernhaus Wuppertal of Pina Bauch.  Michael Fried opposed art and objecthood in his 1967 essay relating objecthood to theatricality, wherein the reader or viewer is necessary to bring the interpretive act to completion:  in other art forms, however, the line is easily blurred.  A wholly intentioned work of art, or Frankensteinian, bioengineered production of human life (dramatized in movies such as Synechoche, New York, The Truman Show, and the Tom McCarthy novel Remainder) enact the fantasy of a subject with the power to micromanage contingency (i.e. weather), creating others as a pure extension of the author-producer’s will (the sinister sine qua non of formalist aesthetics)?  From Remainder:   “Opening my fridge’s door, lighting a cigarette, even lifting a carrot to my mouth: these gestures had been seamless, perfect. I’d merged with them, run through them, and let them run through me until there’d been no space between us. They’d been real; I’d been real without first understanding how to try to be: cut out the detour.”   McCarthy contemporizes the Wagnerian dream of the “total” work of art, by attempting to solve for indeterminancy in plot, language, nature:   the post-industrial spectacle of by which citizen-consumers, are already, albeit unconsciously, enthralled.

Fried turned to photography with the 2008 publication of Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before,  exploring works by Bernd and Hilla Becher, Jeff Wall, and Andreas Gursky, asserting that the poles of anti-theatricality and absorption are central to the turn by recent photographers towards large-scale works “for the wall.”  The tableaux vivant of these photographers, and the work of Gest in particular, attenuates the politics of spectatorship by rendering the viewer complicit in the subject’s performance not of self-consciousness, but the lack thereof.  In Gest, we observe, voyeuristically, subjects in media res, or engaged in repetitious labor (domestic and corporate):  these scenes may be “for the wall” but their very nature is theatrical (constructed), forecasting the transition from art as object, to event.




(Gest, Kate Fixing her Earring, 2005)

Narratives of subject formation (or, in painting, a reconstitution of the figure, whether rendered as grotesque by Dana Schultz, or pornographized, in Egon Schiele), continue to be elided by the neoliberal death of extra-aesthetic context, heralded by Francis Fukuyama as the end of history (therefore allegory, Manichean and otherwise, and narrative):  the fracas of the negative sublime (eco-catastrophes, Warhol-inspired readymades, appropriated and digitally reproducible art).

Art-as-event (the “revised sublime”) has the potential to loosen the hypnotizing  inertia of the image, encouraging passive spectatorship, and the dangers of pure formalism (the reduction of art to ornament, or frame, and language to citational and ironic metacommentary, ceasing to exist in or interpolate with the world) allowing space for critical reflection, eroticism, and presence-as-grace.

Whether all art is reification, as Hannah Arendt said, or whether the war is still being waged between aesthetic reification and the counter-concept of aesthetic use value (both prey to commodity fetishism, whether by cognitariat aesthetes and/or the market), the final criteria for artistic “value” or proof of art’s autonomy may not be decreed by the moral majority (popular or critical opinion) or its price tag (floating or fixed), but its participation in a sacrificial economy, for the purposes of extirpation:  to reject the bankrupt calculus of credit economies and fiat aesthetics to risk annihilation, so as to rise from the death of ontological and literal debt (posthumously, for Van Gogh) into the shock of signification (G.H. Hardy’s aesthetic criterion marrying unexpectedness to inevitability):  the real.



[i]  Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida (New York:  Hill and Wang, 1980), p. 90.


[ii] Roland Barthes, Image-Music-Text, trans. Stephen Heath (New York:  Hill and Wang, 1978) p. 45.


[iii]  Qtd. in Gilles Deleuze’s Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation (Minneapolis:  University of Minnesota Press, 1995).


[iv]  Guy DeBord, Comments on the Society of the Spectacle (Verso Press, Brookyn, 1998), p. 29.


[v]  Jean Baudrillard,“Simulation and Transaesthetics: Towards the Vanishing Point of Art” (International Journal of Baudrillard Studies), web, Vol. 5, No. 2:  July, 2008.




Virginia Konchan’s poems have appeared in Best New Poets, The Believer, The New Yorker, and The New Republic, her criticism in Workplace:  A Journal for Academic Labor, Quarterly Conversation, New Madrid, and Boston Review, and her fiction in StoryQuarterly and Joyland, among other places.  The recipient of grants and fellowships to Scuola Internazionale di Grafica, Ox-Bow, and Vermont Studio Center, Virginia is co-founder of Matter, a journal of poetry and political commentary.  She lives in Chicago.

The Rise of the Performance Art Festival in the USA

December 17, 2013 · Print This Article

Guest Post by Autumn Hays 

Over the last few years within the United States a growing interest has arisen in festivals that specialize in Performance Art, that offshoot of the visual Arts, who’s practices center around temporal body-based works. This festival-circuit format for showing performance based art works has already produced a strong development in terms of organizations and events outside of the United States. Often however it’s difficult for American performance artists to break into these circuits. Although there have some who have successfully done so, many festivals go years without showing a single American performance artist. This could be for many reasons, but one is certainly the relative lack of funding. Often the diplomatic and cultural establishments of foreign countries, such as embassies and consulates assist artists with expenses so that they can make and show artworks outside their country of origin. In the USA however, we do not invest money in the arts to the extent of other countries and thus American artists often have less accessibility to funds outside of their own pockets.

Arahmaiani. Rapid Pulse 2013. Photo by Arjuna Capulong

Arahmaiani. Rapid Pulse 2013. Photo by Arjuna Capulong

Performance art festivals are often intensive endeavors, involving a diverse group of international artists. Always on very tight budgets, these festivals often seek to supply food and housing for the artists for the duration of the festival, often lasting from several days to weeks. Unlike showing at a, gallery the festival becomes a sort of community or summer camp. Here artists and curators network and meet performers from all over the world. Viewership is open to the public but there is a community of support at many festivals where artist see each-other’s works, often living together and sometimes collaborating on the fly. Festivals are often popular for performance art as spaces willing to show the work, or spaces aware of the needs of exhibiting performance art are often few and far between.

The good news for performance artists is, the USA is starting to develop their own performance art festivals. These festivals seek to bring international artist to the USA while showcasing local talents. It will be exciting to see what other festivals are brewing here in the United States and some in and near Chicago itself. Here are three festivals to look for this year:



     Lone Star Performance Explosion

     Huston, TX

     February 19-23, 2014


This is the second time around for this international performance art      biennale after a successful run in 2012. “LONE STAR EXPLOSION 2014 seeks to showcase performance art that pushes the artists and audience in new ways, especially performance art that questions fundamental assumptions about the way we experience time, space, relationships, the self, society, and sexuality. “ As many of our festivals on this list the line up features local, national and international talents in Performance Art. Lone Star Explosion 2014 is curated and directed by Jonatan Lopez and Julia Wallace. Confirmed artists include: Elia Arce (Costa Rica), Marce Sparmann (Germany), Natalie Lovleless (Canada), J. Morrison (NYC), Ryan Hawk (Huston), Roberto Sifuentes (Chicago), and over 25 more artists.





Rapid Pulse International Performance Art Festival

Chicago, IL

June 5-15, 2014


This is year three for Rapid Pulse International Performance Art Festival, taking place here in Chicago. “The RAPID PULSE INTERNATIONAL PERFORMANCE ART FESTIVAL aims to represent a range of styles and forms in order to provoke thought and stimulate discourse surrounding performance art.” This intensive festival features performance,  video screenings, artist’s talks and panel discussions. It includes a wide range of performance art from durational, public, and digital based works. Unlike the rest of the festivals on this list Rapid Pulse is centered in and around Defibrillator Performance art Space as opposed to being a wide range, multi-venue event. Artists have yet to be announced but the application period is closed and the curatorial process is beginning. Rapid Pulse is curated by: Steven Bridges, Julie Laffin, Giana Gambino, and Joseph Ravens.





Supernova Performance Art Festival

Rosslyn, Virginia

June ?


Super Nova first took place in June of last year and word is the event will be back again this year. “SUPERNOVA will bring together emerging and established local, regional, national and international performance artists to present an expansive range of positions and approaches to performance art.” Though not confirmed Supernova came together well last year showing and they have to potential to continue on this year. Tough mostly national based artists, Supernova has the bones of a strong festival and hopefully they continue. Supernova’s 2013 Chief Curator was Eames Armstrong.


Lone Star Explosion 2014

Lone Star Explosion 2014

The question that arises with these projects and others like it is one of sustainability. Performance Art festivals are often struggle all year to find funding for the next event. Often performance artists who wish to see this kind of festival thrive in the USA produce these festivals. These factors, and the fact many performance art specific festivals around the world struggle to stay open make the running of an international festival a labor of love, to say the least. Even if these festivals eventually come to an end, the recent creation of these festivals might be pointing to a new trend in performance art exhibitions in the USA. Hopefully the adoption of the festival format international performance festivals will continue to propagate more opportunities in the exhibition of performance art. It will be interesting to see if the new trend in festival production will flourish in the United States and if festivals like these will run strong and multiply in the years to come. Perhaps, the appearance of American Performance Art festivals, and the participation of American artists in them, may lead to an increased interests in American practitioners of performance works both at home and abroad.



Autumn Hays is an Artist, Curator, Teacher and Writer. She graduated the School of the Art Institute of Chicago with an MFA in Performance where she received the John Quincy Adams Fellowship. She received her BA in Visual Arts at UCSD. Hays was the recipient of numerous scholarships, grants and awards including two major Jack Kent Cooke association scholarships. Currently she is assistant curator at Defibrillator and Co-Producer of the 2014 IMPACT Performance Art Festival.