Burak Arikan: the monotony of your next vacation

March 7, 2014 · Print This Article

arikan blog 2

A biennale in a holiday destination can seem like icing on the cake, but a work at the 5th Biennale in Marrakech explores the baking recipe itself. Burak Arikan is a Turkish artist whose home country, like Morocco, numbers its visitors in the tens of millions. One question, which his Monovacation (2013) poses, is this: what do we expect from our annual getaways?

The answer varies, but not by much. Rowboats, mountains, bikinis and beaches are all high on our agendas, at least that’s what the national offices of tourism believe to be the case. Arikan collates television commercials from around the world and uses bespoke software to analyse the patterns which emerge.

The result is a grid projection running every film the artist could get his hands on, (found footage and clips from YouTube) a nodular map of advertising motifs, and a six minute montage in which the ideas morph into one another. “You have concept morph,” explains Arikan, “not image morph”, pointing out the shifting occupants and surroundings of a lake.

“So the movie starts with a rowboat. You will see people doing rowboats from Italy through to China basically. All of which are very quick 1,2,3 seconds, and then it goes slowly into nature and then into the mountains and it works like that.”

Biennale venue Bank Al Maghrib is full of surprises, but this presents you with some familiar scenarios: travel clichés, held at arm’s length. The result is alienation, an effect of the computer code written by the artist in order to configure a detailed map of the most frequently advertised holiday activities.

“This is all for a vacation which you can have anywhere in the world,” says the artist, most of whose projects benefit from his programming knowhow. In the past he has analysed data patterns in the art market, the higher education sector and the urban landscape of Istanbul.

The uber-commercial now concept-morphs into a passage featuring horses. “If you look at this you find a horse that crops up all the time: in Egypt, Turkey, Portugal and Spain; they’ve all got horses.” It was this motif which inspired the current piece.

“A horse, what does that mean, you know?” he asks, finding a range of meanings in a host of countries, including the most interesting reading of the situation in his homeland: “In Turkey they show it, like, jumping on a bridge. I guess, Europe to Asia.”

And while the overall effect of this installation may be one of monotony, there are differing nuances. “European countries usually advertise themselves as, ‘You can rest here’. So say I’m a European from the UK, it has to be somewhere close: South Europe, Spain; I rest and then I go back to work.” But a far-flung destination like Taiwan will advertise its potential for magical experiences.

Marrakech is magical too, the North African city lending plenty of relevance to Arikan’s work. “Morocco has a big tourism issue,” says the artist. “It’s an economical engine but at the same time it’s an issue for locals. Obviously you can see that everywhere.” It’s a fragile ecosystem. The vibrant square beyond the venue, Jamaa El Fna, is a UNESCO designated Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.

Arikan laughs when I ask him if his research has put him off holidays for life. “I don’t really do travel for tourism any more,” he says. “Although I will travel a lot, I go for work mainly. I live in New York right now, but I’m based in Istanbul and New York.” Hence the global outlook.

In a world where you can be a tourist just about anywhere, this data-crunching holiday of holidays could put you off as well. The perfect beach, bikini body, or sunlit lake are just so many simulacra, and thanks to our ubiquitous cameras, we are all filming and shooting our own commercials and ads wherever we go. It gets to be hard work.

Monovacation can be seen in Bank Al Maghrib at Marrakech Biennale 5 until March 31 2014.

New York’s A Snoozefest…

March 6, 2014 · Print This Article

Left to right: Richard, Duncan and Amanda are sleeping in at Volta.

Left to right: Richard, Duncan and Amanda are sleeping in at Volta NY.

But we ain’t napping! Instead, we’re working our smooth moves to get NYC into bed with us. Founding members Amanda Browder, Richard Holland and Duncan MacKenzie are leading by example as they keep the bed warm at the Volta NY fair, where they’re making/recording dreamy segments for our loyal listeners. If you’re in the big apple and you haven’t been in bed with us yet, get over here to Volta NY for some action immediately!

Bad at Sports booth/bed at Volta NY fair.

Bad at Sports booth/bed at Volta NY fair.

For all the readers out there, look for coverage of the festivities rolling out on the blog in the days and weeks to come. We’ll be giving mad props and nepotistic congratulations to the big Chicago presence at the fairs and the Whitney Biennial via slideshows, interviews and one-offs, while taking care to also bring in the thoughtful considerations and insightful reviews and breakdowns penned by our internationally-minded local and global correspondents.

 

Painting Back to Shore: A Conversation With Molly Zuckerman-Hartung

March 5, 2014 · Print This Article

By Kevin Blake

Molly Zuckerman-Hartung is armed and dangerous. Leary and suspicious. Soft and cuddly. She is as multiplicitous as her paintings–equally dynamic and smart. In her second solo exhibition currently on display at Corbett vs. Dempsey, Zuckerman-Hartung opens the door to her studio–to her life and work. She expands the space in the paintings while maintaining her aesthetic tendencies that are uniquely her own. Here is a glimpse at her perpetually expanding range and depth and a good indication of why she is one of seventeen artists from Chicago showing in the 2014 Whitney Biennial.

Kevin Blake:  In preparing to have a conversation with you, I reread your 95 Theses on Painting. I have read it many times, and like looking at a painting, something different stands out to me each time I read them. I read them until I arrive at the one thesis that holds me–that suffices my appetite. It is a beautiful sort of happenstance, that in reading these words about painting, I’m consuming them in the same way as I might consume a painting–very selfishly, very immediately, very directly, and only until I am satisfied. Almost never, do I read them through–a testament to their individual and collective wisdom.

Today, I stopped at thesis number 79. It reads, “The painter today is a fool.” At this point, it occurred to me, that this thesis was both the end of one idea and the start of the next. The thought began at thesis 73, and evolved into the next thought. And the next. And the next. Thoughts folded atop one another. Leaving traces of its predecessor in each iteration. It is obvious that there is a harmony between the way you think about paintings, the way you write, and the way you make paintings.  Can you talk about the necessity of your commitments, and how that may or may not influence what seems to manifest as a very feverish approach to making and thinking?

Molly Zuckerman-Hartung: I do think they are “folded” processes, in the writing and the painting. This process of folding is disorienting – the top is folded under, the underside becomes the top. Yet it maintains a continuous surface, an integrity or a wholeness–even as surfaces collapse, exchange, and reverse. I think a similar movement was happening in the 95 theses at number 79, the painter today is a fool. It is a pivot-point in the text, where a thought has been charging toward something, reaches the edge, teeters, pivots, and charges in a different direction, still holding the ball. The line traveled would be a sharp angle, much like the edge of a folded paper, or a zig-zag, or lightning bolt, which was Hans Hartung’s signature. He believed the lightning bolt was especially for him. A flash of lightning is often used to symbolize dramatic, “flashes” or revelations. I think these are becoming commonplace in our culture, having to do with the internet, and speed of connections. As for “feverish” I used to look for a certain mood in writing, and I called it torpor. Chris Kraus called a novel Torpor recently. The ultimate torpor novel is “The Immoralist” by Gide. Kate Chopin’s “The Awakening” is also written in a strange, heat-soaked languor. It is sexy and dangerous. Paul Bowles wrote this mood too. It has something to do with sex. Necessity is more about belief. So maybe I am working out a sex-belief dialectic.

“iio,” 2004-13, oil, latex, enamel, and wax on folded canvas 24″ x 24″. Image courtesy of the artist and Corbett vs. Dempsey.

KB: In your most recent show, “Violent Fogs Azure Snot,” at Corbett vs. Dempsey in Chicago, there seems to be a material economy in the paintings, at least in comparison to some of your earlier work. Can you talk about the reductive quality of this grouping, and how the work may or may not be a response to the contemporary deluge of imagery that you seem to reference  in the catalog for the show?

MZH:In Violet Fogs Azure Snot I am thinking about the poem by Arthur Rimbaud, Le Bateau Ivre, or The Drunken Boat. The poem is a 100 line  journey by a boat that has lost its haulers. The title of the show is pulled from this poem, and since it is already in translation, I allowed the words to unravel further, as homonyms multiply and collapse the original title. In the poem, the boat is the subject, but without a crew, the subject is absent. This is not reductive, but there are many absences in the show, many spaces charged with what is not there, in the catalog, the work and the installation. I was not thinking of the photographs in the catalog as a contemporary deluge of imagery. They are almost all photographs I took, with an iPhone, plus a few details of art historical work, and photos of me. I am thinking of them as a narrative collage of modes of vision operating in the paintings. How I look, what I choose to look at, from what angle.

KB: The first painting I spent time with at your current show, titled au in 2013, is the last color plate in the accompanying catalog. If my memory serves me well, this painting sits alone on a partition wall at the east end of the gallery space.  For me, this painting set the stage for the show. Turning my back to it, I could see both walls on either side of me, lined with canvases. Standing in that spot, I could sense an intentional juxtaposition of painting varieties. Some contemporary painters undermine the idea of consistent authorship by showing a mixed bag of painting types within the same installation as you have in this show. However, the question of authorial consistency doesn’t seem to be at play here. The variety seems to stem from a set of intuitive responses to the material demands within the work process, and the hand is ever present throughout the show. Are you consistently arriving at dilemmas in painting–dilemmas that create opportunities for intuitive response? How important are impulse and intuition to your outcomes?

“au,” 2013, oil, latex, and enamel on drop cloth, 80″ x 60″. Image courtesy of the artist and Corbett vs. Dempsey.

MZH: I think the word “dilemmas” is more useful than impulse or intuition. As you said, there are a number of different paintings that serve as touchstones for these paintings, the large blue painting “Calif.” is reminiscent of Matisse’ blue paintings, in color, but also in his way of making space, and distributing objects through the picture plane. The phases of Matisse’ work are also very important to me – he was able, over time, to balance color, line, space, but in particular moments he seems very out of balance, as he brings in too much pattern, color and complexity into his paintings. The blue paintings, like the red studio, propose a color field as a space, a blue space. The objects in that space then have to be compared in terms of scale, to determine distance from the viewer.

Henri Matisse, “View of Notre Dame. Paris, quai Saint-Michel,” 1914 Oil on canvas. 58 x 37 1/8″ (147.3 x 94.3 cm)

By “dilemma” I think you mean a kind of crisis, and I think the crisis for me is the flatness of the surface of the painting. With these paintings, I am finding ways to make the painting sculptural, to introduce space, but I don’t want to do that with illusionistic depth. Instead, I am thinking about the spaces between the paintings, the way they respond to one another across the room, and the differing historical references as producing space. So Matisse with the blue one, Malevich with the smaller black painting, Barnett Newman in the painting with three broad vertical bands. The paintings made up of tick marks are actually made as continuous lines, while folded. Then, when unfolded, the effect is that of small marks. This would be another moment of crisis in the show. I think of that kind of painting – methodical mark-making, as a form of transparency in painting – each mark is made in time, and the viewer is able to follow the mark making of the maker in turn. As with, for example, Hanne Darboven, Michelle Grabner or Agnes Martin. In my paintings, the mark is not transparent. The folds, unfolded, produce a kind of schism in the communication, the “reading” of the painting. How I made the marks is not the same as how you read the marks. There is a breakdown in that kind of direct, frontal address. This produces, I think, a kind of space. Also, in Calif. the cloth was folded, then I drew the lines with bleach, then unfolded, then sewn, then stretched, and then paint was poured on the back of the painting. The seam blocks the paint from its natural desire to pool, to spread into soft puddles. Round puddles. Instead, the paint is held in columns. This series of steps, all quite deliberate, might produce an experience of accident or intuition for the viewer, but for me, these paintings are quite systematic. At least more so than in the past.

“Calif,” 2013, oil, bleach, and latex on stained, folded, and sewn linen, 84″ x 60″. Image courtesy of the artist and Corbett vs. Dempsey.

I will add that yes, I am also a very impulsive painter, I do what I want in the studio, and often this leads to messes, things I don’t know how to handle, paintings that are too full, chaotic, unresolved, inept, ugly, awkward. I am comfortable with this, and increasingly I think of it as a strength. I have many unresolved or odd objects and paintings in my studio, which allows me to revisit again and again, finding new ideas, new ways of dealing with paint and surface, texture, color, space, line. I choose to learn from everything I do, accept it all as process. But I will say that this body of work is a very distinct and important show for me in terms of my ability to cull, control and limit that tumult. I am increasingly able to think in terms of bodies of work, phases, moments. I am developing a kind of poetics in my work – the poetics of this show is folding, a word I like. I like the softness of the word, of the feeling. I think of folding clothes or sheets, the drape, the crease, the seam – a language of sewing. The weight and drape of textiles is so important. I don’t consider the textiles I use to be “found,” because they are so specific to me. This might be what you mean by intuition. A lifetime of touching cloth, which we all do, we all wear clothing, makes for a deep material sense about textiles. This is a kind of intuition built from long experience. I hope that the viewer’s experience of the paintings is informed by their memory of what it feels like to touch cloth.

KB: There is a tension in this space and I keep thinking of a Mexican standoff–the first to shoot is at a tactical disadvantage, so nobody shoots, but everybody has their hands on their guns–at the ready.There is a tension between these paintings. The paintings have a gendered quality–like the men and women are separated in the space. The men are against the brick wall, the ladies opposite, and the painting, “au,” the antithesis, stands alone on the third wall–the tip of the triangle.

Installation view of “Violet Fogs Azure Snot.” Image courtesy of the artist and Corbett vs. Dempsey.

MZH: That is really rewarding to me to hear–that a tension was produced in the space. Mutual hostilities being produced among such gentle materials. It’s odd. I cried a lot over the past year while making this work. It is really really sad work for me. And the studio wasn’t big enough to hold them, so they sat on either side of the studio, like big thick padded walls, holding me. I felt really held by these paintings. They just absorbed all the grief. And then installing them they started to change, to pull apart, into each wall, which is now such a dominant design – the verticals on one wall, the horizontals on the other, with “au,” the blown out diagonal grid on the third wall, operating, perhaps, as the first gun firing in the standoff…

KB: Humans are made of gentle material–such gentle material that we cannot last forever. We age. We erode. We die. Unfortunately, it isn’t that easy either, and the timetable–or limits of our individual materials–are very different. The sad part is that so much of our inevitable lives are spent in conflict, in one form or another. Conflict seems to be the elephant in the room. The paintings are the only ones who really know what they are about, and they remain stoic and silent. That tension builds from the vantage point of the third wall and radiates across the room.  Are the walls intended to have a gendered specificity? Is the Mexican standoff an accurate metaphor for this silent conflict–this elephant in the room?

MZH: Regarding gender, I have been thinking about affective labor a lot. Affective labor is a recent term for service industry, or service economy, which is the turn our global economy has been taking for quite some time. Affective labor is the kind of labor more and more of us are being asked to do, and there is a slippery slope between that term, and the feminization of labor. I would like to be clear that I think gender is different from sex, and also different from a more Jungian notion of archetypes, as I think you are using them – the “masculine” and the “feminine.” I am interested in all forms of discussion around gender, sex, and archetypes, but it’s important to keep them separate.

Installation view of “Violet Fogs Azure Snot.” Image courtesy of the artist and Corbett vs. Dempsey.

I chose to frame the show Violet Fogs Azure Snot with the work of nine female painters – John [Corbett] and Jim [Dempsey] were kind enough to allow me to do this. The show is called “Sensitive Instruments” and I was trying to frame a conversation about the strain placed on women to be both highly sensitive – as caregivers, nurturers, and then the ways that care is instrumentalized. But also synesthesia – the musical instruments, and the long history of music and painting sharing a language of movement, color, and line. If possible, I am thinking about a charge, a tension, of gender politics, of economic demands, of painting that takes a hardline position, a stand. And simultaneously is fluid, is able to recover from damage, to absorb shock, to recover. As in Adrienne Rich’s poem, Power, about Marie Curie. The poem ends with these lines,

“It seems she denied to the end

the source of the cataracts on her eyes

the cracked and suppurating skin of her finger-ends

till she could no longer hold a test-tube or a pencil

 

She died a famous woman denying

her wounds

denying

her wounds came from the same source as her power”

It serves as a warning to pay attention to our wounds. None of this is simple or easy, and in saying anything I fear reducing the paintings to rhetoric which they definitely are not. But the standoff you describe– the conflict–is deep in the work, and hopefully only at first glance are the men on one side and the women on the other. Hopefully all the paintings are very transgendered.

KB: As the Whitney Biennial opens this month, will you look to rest? What’s next in the studio and beyond?

MZH: I just spent the past 18 hours lying in bed in silence. I definitely need some rest. But we all do. It’s been a rough winter. Everyone, on the bus, in the classroom, is overextended, parched, raw. We need some gentleness. As for my studio, I just moved down the hall in my building, to a bigger space, and I am still adjusting to the change. I realize I was deeply adapted to the old space, so this space causes lots of new questions, as does the increase in attention and “success.” I am very slow to adapt to a change in audience, and the ways it changes my understanding of my own work, so I am just trying to stay low, and stay in touch with myself, by writing and drawing and reading, and avoiding studio visits. I have no shows planned, but I will be teaching in Knoxville, Tennessee for Fall semester.

Chicagoaxaca: An Interview with Iván Arenas

March 4, 2014 · Print This Article

Guest Post by Daniel Tucker

On February 12th, two new printmaking exhibitions opened at Art In These Times, an occasional exhibition venue in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood that is situated in the offices of the 35-year-old progressive news magazine In These Times.  The exhibits, Stainlessness and Chicagoaxaca, combined together both create a shared context addressing the transformative power of human labor in mobilizing for social justice. Stainlessness includes four original etched metal printing plates and a set of prints that tell the story of labor movements in North America as these have shaped Sudbury, Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Detroit. Stainlessness was designed by Etienne Turpin with Captains of Industry, printed at the Cranbrook Academy of Art and Design with artists Sara Dean and Marnie Briggs and installed with Ryan Griffis.

Folks listen in at Art In These Times. Image courtesy of Daniel Tucker.

Folks listen in at Art In These Times. Image courtesy of Daniel Tucker.

Chicagoaxaca: Gender, Indigeneity & Social Justice includes woodblock prints created by the Assembly of Revolutionary Artists of Oaxaca (ASARO), a political street art group born during a grassroots social movement that shook Oaxaca, Mexico in 2006. Chicagoaxaca was curated by Iván Arenas, designed and installed with Jeremy Kreusch, and is brought to Art In These Times by the Social Justice Initiative at the University of Illinois at Chicago. This conversation with Iván Arenas focuses on the ongoing project of Chicagoaxaca. Arenas is a practicing artist and received his B.A. in Architecture and Anthropology at Columbia University and his Ph.D. in Anthropology from UC-Berkeley. He is currently working on articles and a book manuscript assessing how the art of protest from Oaxaca’s popular uprising of 2006 reconfigured conceptions of public space, rights to the city, and redefined political participation by questioning the role of democratic government in Mexico’s future.

Daniel Tucker (DT): Ivan, you have been and are continuing to tour this project throughout multiple sites within the city of Chicago – starting with the PUJA space that is a part of the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Social Justice Initiative, for which you serve as a Visiting Scholar. The next spot is supposed to be the Centro Autonomo in Albany Park. It seems like a great idea, because as anyone working in cities is aware, spaces associated with certain neighborhoods or communities typically have a kind of pre-determined audience that may not overlap or draw people from throughout the city. Where did the idea for touring the exhibit locally come from and what are you learning from it about how audiences can be addressed or constructed throughout such a process?

Iván Arenas (IA): The idea to have the Chicagoaxaca exhibit occupy different sites came as a response to the fact that Chicago is a highly segregated city. An important part of Oaxaca’s social movement was the way in which it united a broad cross-section of society, from committed socialists to democratic liberals to steadfast anarchists. The need to negotiate the different political, economic, and social positions of movement participants through participatory assemblies was a powerful way in which the social movement transformed Oaxacan society in 2006. This is reflected in the political street art group whose work is on display in the exhibit. While attending an art space in a particular neighborhood is different from participating in an assembly, the hope is that holding the exhibit in different locations and breaking it up into different themes will encourage people to go to neighborhoods and spaces that they might otherwise not find themselves in.

Perhaps the most important lesson gleaned from this process has been the way in which staging the exhibit in spaces that are not strictly or only art spaces offers encounters with an audience that does not realize it is about to come across the art. Much as a stencil found around a street corner, this has the possibility of interrupting our normative itinerary—producing what Walter Benjamin described as a kind of shock or what the Situationist International framed as a détournement, a spatial, temporal, political, and playful detour from a common, established course. Thus, while some might specifically seek out the exhibit, the audience that the exhibit engages is one that is more than likely one that has come to the exhibit by happenstance—even as the limits of this audience is most definitely framed by the parameters of the particular groups that typically work or participate in activities at the Social Justice Initiative’s Pop Up Just Art space, the offices of In These Times magazine, and Centro Autónomo.

"Woman Walking" by Assembly of Revolutionary Artists of Oaxaca (ASARO).

“Woman Walking” by ASARO.

DT: This question is relevant for both bodies of work on display at Art In These Times. Both take on the power of humans to transform the world around them, but with slightly different emphasis. While there is some recognizable leftist imagery in Stainlessness, it is also about the impact of industrial capitalism. On the other hand, Ivan documented the visual culture and art of a social movement that had massive repercussions in social reorganization in Oaxaca just a few years ago. Chicagoaxaca rests much more firmly in a leftist social movement documentarian mode. What do you think about the relationship between these two approaches to dealing with humans transforming the physical and the social world around them?

IA: Though perhaps more explicit in the artworks of Stainlessness, both exhibits share an interest in the transformative encounter between materiality and social processes. At a simple level, they share this in the fact that both exhibits showcase forms of printmaking, an aesthetic process that transforms particular materials (metal and wood in this case) into images. In each case the limits and possibilities of the media’s very materiality become part of the condition of possibility for artists to create their images. Having practiced as an architect, I was also very interested in Oaxaca in the way that the city’s physicality mattered in the social protests: for example in the way that the city center’s narrow streets and the region’s hills magnified the effect of the thousands of people that marched through them or the way in which the porous green stones that the city is known for absorbed a stencil’s spray-paint, rendering it nearly impossible to remove. The precarious and impoverished conditions of the majority of the city, where buildings are completed haphazardly as economic conditions allow, were also critical in framing the possibility of gathering the sandbags, cement, stones, logs, and other materials that went up to make the 1,500 or so neighborhood barricades that went up in the city nightly to guard against paramilitary forces in moving vehicles.

And, clearly, the material conditions resulting from the rise and fall of industrial capitalism have been critical forces in shaping the sites and cities that both exhibits look at (Sudbury, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Detroit, and Oaxaca). The backdrop of this material and economic history is inescapable in understanding the forces that have made Oaxaca one of the most impoverished states in all of Mexico. The struggle in Oaxaca to depose the authoritarian governor is framed by the history of these material conditions. Documenting and participating in the production of the social movement’s visual culture offers insights into ways in which people coming together can and do find ways to interrupt—if not entirely escape—the material conditions that constrain them.

"Crouching Woman" by ASARO.

“Crouching Woman” by ASARO.

DT: You have a lot of experience dealing with disseminating and distributing yours and others production. There are plans for this project to turn into a book, where are those plans right now and what are your hopes for circulating the final publication?

IA: Through their images, the street artists were seeking to continue to motivate the people who were taking part in the social movement as well as looking to include more people in the dialogue about the problems facing everyone in Oaxaca and the collective search for solutions. As an academic, much of my work consists of interpreting this effort in relation to theoretical and historical strands whose purview stretches beyond Oaxaca—this effort is important, but its highly specialized language often renders its insights opaque and available to a select few. As a curator of Chicagoaxaca, one of the goals has been to use social justice as a bridge to connect the streets of Oaxaca to those of Chicago. This work of translation is expansive, requiring a different vocabulary from the highly narrow one of academic specialization. Curating Chicagoaxaca has meant utilizing the power of the images and corresponding narratives about art, social mobilization, and efforts to contest marginalization to connect with a broad number of people who, in their own way, are also questioning their contemporary reality and searching for transformative futures. The final publication of the project will support the effort to reach ever greater audiences by including a full catalog of the woodblock prints in the exhibit, photographs that flesh out the stencils, paintings, silkscreens and the practices of protest that the street artists and social movement practiced. Beyond narratives explaining and illuminating the insights that Oaxacan art and protest practices engendered, the text will include a series of conversations with people and groups in Chicago actively working for positive change; I am hoping that there will be both a published presence and an online archive of this work in English and Spanish and that this will allow Oaxacans, Chicagoans, and others who are mobilized to learn from each other.

Daniel Tucker is a Chicago-based artist, writer, and organizer. He works on the Never The Same oral history and archive project with Rebecca Zorach, and is currently editing the book Immersive Life Practices, and producing a new video/writing project about self-sufficiency and the right-wing imagination while in residence at Grand Central Art Center.

Seeing. Movies. Barton Fink and the Life of the Mind

March 4, 2014 · Print This Article

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

If I had created the City of my dream, the City that is not, never was and yet manifests itself with acuteness, smells and loud sounds, if I had created that City, I would not only have been moving in complete freedom and with an absolute sense of belonging but also, most importantly, I would have taken the audience into an alien but secretly familiar world.        

-Ingmar Bergman, The Magic Lantern

Barton Fink presents us with an opportunity to reconsider that most magical aspect of the cinema, mise-en-scène. Mise-en-scène is nothing less than the visual world created by the filmmakers to tell us everything about the movie that is not conveyed by the dialogue, the story, the plot, the characters, and the acting. It is the physical setting of the movie, the very stuff of its visual being.

This is of central importance in any film, but in Barton Fink it is of particular interest because the world of the movie is such an unusual one. In most films mise-en-scène is created in the service of calling a particular world into existence. Often it is some version of the world we are already familiar with (either in our experience, our memory, or our imagination): for example, such and such a city in America in such and such a year. It may be a period piece: A suburb in the 1970’s, New York of the 1920’s, the Chicago of prohibition, the American West in the 1860’s, Europe during WWI, or Vietnam in 1969. Sometimes it is a fantasy world that has been created expressly for the movie: a science fiction landscape, perhaps on a spaceship or on another planet, or some fantasy version of our own world in the future. Mise-en-scène can be used to recreate the Wild West, the roaring 20’s, World War II, an alien invasion, the Zombie Apocalypse, the town we grew up in, an all-too-familiar office building, a typical American high-school, an apartment complex, a jungle, a desert, or an urban wasteland. Mise-en-scene creates a world, whether it is the lush, visually brilliant Britain of Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon or the rainy Los Angeles of Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner.

Mise-en-scène tells us where we are. But the Coen brothers don’t need mise-en-scène to tell us where we are as we enter the world of Barton Fink because they use a title to do it instead: “New York, 1941”, even though everything about the setting would have conveyed the same information. But they’re reserving mise-en-scène for something else; let’s call it establishing a mood. What is this mood? What is “mood” in the movies? What else but how a movie makes us feel. Which, in the case of Barton Fink, is a very special kind of creepy; Poe would have called it an example of “the uncanny.”

Lets review the first 10 minutes of Barton Fink: The movie begins with the credits appearing against a background of gold textured wallpaper (we see later that it is the wallpaper from Barton’s room at the Hotel Earle). Wallpaper is important in the movie. It’s a surface that hides another surface. The first cut takes us behind a surface, not of the wallpaper but of a stage. We’re behind the scenes, listening to the over-acted, over-written, overblown lines of a “common man” in Barton’s successful play:

“Dreamin’ again,” a woman says.

“Not anymore Lil. I’m awake now. Awake for the first time in years.”

The movie’s main themes are presented in the first few seconds: surfaces and what they conceal, actors and what they portray (or pretend to be), the tension between dreaming and being awake. The first shot, after the credits, is of something being lowered.  We are descending, from the very first image, going down, figuratively, accompanying our characters on their descent into Hell.

These first few seconds also illustrate Barton’s illusions about his work as an artist. (Movies and the theatre are about creating illusions (not always illusions of reality), and Barton’s illusions are largely “in his mind.”) On stage and out of sight wildly improbable lines are delivered (“I see the choir and I know they’re dressed in rags, but we’re part of that choir”) by a character meant to represent a “common man” (although the voice sounds strikingly like John Turturro’s) while backstage a “real” common man works the ropes and pulleys that allow the fantasy to unfold. On the very line “we’re part of that choir” we get our first shot of a human figure in the movie, bent over and working, completely uninterested in, unengaged with, and detached from the lines being delivered ostensibly to give him, the “common man,” a dramatic voice in the world.

Barton Fink (still), Joel Cohen and Ethan Coen, 1991

Barton Fink (still), Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, 1991

The shot of this man walking away behind Barton is of someone who couldn’t care less about the lies and fantasies of dramatic representation. A second stagehand sits nearby smoking a cigarette (beneath an eerily red-lit “NO SMOKING” sign) and reading a newspaper, equally uninterested in Barton’s paean to his fantasy version of “the common man.” This is all the visual evidence we need to see that the movie wants us to think of Barton’s play (and thus of Barton himself) as a pompous ruse (albeit a sincere one). A sincere ruse; that is: excellent raw material for Hollywood.

In the restaurant after the performance Barton says, “I can’t kid myself about my own work. A writer writes from his gut. His gut tells him what’s good.” But throughout the movie Barton does nothing but kid himself about his own work. He’s a bad writer who knows nothing about the people he wants to write about (ironically, since the implication is that he grew up with them in New York, and that his own background is working class). The Herald review of his paper says that his play is about people “whose brute struggle for existence cannot quite quell their desire for something higher”; but this describes not the people Barton thinks he is writing about, but rather his own relationship to writing. A relationship that will unfold for the rest of the movie not in New York, but in Hollywood, a place that thrives on the tension between appearances and reality, aspiration and ambition, honesty and hypocrisy. A magical place of fantasy mixed with ruthless pragmatic business sense. (What darkness supports the light?) At their first meeting Lipnick tells Barton, “The writer is king here at Capitol pictures. You don’t believe me: take a look at your paycheck at the end of every week. That’s what we think of the writer.” And he’s right: in Hollywood a writer, like anything else, is something you buy. Pay for it and it’s yours.

But Hollywood is not simply a false mistress who erects a tempting exterior over a corrupt interior. Instead, She turns out to be the harsh mistress capable of telling Barton the hard truths he has tried to hide and conceal himself from. Ironically, Hollywood is the most honest character in the whole movie; the character so expert at disguise that She not only sees through everyone else’s disguises, but forces them to face and acknowledge them as well. And virtually every character in Barton Fink is pretending to be someone or something he or she is not (Charlie is not “really” an insurance salesman, Lipnick is not a colonel in the U.S. army, Mayhew is not a great writer, Audrey is “not just Bill’s secretary”, and who, or what, the hell is “CHET!”, anyway?), which leads us to wonder, what is it that Barton appears to be but isn’t? A writer? An artist? Someone interested in “the common man”?

Hollywood is a wonderful paradox: no place is more devoted to creating magic, but no place is more merciless in reducing it to a commodity that can be bought and sold. Hollywood is also the land where appearances are what is real. Obscuring the dividing line between truth and fiction, fantasy and reality is the business of Hollywood. It’s a place where dreams (or nightmares) come true. Which means that the person who is the most duplicitous is, paradoxically, the most honest. (Lipnick tells Barton, “If I had been totally honest, I wouldn’t be within a mile of this pool unless I was cleaning it.”) Where does that leave Barton? Is he a real writer trying to pander his talent to the Hollywood beast? Or is he a hack who has to come to Hollywood to discover the truth about himself? What is truth in the movie? In the movies? In Hollywood? For any of us ever? What more do we want from a work of art than an opportunity to confront such puzzles concerning truth and fiction?

From the moment we cut from the final scene in New York to the opening scene in Los Angeles we accompany Barton into a new world, a world that has never existed outside the imaginations of the filmmakers. This is where mise-en-scène comes in. Superficially it looks like Hollywood in the 1940’s, but in fact the Coen brothers have created a vision of Hollywood all their own, where nothing is as it appears to be, reality and fantasy are hopelessly confused, and truth and fiction are so entwined as to be virtually indistinguishable. The Hotel Earle, with its pealing wallpaper that seems to reveal something like flesh underneath and that appears to ooze or bleed when Barton presses on it (penetrating this “skin” with the thumbtacks provided by “Chet!” seems to provoke the sexual noises Barton hears through the wall), is a literal embodiment of this vision of Hollywood.

Meta-portrayals of Hollywood as a city dedicated to ruthlessly profiting from creations of the human imagination are common. Hollywood, as we know from movies like Von Sternberg’s The Last Command, Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels, Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd., Curtis Hanson’s L.A. Confidential, Robert Altman’s The Player, and David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, is the place where fantasy and reality enter into the most bizarre of congresses. Nowhere else in American is the harsh reality of cutthroat business so seamlessly combined with the romantic luster of our dreams and fantasies. Hollywood is where people go to make their dreams come true, or, as in Barton’s case, to encounter their nightmares.

Barton Fink (still), Joel Cohen and Ethan Coen, 1991

Barton Fink (still), Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, 1991

Barton does not so much enter the Hotel Earle as magically materialize in its lobby as a result of a gradual but stunning fade that, at 7 minutes and 44 seconds, for a split instant creates the image of Barton standing before a surging body of water that has flooded the hotel floor. It appears as if he has split the rock and emerged out of it to stand, suitcase and typewriter in hand, on the shores of a new land. As the water recedes, Barton begins to move forward through the hotel lobby. This is one of the most beautiful shots in the film. Barton backlit from the doors behind him, moving through a strangely empty (despite the many chairs) lobby of dusky browns and pinks that have a flesh-like character. This impression of the hotel lobby as something living is emphasized by the plants that give it a jungle-like feel. At first Barton is merely a silhouette moving through this strange new landscape.

The next cut lets us know we’re not to be confined to the point of view of characters in the movie. Now we are behind and above Barton, but too far above for this to be the pov of a human observer, and as the camera pulls back we rise even higher to take in the chandeliers. The light has changed and we can see the chairs and the plants more clearly. The colors stand out more brightly and Barton himself appears in more detail. The pattern of the carpet resembles the pattern of the gold wallpaper against which the credits appeared at the beginning of the movie.

A few more things to notice about the Hotel Earle:

—the symbolism throughout the film not so subtly suggests that the Hotel Earle is a kind of Hell (“Earle” and “Hell” are end rhymes).

—not just the fact that Chet emerges from below the floor (obvious symbolism), but the mottled color and texture of the trap door from which he emerges (carrying a shoe?)

—the overhead camera angle of the spinning hotel register Barton signs (a bird’s, or God’s, or Devil’s eye view?)

—the stains on the walls on either side of the elevator (the camera pans down though the motion should be up, to floor 6)

—the impossibly long corridor Barton walks down to arrive at his room

—the hotel’s slogan, “A day or a lifetime” (ominous overtones)

—the broken pencil tip  (bad symbolism for a sexually lonely and creatively sterile writer)

—the long row of shoes outside the doors of what otherwise appear to be unoccupied rooms (in No Exit Sartre wrote, “Hell is other people,” but for Barton Hell may simply be himself and his solitude)

—the (according to Geisler, impossible) mosquito as bloodsucker; L.A. as the natural habitat of vampires (cf. Joss Whedon’s brilliant Buffy and Angel series)

In this movie, everything means something, which is as bad as saying that nothing means anything.

These early scenes establish the Hotel Earle as more than just a setting in the movie. It becomes an actual character, living and breathing, sweating, groaning; it acts and interacts with the other characters in the film—the hotel, like John Goodman’s character Charlie, is a living embodiment of Hollywood itself. (And Barton’s room is the creepiest room in the movies since The Shining’s Room 237 and Henry Spencer’s room in Eraserhead (whose hairdo Barton’s seems indebted to as well).)

At least this is one side of Hollywood—it would be pointless to try and identify which of the various settings (Lipnick’s office, the restaurant where Barton eats with Geisler, poolside at Lipnick’s home, the beach at the end of the film) is the “real” Hollywood, for that is precisely what Hollywood is in the movie: the absence of a single unchanging truth. Hollywood is all surface. Peel back the surface, as the Hotel Earle peels away is epidermal wallpaper, and what is beneath is not the truth, but just a sticky mess, waiting to be covered by an appearance which will stand in for the truth. And what is a movie that is surface all the way down “really” about, if not the very question of what it means for a movie to be “about” something in the first place?

Barton Fink (still), Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, 1991

Barton Fink (still), Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, 1991

Before ending I’d like to add a few thoughts about what Charlie and Lipnick have to do with all this, and with the question of “the life of the mind.” Charlie and Lipnick are doppelgangers, both for each other and for Hollywood. They do not “represent” or “symbolize” Hollywood; they embody it. They are large, dominating bodies. Bodies that embody, in different ways, what Barton calls “the life of the mind.”

Think of Charlie and Lipnick as different aspects of the “entertainment” industry: Lipnick, in his Janus-like alternations between submission (licking Barton’s shoe) and domination (firing and debasing Lou Breeze); Charlie in his peculiar relationship to make-believe and his own Janus-like embodiment of comedy and tragedy (the laughter-sobbing Barton hears through the wall (permeability of surfaces) representing both Thalia and Melpomene, the muses of comedy and tragedy respectively) and the friendly “guy next door” façade masking the “serial killer” interior). These ambiguities (submission/domination, laughter/sobbing, comedy/tragedy) find their way into the movie itself. Is Barton Fink a comedy, a horror movie, or a tragedy? Yes.

Lipnick tells Barton the only thing that matters is, “can you tell a story,” and Charlie repeatedly offers, “I could tell you stories,” but Barton can’t put these two sides of Hollywood together. He’s so caught up in the idea of his “work” that he can neither tell nor hear stories. He is both deaf and mute to the only thing Hollywood cares about: other people’s stories. He’s too busy trying to figure out his own.

Charlie says, when explaining his ear infection, “Can’t trade my head in for a new one,” and Barton agrees, adding “I guess you’re stuck with the one you got.” But later in the film the cotton in Charlie’s ear reappears in Barton’s (also symbolizing his deafness) and Charlie will literally give Barton a head, as if to suggest that, when it comes to the life of the mind, it’s always possible to get a new one. And it seems to work, since it is after Charlie gives Barton Audrey’s head that his writer’s block disappears and he begins to write (just as Audrey helped Bill Mayhew with his own writer’s block). The results, however, only reveal the kind of writer Barton “really” is.

Charlie tells Barton that he’s in the business of selling peace of mind. In response, Barton speaks of what he calls “the life of the mind” (“I got to tell you, the life of the mind, there’s no roadmap for that territory.”). At one point Lou tells Barton, “Right now, the contents of your head are the property of Capitol Pictures.” After seeing Audrey’s body, Charlie tells Barton, “We gotta keep our heads.”

Barton Fink (still), Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, 1991

Barton Fink (still), Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, 1991

“Look upon me, I’ll show you the life of the mind,” Charlie shouts as he rampages down the hallway. But he’s talking to Barton, or to us, not to the cops (one of whom is already dead). What is it Charlie wants to show us?

Is the movie an imaginary voyage (like Dante’s) into a literary hell? What is the “life of the mind” if not the life we lead in our imaginations, the life fueled by the products of Hollywood, which feed our imaginations, though whether to nourish them or enervate them may depend on what it is we’re digesting. The life of the mind is about death and violence and man’s journey into the depths of Hell. Barton doesn’t seem to realize (yet) that there’s no “common man” who doesn’t carry his own Hell around with him. No vision of Hell that isn’t derived from the dark imagination of the poet that dwells in each of us.

Charlie calls Barton, whose aspiration is to turn the suffering of the common man into art, a “tourist with a typewriter,” but when Barton leaves the burning hotel he carries with him his script and the box, not the typewriter he arrived with.

The box has replaced the typewriter. What’s in it (besides Audrey’s head)?

Charlie: “It’s just a lot of personal stuff, but I don’t want to drag it with me, and I’d like to think it’s in good hands. Funny huh, when everything that’s important to a guy, everything he wants to keep from a lifetime, and he can fit it into a little box like that.”

Barton: “It’s more than I’ve got.”

Charlie tells him it will help him finish his script, but overcoming his writer’s block is not the same as being able to write well (since what he writes appears to be the worst kind of self-plagiarism: a repetition of something that was a cliché to begin with). After gaining from his encounter with the police a pretty good idea of what’s in the box, he holds it up to his own head, as if trying it on for size. Earlier he told Charlie, “My job is to plumb the depths,” and he says to Mayhew, “writing comes from a great inner pain” (In response Bill speaks of wanting to rip his head off; a desire Charlie will help him accomplish later in the film); but by the end of the film Barton seems to have learned that even “great inner pain” isn’t enough to make him a good writer. It just makes him a human being. Earlier he had asked Audrey, “What don’t I understand?” Perhaps this is it?

At the end of the film Barton has been sentenced (damned?) by Lipnick, “You’re under contract, you’re gonna stay that way. Anything you write is gonna be the property of Capitol pictures and Capitol pictures is not going to produce anything you write. Not until you grow up a little.”

Barton’s writing has been reduced to “property.” So much for the life of the mind. Like Charlie, he has to get into the business of selling “peace of mind”—Lipnick tells him, “they [the audience] don’t want to see a guy wrestling with his soul” (it’s not that kind of “wresting movie”). (Akira Kurosawa wrote a wrestling movie before launching his career as a director, and his directorial debut was with a movie about a Judo fighter.) Where does that leave him, or us, at the end of the film? Are we finally damned, or only left with a more honest sense of the real challenges (obstacles, temptations, and hazards) that stand between us and the “life of the mind”?

Barton Fink (still), Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, 1991

Barton Fink (still), Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, 1991

When Barton meets the girl from the picture in his room he asks her, “Are you in pictures?” And she says, “Don’t be silly.” But she is a picture. She asks him, “What’s in the box?” and he says, “I don’t know.” “Isn’t it yours,” she asks, and again he says, “I don’t know.” What doesn’t he know? The movie ends as it began, the same music playing as the credits roll against the wallpaper from Barton’s room at the Hotel Earle. Is Barton’s “I don’t know” a note of agnostic despair, or the first faint rays of dawning awareness?

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.