Lynch’s “Surreal” Universe: Genre or Artists’ Movement?

December 4, 2013 · Print This Article

GUEST POST BY AUGUST EVANS

 

“Cinema is a wonderful way of expressing dreams.”       -Phillipe Soupault, founding surrealist

 

Here in Bloomington, IN, the December midnight screening series at the renowned IU Cinema, “More Human than Human,” is poised to screen David Lynch’s prequel (and conclusion) to the cult television series, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me.

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                                                       Photo Courtesy: lynchnet.com

The IU Cinema describes Lynch’s 1992 film as “part neo-noir, part family melodrama, part surreal horror movie.” The descriptor “surreal” comes up more often than not in describing most any Lynch project–from an early film like Eraserhead, to a later work like Blue Velvet, or in any general summary of Twin Peaks–to a more recent foray into the song and accompanying film, “Crazy Clown Time.”

As much as the term “surreal” is used to describe the Lynchian universe, I wonder how such constant use might be making “surreal” into a Lynch-like genre, as equally identifiable as noir:

noir-film-festival-dubrovnik-2012

Photo courtesy: Noir Film Festival Dubrovnik

But in the way that we identify the above as a decidedly noir photo still, what qualities make a film “surreal,” other than there being something bizarre, non-linear, oddly juxtaposed about it?

Lynch has come to be known for his “surrealist films”. His Wikipedia page claims he’s developed his own unique cinematic style, dubbed ‘Lynchian’, characterized by dream imagery and meticulous sound design. The surreal, and in many cases, violent, elements contained within his films have been known to “disturb, offend or mystify” audiences.”

But even though Lynch’s films are unmistakably surreal, are they surrealist?

Surrealist cinema, with origins in Surrealism, a movement that coincided with the birth of motion pictures, whose originators grew up alongside the first films, defines itself as being unable to be defined by style or form, ever-shifting and incongruous.

Only three films were actually ever designated “exclusively surrealist productions,” created in the throes of the movement and in keeping with its tenets: Germaine Dulac’s La coquille et le clergyman (original scenario by Antonin Artaud), Luis Buñuel’s L’âge d’or, and what might be deemed the quintessential surrealist film, Buñuel and Salvador Dalì’s Un chien andalou.

Though not necessarily “better” than any blatantly produced generic film, Un Chien Andalou is undoubtedly “different” than such films created under the commercial conditions and restraints of Hollywood. There is no doubt that the film was self-consciously produced, and subsequently consumed, against the mainstream generic model. Film theorist Steve Neale suggests Un chien andalou “flaunted the genre system predominant in Europe at the time it was made…the genre ‘narrative feature film’, and the genres of the contemporary European art film…Buñuel, claimed it was not even an instance of avant-garde filmmaking, but rather ‘a desperate appeal to murder.”

http://vimeo.com/18540575

Surrealism strikes me as an ideology akin to an artists’ movement, rather than a publically discussable genre. As Luis Buñuel wrote, the group sought “to explode the social order, to transform life itself,” an aim far more expansive than a simple generic label.

Any attempt to place the weight of genre upon an artists’ movement like Surrealism presents problems, considering the aims of the first (and possibly only) surrealists were to explode the bourgeois order. Indeed, these initial surrealist films achieved something very unique, specific, and particular to the artists’ movement out of which they emerged. Toby Sussman deems these early films “the pinnacle of the Surrealist films…the representation of the total passion of a human event pushed beyond previously known limits…resulting in a beautiful new world of images existing somewhere between the amorphous intractability of dreams and the cold acceptance of everyday consciousness”:

whitehorse                        Still from Twin Peaks: Fire Walks with Me      Photo Courtesy: lynchnet.com

 

Contemporary Czechoslovakian filmmaker, Jan Švankmajer, has called himself a “militant surrealist.”And yet, in his 2007 essay about the filmmaker, Jan Uhde calls him “one of the most significant living directors of non-mainstream and experimental film animation,” and cites Surrealism only as “a major influence” on Švankmajer’s film style. The first surrealists were nothing if not a collective, making Švankmajer’s participation in an actual group a notable link.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SqGAZgtDiBU

The experimental films of Maya Deren could certainly fit into this category as well. Deren combined her interests in dance, voodoo and subjective psychology in a series of perceptual, black and white short films. As an independent distributor, Deren exhibited and presented lectures on her films across the United States, Cuba and Canada. In 1946 she booked the Village’s Provincetown Playhouse for a public exhibition. Deren titled the exhibition: ‘Three Abandoned Films – a showing of Meshes of the Afternoon, At Land & A Study in Choreography for the Camera’. Deren took the word ‘abandoned’ to refer to Guillaume Apollinaire’s observation that a work of art is never completed, just abandoned. Whilst the title was ironic, the exhibition was successful.

Yet Deren actively rejected categorization as a surrealist, refused the definition of her films as formalist or structuralist. To label her films as surrealist brings up the same situation of Lynch’s distancing himself from the term in interviews, and summons the origins of the artists’ movement, people who based a huge amount of their identities on their active alignment with an ideology via Breton’s definitive manifestoes. Indeed, Deren’s request that her films shall not be called surrealist clashes logically with the crucial foundations of the artists’ movement, especially in considering how actively its practitioners self-identified as surrealist.

It seems to me that surrealism exists as a state of mind rather than a genre-form. Both dada and surrealism have been defined by their adherents as attitudes of thought as opposed to formalist or strictly cohesive artistic styles, and the artists were therefore committed to obtaining new effects by experimentation, recording accidental events resulting from improvisation.

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Photo courtesy: lynchnet.com

Michael Richardson writes, “the surrealist necessity is to make Marx’s demand for the ‘transformation of the world’ and Rimbaud’s demand to ‘change life as one and the same thing.” The Surrealists’ belief that “poetry should be made by all not one” required broader societal change and helps explain the movement’s close identification with various shades of left-wing thought. The publication of numerous, often difficult, sometimes perplexing, manifestoes should be understood within the context of the turbulent politics of the interwar years.

Excluding Å vankmajer, few filmmakers take such rare and raw revolutionary risks today. The essence of surrealism, refusing to be here but always elsewhere, makes me wonder whether a film like Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me should be included among those forerunners. Though the film teems with dreamlike, non-linear imagery, it contains its share of gratuitous nudity and standard plot turns. To align with the originary notion of surreal, the film should explode the social order, force the viewer somewhere new and perplexing. Whether Fire Walk with Me explodes any staid order, I have yet to know. What I do know is there is something very different about it, which may be enough to count as surreal.

 

August Evans has written in Mexico, Sweden, and Aix-en-Provence, France, where she taught English before returning to the U.S. to complete her Masters of Humanities degree at the University of Chicago. She has taught college English and Humanities in Chicago, and studied fiction writing at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Currently she is an MFA candidate at Indiana University, Bloomington. Her fiction and book reviews may be found in HTMLGiant, Melusine, and Monkeybicycle.

 

 

 




A Hallucination That Is Also a Fact: An Interview with Mary Helena Clark

May 15, 2012 · Print This Article

The world of moving images is fraught with comparisons to magic, to illusions. It is our inheritance and it’s where photographic work gets its heat. Mary Helena Clark’s films work because she understands the perpetual strangeness of seeing “real life” projected on a screen. She understands how to craft a vision of that reality that is highly subjective while still being attuned to the audience’s desires, expectations and baggage. And, in so doing, her works subvert our expectations of the veracity of moving images, while at the same reaffirming the vitality of the well-timed magic trick.

The works feel like they are entirely on her terms. We experience them as we do a well-crafted magic act: the illusions’ realities owe as much to their deception as to the pleasure of being deceived. Built from varied sources—both crafted and borrowed—her films are collages in the best sense. The materials are simultaneously autonomous and inextricably entangled. They are deeply mysterious while bound to reality. And, like so many works of this kind, they give—capably and generously—as much as we’re willing to take.

She has screened widely and in many of the finest contexts the experimental film community offers. Having just completed her MFA at the University of Illinois Chicago, it is fitting that she has a capstone show of her work at Roots and Culture on May 27th. Many of the works will be screening in their native 16mm and though I may not be allowed be to say as much, there may very well be secret works screened interstitially. 

The Plant from Mary Helena Clark on Vimeo.

To begin, I was hoping you could share a bit about where you come from and what brought you to this kind of work. What were you like as an 18 year old? Did you arrive at experimental film through low-budget horror films? Punk shows? Color field comic books? And, relatedly, who were the makers and what was it they made that created that shift in your brain to begin making (or thinking about) experimental film?

I wish I could say something cool but the more honest answer is poetry. I wrote poems and a few plays and set up a darkroom when I was in high school. And then went to film school never having made any films. Robert Todd was my first teacher who showed me experimental film and taught me how to shoot 16mm and use an optical printer. I thought I would eventually make narrative films and that experimental work was a way of mastering images and building a vocabulary but it became my preferred language.

I feel like a lot of your work deals with tromp l’oeil and different types of illusion. While your images are very photographic—that is to say that instead of being computer generated, heavily processed, etc. they bear a tight indexical relationship to their subjects—but they don’t always feel real, whatever that means. Will you describe your relationship to illusion? What types of images appeal to you in the process of creating and gathering them?

I like that magic tricks still work even when you know the moves.

For me, an illusion gives you the best of both worlds. Fantasy and an awareness of its production.

In Sound Over Water, I wanted to shift the interpretation of a single image—a flock of birds— through fluctuating abstraction. By re-photographing and hand processing the images, the “read” changes. It’s ambiguously figurative—schools of fish, crashing waves, light on water—and then ends with the series of photographs acting as document, accentuating the gap between actual and perceptual.

I want to make cinema that is both trance-like and transparent: that operates on dream logic until disrupted by a moment of self-reflexivity, like tripping on an extension cord.

The man at the end of By Foot-Candle Light is completely beguiling. His performance begins somewhere between a portrait and a screen test, but then gets so lovably weird.

 When I first saw this I had a feeling that this was your father and that you had invited him into your studio to chat and play around and once the camera started rolling, he slowly began to goof. There’s a really amazing intimacy in that moment because his eyes are locked on the lens and as his behavior gets stranger, there’s more interaction on the camera’s end. I’m almost reticent to have you blow this mystery by giving the back-story of this performance (and the film more broadly), but I think that too gives an interesting indication into your process.

I had the good fortune of meeting Paul Russell when he came to audition for the role of a hypnotist in another unmade film. I was trying to recreate a story my friend told me about a hypnotist coming to his middle school. He told me that a very shy and very pretty girl was picked from the audience as a volunteer. My friend’s crush on her grew as he watched her fall into a trance and “see” snow for the first time. He described this sublime scene of this girl spot-lit on stage, arms raised, turning in unseen flurries. I thought, “That’d be a nice film!” but by casting call I knew the whole project was too precious. So I filmed the auditions and conflated the making of the movie with the dream you might have had.

By foot-candle light from Mary Helena Clark on Vimeo.

My read on By Foot-Candle Light is that it’s a lot about performance. The startling and (when watched in a proper theater, incredibly effective) opening shot prepares us for an invisible star. The probing lights next take us into a mysterious cave, through a detour of what appears to be a high school dance troupe performance and into a snow-covered birch forest. The white snow gives the illusion that the trees are floating in the air or that the ground has been physically removed from the image. The grain of the trees and the grain of the celluloid undulate and breathe. Then, another illusion: the introduction of footsteps in snow. Through the dream logic of cinema, these cut to your own feet, silent in your studio. There’s applause, the mysterious man appears and, with the shushing of the crowd, his magic eye tricks begin. Does this read resonate? Can you offer some insight into how you think about performance, both in and out of films, and if/how the roving, subjective camera (and attendant lights) performs for the audience?

You got it! This is the film where the periphery becomes the focus. It’s everything that circulates around the main performance, brought up stage in the film. So yes, I wonder if the spotlight has enough pluck to be the lead. It’s sort of like a travelogue trance film à la Maya Deren. I am thinking as much about the audience as I am the performer (or absence of one). How does the texture of the film/video change our situation as viewers? When seen “on the big screen” the opening shot performs another space, other moments of the film are about teleportation. And where do we arrive? In the filmmaker’s studio. I guess that’s my take on the sweaty leap from bed, it’s all just a dream!

And The Sunflowers pairs still images of floral wallpaper with a guided meditation soundtrack, with marvelously subtle textural pulsing in the form of analog video artifacts. As the voices pulls the viewer more deeply into a hypnotic state, another layer larger, realer flowers emerge.

The effect is very hypnagogic, both hallucinatory and subdued. I have a Christopher Wool poster that I’ve played boggle with for hundreds of hours. That wallpaper felt like it’s absorbed a lot of spaced-out eye hours. The pacing in that work is notable because it doesn’t feel excessively durational (or about duration, let’s say), but it does provide the slowness necessary to give us that intimate zoned feeling.

Your work frequently fuses disparate elements, both shot and found. Do you consider them collage films? Do you have an interest in collage as a way to think about your work?

I do. I like how the phrase collage film implies an individuality to the elements of the film even after they’ve been brought together and chopped up and manipulated. They’re still these discrete things with their past lives. I like finding sounds and images that seem perfectly self-expressive, but they’re just found! And then use them with footage or recordings I’ve crafted. There’s comfort in knowing it can all make sense, that my meaning can live on top of the material’s particular history.


You were telling me a bit about your thesis and about the way you’ve adapted Franco Moretti’s notion of clues within detective novels to function as a model for thinking about avant-garde cinema. I know it’s hard to condense however many dozens of pages into a paragraph, but I’m hoping you could talk a bit about this idea and how your research has impacted the way you think about the work you made before reading it (as if, perhaps, these were clues that reveal what your work has become) and the work you’ve been making since.

It’s a wonderful conceit from Moretti’s Signs Taken For Wonders… The clue as the key to the “semantic ambiguities” created by the criminal. That in a detective novel the revelation of a clue creates new meaning to an object or event. (Moretti’s example is the band in the Sherlock Holmes’ story The Speckled Band being deciphered as band, then scarf, then snake). As a filmmaker, I am interested in the slip between signifier and sign and the multiplicity of meanings allowed when a 1:1 relationship is broken. In this noir-ish light, the world is filled with puzzles, confusing the senses, reducing a crowd to color, a dog to a syllable, darkness to infinite space. I think my earlier movies were looking for the hidden and mysterious and my newer films have a sensitivity to what’s in plain sight. Or at least that’s what I hope for. It’s the difference of staring at one’s wallpapered bedroom or taking a walk.

Orpheus (outtakes) is meant to function, at least nominally, as a series of outtakes from Cocteau’s Orpheus. Part of what makes that such an exceptional film is its reliance on relatively simple special effects to convey grand symbolic ideas. Certainly these were relatively sophisticated techniques in 1949, but their power today is imbued with an at least elementary concept on the audience’s part in how they were made. The work and its effect (so to speak) are uncanny because they are still grounded in reality, because their artifice is simultaneously total and naked. When we look at a computer-generated alien, all its variables are controlled by the makers: its relationship to reality essentially lacks context. Your outtakes maintain the film’s knack for the uncanny and magical. The direct rayogram of the chain gives us a feeling of falling or of a large chain falling, always just out of reach. And yet it is simultaneously a chain and we know how it got there.

Yes. Again it’s plainness in illusion that interests me. Méliès made people disappear by turning the camera on and off and I think the simplest tricks are a nice reminder of the ease with which the mysterious can be conjured. André Bazin has that great quote about photography ranking “high in the order of surrealist creativity because it produces an image that is a reality of nature, namely a hallucination that is also a fact.” Nice, right? I think of this quote when watching the chain rayogram in Orpheus (outtakes) that you mentioned. The image made by the object’s own outline on the film creates a flattened, rhythmically pulsating pattern. Sometimes it reads as a chain and at others a braid or a spine, but I am most interested in the vacuous space or the “rabbit hole” the object implies.

I’m with you on the deepening poetry of Cocteau’s special effects. Our awareness of his trick photography empowers them more. In Orpheus mirrors are portals to the underworld. He used tanks of water to make the “glass” a permeable surface. It’s an elegant solution for the visual effect and complicates the metaphor. In my (outtakes) I use the hole punch common on 16mm film leader as a mouth of a tunnel. We see the flash of the punch mark then the circle slowly grows to engulf the frame. It is the first instance in the film where the artifacts (dirt, scratches, lettering) become representational. The film looks to its physical condition to point to the liminal state.

In re-watching Orpheus (outtakes) I realized that I was asking you many of the same questions as the contestants on that 1950s game show from which moments of your audio are taken. They ask (and no one answers): Are you in motion pictures? Are you a comedian? Do you also appear on the stage? Do you go back as far as the silent movies? So, to further literalize this chain: will you address the role humor plays in your work? Why Buster Keaton? Why the game show?

The cartoon references like the tunnel or the blinking eyes in the dark are funny to me but also sad, goofy and lonely. A figure with no voice, no visible body, only eyes looking out where no one can see… I think it’s easy to find some stoner existentialism in these Looney Tunes tropes. Inky black voids. I love that stuff…

Why Buster Keaton? He’s always been my favorite. He’s the master of turning the everyday object into mutable forms. His engagement with the world is totally physical and pure magic.

Why the game show? The first time I heard Buster Keaton talk was on an episode of What’s My Line when he was the mystery guest. He seemed so anachronistic and alien. When I decided to riff on Cocteau’s Orpheus, I thought he should play a part since he moved (precariously) between the worlds of silent and sound cinema. And what makes more sense then a silent film star acting in a film about the underworld where it is very, very dark?

How is a filmmaker like a hypnotist?

In my case, both use the mode of direct address. You are getting sleepy. You are sitting in a darkened room. I’m always thinking about the moment of reception, and pointing to that moment as a way of implicating the audience.




Hercules, History and Diamonds : A Little Bit of Bourgeois

April 6, 2011 · Print This Article

Mr Hirst spent the evening playing snooker, but on being told the sale figures, he pronounced: “I think the market is bigger than anyone knows. I love art and this proves I’m not alone. And the future looks great for everyone.” (Economist, 2008).

1. FOR THE LOVE OF GOD

We arrived in Florence last February and stayed for about five days. It was cold and damp in the mid-50 degrees, reminding me of San Francisco. A friend we were visiting said the city was built on a swamp and we climbed up a hill to a Franciscan chapel where the original alabaster windows were still in place. Through the translucent stone, the light shone dark and brown and because it was colder inside than out, we didn’t stay long but climbed back down the hill to wander through the city once more. During those five days I felt a little like a pinball bouncing around a Renaissance amusement park. A classy Medieval Times with boar instead of mutton. Regardless of our haphazard path we inevitably ran into something famous: Dante’s church, for instance, or a squatting boar fountain—even those churches that hadn’t made it on the map still contained gravestones embedded in their walls or floor—some of these dating as far back as the first or second century. History was everywhere and it was bigger than us.

On the third day a bus passed with an advertisement for Damien Hirst’s bedazzled reminder of death. I burst out laughing.

The last thing I  expected to see was Hirst’s glimmering, gaudy skull in a city that seems in constant worship of its past.  Nevertheless, the city seemed to love it. There were banners and posters all over the place. Everywhere it said, “For the Love of God,” and why not?

The skull was on view in the Palazzo Vecchio—an old city hall, adjacent to a square full of fountains and sculptures and ice cream shops. Walking past the David replica, we bought tickets and wandered upstairs to the second floor. There, we entered a giant ballroom. The dimensions of the room itself were astounding—170×75 ft—not to mention the similarly massive tapestries on the walls, or the several larger-than-life sculptures that lined the room. While the tapestries themselves are phenomenal, they are nevertheless replacements for work never made by Michelangelo and Leonardo DaVinci; both had been commissioned to make work for the room and both, for various reasons (Da Vinci’s fresco allegedly melted when he tried to heat up the drying process with hot coals) were unfinished. In their stead, Giorgio Vasari’s war paintings hang with astonishing authority, depicting a series of Florentine victories in battle. They are massive, complete with impeccable detail. Horses so plump they are cherubic, with lords in armor on their backs, holding spears as shorter personalities–midgets and boys–hustle at their feet replenishing arrows and running swords or torches every which way. In these tapestries everything is in focus, each curious figure serving its own distinct purpose that nevertheless reinforces a greater compositional whole. There is no focal point, rather the harmony stems from the a series of active constellations.

But of course, the room boasts even more cultural capital. The ceiling is indescribable. It’s full of different panels of paintings and due to their detail it feels a little closer than it actually is. Additionally, larger-than life sculptures pepper the room.

Among those sculptures, six statues by Vincenzo de’Rossi depict the Labors of Hercules. As the story goes, Hercules was enraged (by Hera) to kill all of his children. After waking from his madness and discovering what he’d done, he went to the Oracle of Delphi to seek atonement. There he was set to 12 impossible tasks. These he accomplished. He is also attributed with making the world a safer place, in that he killed all of its monsters.

All of these works and figures depicted in the ball room were larger than life for the feats they captured, the size of their depiction and their (to me extreme) historical vantage.

Two ticket attendants stood in the far corner of this room. They clacked our tickets and pulled back a velvet rope so we could step behind them and passing through a very narrow, subsequent room I had the impression  we were walking through an old fashioned toilet, or cloak room. Built-in benches lined the walls. Each surface of this wooden vestibule was also painted and close, so that I could have reached up to touch the ceiling with my hands. After no more than four strides, someone pulled back a velvet curtain. I could not make out this person’s face, only their white gloves. Beyond the curtain lay another small, light fast room no more than 8ft squared. In the center of this room Damien Hirst’s skull sat on a plinth encased in glass. Aside from the very small flashlight of the skull’s attendant, the diamonds were the only thing illuminated in (and illuminating) the small cloak-and-daggers space. We were permitted to walk once around the glittering mask—enough that I could enjoy the diamonds in the roof of the skull’s mouth, the curious third eye and the gritty unglittered teeth—before the same faceless attendant pulled back a second curtain and emphatically (as seen with the rigorous flash light motion) ejected us back into the grand ballroom.

2. Hercules

A few weeks ago I found myself at the Lyric Opera House, on the third floor balcony watching Hercules; it was a pretty psychedelic experience. Tiny figures with massive voices paraded around a massive stage. Whereas in Italy I’d been small with respect to the work, here I could cover anyone’s head with my thumb.

The opera is not personal, it’s archetypal. The characters don’t have personalities so much as they have roles and musical motifs to enact. Except for their voices, they might as well be cardboard cut-outs. In this instance Hercules has returned from war. Peter Sellars took Handel’s four-hour opera and reduced it to 2 with one intermission. The libretto is full of repetitive phrases and the performers trilled through those like song birds. The set did not change shape; most of the stage contained a landscape of rock that no one walked upon with pillars and a pathway around it. Depending on the emotional tempo of the performers, the rocks gleamed in different colors. Sellars’ interpretation pulls out a story of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder; the repeating phrases underscore that intent, as each character is constantly reliving their experience. Hercules has returned from battle with the spoils of war–including a young woman who just watched him kill her father. Hercules may or may not be interested in her and his wife, Dejanira, cannot connect with her husband; she remains perplexed and frustrated that, after so much waiting, she would remain alienated in her husband’s presence. She is jealous of the young woman he brought back. They argue. She tries to win him back by dosing his coat with the blood of a centaur. The centaur told Dejanira that his blood was an aphrodisiac where it turns out to be an acidic poison. When Hercules puts the coat on, he burns alive.

While I don’t think about Hercules often, I think even less about his death. It seems that his death is the greatest problem, in a way. No one knew what to do with him once he had been admitted in Olympus. There is an awkward encounter between Hercules and Odysseus, for instance, when Odyseuss has to differentiate between Hercules the God and Hercules’ ghost.

“And next I caught a glimpse of powerful Heracles—
His ghost I mean: the man himself delights
in the grand feasts of the deathless gods on high…
Around him cries of the dead rang out like cries of birds
scattering left and right in horror as on he came like night…”

Somehow these thoughts coalesced then. I started thinking about how one must be large when facing the death of heroes; how the import of these legacies is both essential and arbitrary. Hercules is part of a scaffold that makes meaning. Florence is an early pillar in that scaffold; its Renaissance established a criteria that is still resonating today–whether under Sellars’ directorial agenda (during which one can experience over and over and over again the death of Hercules), or in Hirsts’ work, where, it seems, the hero is dead and the market remains.

“The speech of an elder in the twilight of his life is not his history but his legacy; he speaks not to describe matter but to demonstrate meaning. He talks of his past for purposes of his future. This purpose is the prejudice of his memory. He remembers that which has been according to what could and should be, and by this measure sifts the accumulation of his memory: he rejects the irrelevant event, elaborates the significant detail, combines separate incidents of similar principle. Out of physical processes he creates a metaphysical processional. He transposes the chronology of his knowledge into a hierarchy of meanings. From the material circumstances of his experience he plots the adventure for the mind which is the myth,” (Divine Horsemen, Maya Deren).

3. History

The diamond: something that has been marketed to represent eternity, who’s value is based almost exclusively on market control. Until 1870, diamonds were rarely found in South American riverbeds. Thereafter they discovered huge diamond mines in South America. In order to protect the value of the diamond, these jewel harvesters had to band together to “perpetuate the illusion of scarcity” (Atlantic Magazine, Edward Jay Epstein,February 1982). This is where the value of Hirst’s skull comes from, which is interesting given his consistently unconventional use of auction houses as primary exhibit halls.

The focus of Hirst remains fast on the potentials of an immediate future. He has utilized the auction house as a kind of performance filled with its own intrigue. In one article, there was a mysterious Russian who participated by phone. Everyone is complicit in the staging of this wealth. “Sotheby’s was keen to build its own brand around a celebrity artist rather than the usual assortment of inanimate objects. The sale was marketed on YouTube and through the media around the world, part of a conscious effort to broaden international demand for the work. Sotheby’s filled its exhibition rooms with Hirsts. Never had so much of his art been seen in one place. Many art-world insiders saw the sale as an artistic event,” (Economist, 2010). And of course, like diamonds, the value of the work lies in the demand.

In some way, I want to posit the idea the emphasis is on the market because, contextualized by such predecessors, it is impossible to participate on their terms. If Hercules can die, what is there? I have heard that Hirst has a storeroom of corpses with which he can replace deteriorating sculptures. I have also heard, in response to the suffering market, he has considered opening his own museum, to house his own work. Those are unfounded rumors, but I like them. In the context of that great hall, Hirst’s skull struck me like a peep show at a carnival; it was gaudy and feeble and small. Titillating because of its impeccable surface of expense. A trashy sex kitten with black teeth: perhaps the perfect face for death. Yet here too, we’ve seen the market is not “bigger than anyone knows.” If anything the last couple of years have demonstrated real limits to capital.