A 150 page, 2003 artbook by Tsutomu Nihei, author of Blame!, Noise, Abara, Biomega and Lords of Sidonia.
In the opening sequence of Věra Chytilová’s Sedmikrásky (Daisies), released in Czechoslovakia in 1966, two teenage girls, known only as Marie I and Marie II, played by Jitka Cerhová and Ivana Karbanová, have become puppets. As they embrace, exercise, blow trumpets and converse in affectless, mechanical voices, their limbs creak on the soundtrack like the wooden joints of marionettes. This merging of human and puppet characteristics is the prelude to an anarchic revolt, in anticipation of the Prague Spring, perhaps, as the two eat continually, dismember one-another, destroy social niceties, and dance, moving through a discontinuous landscape of factories, banqueting halls and nightclubs, determined to be ‘bad’, to live free of the invisible strings, economic, moral and social, that would control them.
The revolt of puppets against the unseen hands of their puppeteers, their transition from inert material to independent life, has long been understood as a political and existential metaphor, not least in contexts where censorship of direct political realism has necessitated a very particular kind of invention in the making of subversive statements. Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Che cosa sono le nuvole? (What are the clouds?), made for Italian television in 1967, presents its human actors as archetypal marionettes, each destined to play only one role: that of their particular character in Shakespeare’s Othello. Othello’s naïve innocence and Iago’s corrupt scheming make the story’s outcome inevitable only because the puppets fail to question their roles until they’re consigned to a literal rubbish heap, where they finally look up and see clouds where the puppet master they’d never dared notice had always been.
Pasolini’s film, though not Chytilová’s, forms a key part of Eastside Projects’ Puppet Show, an exhibition curated by Tom Bloor and Céline Condorelli that at first glance seems entirely whimsical in its intentions. The space is presented as a kind of playground, a toy-strewn nursery with painted walls, secret passages and wooden toy theatres framing video screens and the information desk. Simon Popper’s elongated minimalist clusters of giraffe-patterned poles and bright pink elephants welded from buckets and trays certainly contribute to the nursery vibe, looking a bit like distorted samples from an IKEA children’s’ collection, while Pedro Reyes’ shelf of wooden bobbin and spindle forms, Solids of Rotation (2009), might resemble Bauhaus abstract sculptures or dolls, but neither entirely fits the definition of a puppet.
In fact, within the Puppet Show, the idea of what a puppet is seems to have been kept fairly loose, so while there’s a well established spectrum in puppetry itself, running from classic marionettes and glove puppets to automata, stop-motion animation and ventriloquists’ dummies, Condorelli and Bloor go somewhat further, with Popper’s toy-like sculptures and Spartacus Chetwynd’s elaborately costumed 2004 performance Born Free: The Death of a Conservationist stretching the remit into territory which might be more plausibly considered anthropomorphic sculpture or a more straightforward kind of masked carnivalesque theatre.
Not that this matters much, as far as the exhibition’s coherence goes, since the central positioning of Jiří Trnka’s final film, Ruka (The Hand), suggests the political and allegorical possibilities of the puppet remain live concerns. Ruka was released in Czechoslovakia in 1965, presenting an original folktale in which an artist, represented by an uncannily expressive puppet, is pursued by a implacable hand that demands its own portrait, over and over again, until the artist’s resistance ends in an ambiguous suicide and a tableaux of solemn tribute as the small wooden body is nailed inside a white wardrobe and lit with candles, like an altarpiece. This final scene is, inevitably, arranged by the hand, which has shaped the action in every sense, as a destructive protagonist in the story and the manipulator of the objects used to tell it.
As a thinly veiled parable of political control, made at the end of Trnka’s thirty year career, Ruka is generally interpreted in terms specific to the position of artists under Communist regimes. But that, in itself, might be seen as another instance of the puppet-masters’ hands tweaking our strings, directing our attention away from the mechanisms that might be controlling us, as Pasolini’s film makes clear: when Pasolini’s child-like Othello hears Iago’s plotting from backstage and confronts him at the end of the scene he accosts his enemy with a kind of bewilderment: “I disgust myself and I know I am not innocent”, he says. “I also know you are my friend, a good man. Why are we acting like this?” Iago shrugs, as if to acknowledge that it’s how things are. We’re not in control.
Perhaps it’s significant now, in a way it might not have been in the mid-1960s, when the films were made, that the central justifying metaphor of the neoliberal free market is ‘the invisible hand’, the Enlightenment economist Adam Smith’s coinage for one of the many forces creating disjunctions between the intended and actual consequences of human and social actions in complex systems of the kind his classic study, The Wealth of Nations (1776), explored. Raised to a fetish by the advocates of deregulation and privatisation in the 1970s and 1980s, Smith’s concept of an ‘invisible hand’ at work in an economy, directing money to the deserving while securing the most efficient and beneficial ends for all, has become the free market’s founding catechism and a notion that puppetry fits like the proverbial glove.
If the allegorical point made by Jiří Trnka’s Ruka was largely directed at Stalinist control of cultural production in his own time and place, then, its contemporary resonance may be quite different, since the hand’s controlling powers – most forceful when the hand is that of the puppeteer, concealed from view as it invariably is – ensure that the forces acting on us in our everyday lives pass unnoticed, as somehow ‘natural’. If the Communist state’s censorship, the censorship that artists like Trnka had to navigate, was defeated by the market reforms of 1989, as our present myths have it, it’s also fairly clear that the censor’s functions were not themselves discarded but found themselves outsourced and privatised, along with everything else. What was once politically unacceptable is now financially unviable.
The failure to observe or understand the forces that shape us reduces us to the condition of puppets ourselves, a position of superstition and fear as to what purpose the ‘invisible hand’ might have for us. Those who would claim to comprehend these forces on our behalf, to defend us from their worst effects, are, by definition, the powerful: those who ‘lead’, as Jan Švankmajer suggested in 1997, ‘the Great Manipulators’. When Adam Smith first deployed his now notorious image of the ‘invisible hand’ in The History of Astronomy, a work dating from the late 1750s, it was, strangely enough, in precisely this context, a point that flags up a warning about its decontextualisation when quoted from later texts. In the 1750s, Smith noted that, in an age before rational enquiry, “fire burns and water refreshes; heavy bodies descend and lighter substances fly upwards by the necessity of their own nature; nor is the invisible hand of Jupiter ever apprehended to be employed in those matters.” The ‘invisible hand’ is here that of the Gods who must be appeased, regardless of the social and natural forces at work; the Gods whose influences must necessarily disappear once Enlightenment and Reason hold sway and we finally shape our own destinies through the pursuit of new knowledge.
Like Michael Redgrave’s ventriloquist driven to murder by his unsettlingly animate but still-wooden dummy in Alberto Cavalcanti’s segment of the portmanteau British horror film Dead of Night (1945), the uncanny and disturbing qualities of puppets, both in action and as objects, lie in this ability to mirror our own fears that this might be our general predicament: that someone might be pulling our strings (ps see notes on Ligotti and Metzinger). Even when invested with the illusion of consciousness, puppets can only stage their revolts for as long as they are manipulated, while remaining subject to the actions of ‘invisible hands’. Perhaps pupaphobia, the fear of puppets, has its root in an unconscious sense that we are not in control, either; that our voices and actions are not our own.
It’s a point obliquely made in Dan and Rodney Graham’s Don’t Trust Anyone Over Thirty (2004), a ‘rock opera puppet show’ (and loose adaptation of the 1968 exploitation film Wild in the Streets) made in collaboration with Tony Oursler, Phillip Huber and the avant-rock duo, Japanther. A mixed media staging, presented at Eastside Projects on digital film, it’s the story of an idealistic revolutionary youth movement at the tail end of the sixties and its transfiguration into a comically groovy new form of fascism, a liberation far worse than the system it set out to oppose. Partly a restatement of the old maxim ‘power corrupts’, partly a parable about the symptoms and causes of oppression, the tiny marionettes in Don’t Trust Anyone Over Thirty act out their doomed revolutionary pantomime under the control of puppeteers whose polished shoes and trouser-legs are always visible behind the networks of pulled strings directing the narrative, like the lower floors of corporate tower-blocks in a financial district.
In this light, it’s arguable that the revolts staged by Věra Chytilová’s anti-heroines in Sedmikrásky and the artist’s principled refusal to serve the oppressive hand in Jiří Trnka’s Ruka, are both ultimately futile – indeed, in Chytilová’s film, the very pointlessness and arbitrary nature of the two womens’ orgy of destruction is, if anything, the source of its fleeting potency. But at least such acts have offered examples of puppets refusing to act out the scripts written for them, achieving not a free consciousness, exactly, but a temporary liberation from the forces directing their actions. And perhaps there’s no escape: in Jan Švankmajer’s Byt (The Flat), made in 1968, the human protagonist, trying to follow his conformist daily routine, is tormented and controlled by the inanimate objects in his small apartment, as though rendered a puppet merely by the forces at work in the world he inhabits.
In 1965, when Věra Chytilová was completing Sedmikrásky and Jiří Trnka was in his Prague studio making Ruka, Jan Švankmajer was already working on Rakvičkárna (Punch and Judy, or The Coffin Factory), a short puppet film released in 1966 that portrayed the characters from England’s adopted commedia del’arte folk theatre in another guise, as the solemn duellists of a Punch and Judy show without kazoos and crocodiles, strings of sausages and policemen, just a willed and murderous intent at the hands of the puppeteer, whose hands are revealed at the beginning and end of the story. In both Alice (1987) and Faust (1994), Švankmajer’s protagonists oscillate between inexpressive humanity and doll or puppet states, their characters and motivations unchanged by the arbitrary transformations.
It’s obvious in examples like these – sadly not part of the Eastside exhibition but useful in casting light on its contents – that puppets absorb and bleed into the characters who make, operate and become them, much as photographs were once thought to affect their subjects’ spirits. When Heather and Ivan Morison stage Empire of Dirt (2012), the puppeteer Owen Davies gives a convincing impression of a man possessed by the Black Troll and The Girl, whose baked mud figures hang, for this Puppet Show’s duration, from the sides of Davies’ high, burned chair, which in turn overlooks empty benches and a crowd of inert, raggedly hand-made puppets, from other Morison puppet-plays like Pleasure Island (2008), Anna (2011) and Mr Clevver (2013). All have toured, but here find their characters displayed as objects.
The aesthetic of the Morison puppets is clearly borrowed from the glove puppets made from household scraps and salvaged junk by the artist Paul Klee between 1916 and 1925, ranging from fantastical figures like Death, an Electrical Spook (with a plug-socket head), a Matchbox Spectre, a Poet, a Monk, a Devil and a Scarecrow’s Ghost to – perhaps most intriguing of all – a Self Portrait. These undeniably Klee-esque objects have a presence that, for all their whimsical invention and makeshift construction retains a quality of potential life, possible consciousness, and this characteristic haunts the Morison puppets, too, as though, like Pasolini’s Othello marionettes in Che cosa sono le nuvole?, or Edwina Ashton’s gathering of figures to represent A Short History of the Midlands (2013), they might all be awaiting their chance to revolt, to break free of the alternation between scripted animation and silent waiting we tend to impose on them.
This sense of inanimate objects with inner lives may be the defining quality of all puppets, and there’s always a possibility that they might turn the tables on those who control them. The first exhibit encountered in the Eastside space, and the last seen on leaving, is Geoffrey Farmer’s You Know Nothing, The Owl Knows Everything (2007), a small archaeological museum of sharpened broomsticks and abject but once-precious things – a tiny wooden cross, a splintered twig, a note instructing its reader to kill whoever suggested some small disobedience – all presided over by a mutely inscrutable owl. Roughly made, barely even an owl or a puppet at all, the lumpen form, like some untypically sinister intruder from the world of Oliver Postgate, invests its surroundings with an air of ownership. We enter its domain to look at the relics of its time as a ruler and feel the implicit threat of the owl’s reanimation, the owl’s return to power. Defeated rulers, like their subjects, can also break free of their constraints and limitations, as the wealthy broke the chains placed on them by the 1945 settlement in 1979, the ‘invisible hand’ their justification. Farmer’s owl warns us that the puppeteers might be puppets, too.
(my blue markings)
Michael Moorcock, 1966: Reader interest in J. G. Ballard’s recent work has been high. We invited Mr. Ballard to produce these notes explaining some of his current ideas. They take the form of a dialogue with himself — the answers explaining the unstated questions.
Notes From Nowhere
Comments On Work In Progress
By J. G. Ballard
New Worlds, October, 1966
1. Science fiction, above all a prospective form of fiction, concerned with the immediate present in terms of the future rather than the past, requires narrative techniques that reflect its subject matter. To date almost all its writers, including myself, fall to the ground because they fail to realise that the principal narrative technique of retrospective fiction, the sequential and consequential narrative, based as it is on an already established set of events and relationships, is wholly unsuited to create the images of a future that has as yet made no concessions to us. In The Drowned World, The Drought and The Crystal World I tried to construct linear systems that made no use of the sequential elements of time — basically, a handful of ontological “myths”. However, in spite of my efforts, the landscapes of these novels more and more began to quantify themselves. Images and events became isolated, defining their own boundaries. Crocodiles enthroned themselves in the armour of their own tissues.
2. In The Terminal Beach the elements of sequential narrative had been almost completely eliminated. it occurred to me that one could carry this to its logical conclusion, and a recent group of stories — You and Me and the Continuum, The Assassination Weapon, You: Coma: Marilyn Monroe and The Atrocity Exhibition — show some of the results. Apart from anything else, this new narrative technique seems to show a tremendous gain in the density of ideas and images. In fact, I regard each of them as a complete novel.
3. Who else is trying? Here and there, one or two. More power to their elbows. But for all the talk, most of the established writers seem stuck in a rut.
4. Few of them bad much of a chance, anyway: not enough wild genes…
5. Of those I have read, Platt’s Lone Zone (in particular, the first three or four paragraphs, briiliant writing) and Colvin’s The Pleasure Garden … and The Ruins are wholly original attempts, successful I feel, to enlarge the scope and subject matter of science fiction.
6. Defend Dali.
7. In fact, the revival of interest in surrealism –after the recent flurry over Dada, there is now a full-scale retrospective of Duchamp at the Tate Gallery — bodes well for science fiction, turning its writers away frorn so-called realism to a more open and imaginative manner. One hopes that its real aims will be followed. One trouble with Dali is that no one has ever really looked at his paintings. “Goddess leaning on her elbow,” for example, or “Young Virgin auto-sodomised by her own chastity,” seem to me to be among the most important paintings of the 20th century.
8. The social novel is dead. Like all retrospective fiction, it is obsessed with the past, with the roots’ of behaviour and background, with sins of omission and commission long-past, with all the distant antecedents of the present. Most people, thank God, have declared a moratorium on the past, and are more concerned with the present and future, with all the possibilities of their lives. To begin with: the possibilities of musculature and posture, the time and space of our immediate physical environments.
9. Fiction is a branch of neurology.
10. Planes intersect: on one level, the world of public events, Cape Kennedy and Viet Nam mimetised on billboards. On another level, the immediate personal environment, the volumes of space enclosed by my opposed hands, the geometry of my own postures, the time-values contained in this room, the motion-space of highways, staircases, the angles between these walls. On a third level, the inner world of the psyche. Where these planes intersect, images are born. With these co-ordinates, some kind of valid reality begins to clarify itself.
12. Some of these ideas can be seen in my four recent “novels”. The linear elements have been eliminated, the reality of the narrative is relativistic. Therefore place on the events only the perspective of a given instant, a given set of images and relationships.
13. Dali: “After Freud’s explorations within the psyche it is now the outer world of reality which will have to be quantified and eroticised.” Query: at what point does the plane of intersection of two cones become sexually more stimulating than Elizabeth Taylor’s cleavage?
14. Neurology is a branch of fiction: the scenarios of nerve and blood-vessel are the written mythologies of brain and body. Does the angle between two walls have a happy ending?
15. Query: does the plane of intersection of the body of this woman in my room with the cleavage of Elizabeth Taylor generate a valid image of the glazed eyes of Chiang Kai Shek, an invasion plan of the offshore islands?
16. Of course these four published “novels”, and those that I am working on now, contain a number of other ideas. However, one can distinguish between the manifest content, ie., the attempt to produce a new “mythology” out of the intersecting identities of J. F. Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe, smashed automobiles and dead apartments, and the latent content, the shift in geometric formula from one chapter to the next. Each section is a symbol in some kind of spinal mathematics. In fact I believe that one may be able one day to represent a novel or short story, with all its images and relationships, simply as a three-dimensional geometric model. In The Atrocity Exhibition one of the characters remarks of a set of Enneper’s models “. . . operating formulae, for a doomsday weapon.” Cubism, for example, had a greater destructive power than all the explosives discharged during World War I — and killed no one.
17. The analytic function of this new fiction should not be overlooked. Most fiction is synthetic in method — as Freud remarked, rightly I feel, a sure sign of immaturity.
18. Au revoir, jewelled alligators and white hotels, hallucinatory forests, farewell.
19. For the moment it’s difficult to tell where this thing will go. One problem that worries me is that a short story, or even, ultimately, a novel, may become nothing more than a three-dimensional geometric model. Nevertheless, it seems to me that so much of what is going on, on both sides of the retina, makes nonsense unless viewed in these terms. A huge portion of our lives is ignored, merely because it plays no direct part in conscious experience.
20. No one in science fiction has ever written about outer space. You and Me and the Continuum: “What is space?” the lecturer concluded, “what does it mean to our sense of time and the images we carry of our finite lives … ?” At present I am working on a story about a disaster in space which, however badly, makes a first attempt to describe what space means. So far, science fiction’s idea of outer space has resembled a fish’s image of life on land as a goldfish bowl.
21. The surrealist painter, Matta: “Why must we await, and fear, a disaster in space in order to understand our own times?”
22. In my own story a disaster in space is translated into the terms of our own inner and outer environments. It may be that certain interesting ideas will emerge.
23. So far, science fiction has demonstrated conclusively that it has no idea of what space means, and is completely unequipped to describe what will no doubt be the greatest transformation of the life of this planet — the exploration of outer space.
24. Meanwhile: the prospect of a journey to Spain, a return to the drained basin of the Rio Seco. At the mouth a delta of shingle forms an ocean bar, pools of warm water filled with sea-urchins. Then the great deck of the drained river running inland, crossed by the white span of a modern motor bridge. Beyond this, secret basins of cracked mud the size of ballrooms, models of a state of mind, a curvilinear labyrinth. The limitless neural geometry of the landscape. The apartment houses on the beach are the operating formulae for our passage through consciousness. To the north a shoulder of Pre-Cambrian rock rises from the sea after its crossing from Africa. The juke-boxes play in the bars of Benidorm. The molten sea swallows the shadow of the Guardia Civil helicopter.
Ridley Scott’s 1979 Alien was the most ingenious fright show of its era and the source of spinoffs upon spinoffs. Although his new film Prometheus is something of a prequel to Alien, the elements of body-invading and body-devouring horror thatAlien orchestrated with such precision are here made to figure in a narrative of more grandiose ambitions, extending as far as the source and ultimate purpose of human life. That is not meant as a criticism. Grandiosity is as essential to this genre as to a verse drama by Victor Hugo or an opera by Meyerbeer. Just as essential is the herding together of stock elements from previous ventures, as if one could not go beyond one’s predecessors without literally incorporating their materials.
But what is this genre? Call it the speculative science fiction epic willing to flirt with cosmic pessimism; the eternally recurring saga of the space voyage toward our point of origin or ultimate destiny (they generally turn out to be pretty much identical); the drama of metamorphosis in which animals become human and humans become machines; the proleptic chronicle of a future depicted as so endangered it may not even come to pass, and so unappealing we might well wish it wouldn’t. This in its various cinematic permutations constitutes our theater of dread, cunningly disguised as a game; our stab at a commercially viable form of Wagnerian sublimity: The Twilight of the Humans, an existential cosmic opera-in-progress sketched out in the 1950s in Forbidden Planet and the BBC television serialQuatermass and the Pit, ennobled by Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Tarkovsky’s Solaris, and continually reconfigured ever since. Every attempt to exhaust the form simply engenders more offshoots, much like the alien life-forms that proliferate in the black corridors of Prometheus.
There is of course a written literature that predates and underlies all these movies, which could hardly have found their form without the help of H.P. Lovecraft and Arthur C. Clarke and Philip K. Dick (not to mention the foundational assistance of H.G. Wells and Olaf Stapledon). There is even an epic poem, Harry Martinson’s Aniara, an absurdist vision of life aboard a rocket ship permanently lost in space, that in 1958 was turned into a twelve-tone opera by Karl-Birger Blomdahl. But it is in the form of movies that this mythology becomes part of the furniture of our world, to which we turn as one might to a prayer rug or a Ouija board, in an effort to make contact with the unknowable.
It’s where the Romantic Sublime went to die, as Scott establishes with the series of exquisitely abstracted fragments of Icelandic landscape that start the proceedings. Into those cascading northern waters—what better archetype, or stereotype, of purity could be found than that?—a bleached and gigantic outer space visitor (his saucer hovers in the air above the fjord) will presently set loose primal strands of alien DNA, by the Osiris-like method of exploding his body into a thousand fragments. Sure enough, in the next scene, on the Isle of Skye, we find ourselves in the company of a pair of late-twenty-first-century archaeologists as they uncover ancient wall-paintings that unmistakably gesture toward a distant point in space. The coupling of extraterrestrial visits and archaic civilizations, dear to pseudoscience, gives birth to the film proper: a journey, via spaceship Prometheus, to a far planet in search of the race of “engineers” who may have created us.
Ever since Lovecraft, archaeology has been an indispensable point of entry to the remotest reaches of the universe, and the space voyagers of Prometheus will travel to those reaches only to find echoes of earthly mythology, whether horrendous serpents recalling the fate of Laocoön or titanic forebears proportioned on the order of Gilgamesh. Ridley Scott, who at his worst can seem merely a superb illustrator, at his best (as he is in much of Prometheus) can really do the romantic sublime. He continually suggests more than the movie’s plot and dialogue can quite live up to, and when he wants he can deliver a boreal blast of the “magnificent desolation” that Buzz Aldrin caught sight of when landing on the Moon.
Once on shipboard everything falls into generic line, with passengers woken from cryogenic sleep by an all-monitoring android, hints of malevolent corporate control—the space journey has been funded by an elderly billionaire CEO (Guy Pearce in mummifying makeup), with Charlize Theron doing a near-parodic turn as the definitively icy mission director—and the gradual revelation of the mission’s true purpose. The ship is of course a showcase of technological miracles, from the monitors that enable the android David (a movie-stealing Michael Fassbender) to watch the sleepers’ dreams as a collage of pixilated superimpositions to the 3D holograms that provide a responsive map of the unknown planet on which the voyagers have landed.
This time around we get to watch the 3D holograms in 3D, bringing us close to a participatory experience. Futuristic movies have always been high-tech showcases—everything must at least strive to look newer than the last time—and now more than ever their true subject seems the materials with which they are made. Questions about the nature of the human are posed by means that put that nature into question. We approach the moment of movies about androids that are made if not by androids then at least with their indispensable assistance. (Of course, even in 2096, when humans can manufacture androids capable of instantly deciphering extraterrestrial inscriptions and can administer advanced surgery to themselves in five minutes or so, they still rely on the same old inadequate flashlights to explore dark winding caves.)
The android steals the show because he is a good deal more lifelike than the ostensible humans. Always ready to provide the dry wit for which androids are known and repeatedly watching Lawrence of Arabia in order to model himself on Peter O’Toole, David is there to represent a future that is of a piece with the technology with which the film is made. That his personality is constructed out of bits from an old movie certainly doesn’t differentiate him in principle from the other characters, who are serviceable types decked out with necessary plot points. The ship’s captain (Idris Elba) plays a concertina and reminisces about old rock records to show that he’s possessed of authentic human warmth; the female archaeologist (Noomi Rapace) wears a cross around her neck in order to bring the “question” of religion into the picture without actually having to discuss it—and perhaps also to prepare us for the bloody near-martyrdom she will undergo in the film’s horrific centerpiece.
The elements that dominate in the film’s first hour—the displays of technological wonders, the comparative charts of ancient astronomical imagery, the android with his limitless powers of analysis and extrapolation, and the inevitably truncated conversations about religion and Darwinism—are meant to suggest an atmosphere of intellectual voyaging, as if we were here to find the solution to a puzzle. From the halfway point on, we tip rapidly into grand guignol country, with an accelerating number of variations on the human body made monstrous by contact (external or internal) with alien life, the inevitable result of messing around in old tombs. Pseudoscientific speculation and pulp images of corporeal horror just naturally go together, and when set side by side they split the difference between “there must be something beyond all this” and “let me out of here.”
We were never really in the realm of working out logical solutions to difficult problems; what Scott and his writers are up to is throwing as many juicily irrational ingredients into the same cauldron to see what happens when they start to interact, which turns out to be the same thing that happened before: the body invaded, transmuted, tortured, split open, devoured. There are in fact a few belated lines of explanatory dialogue that suggest a reason of sorts for all the unpleasant happenings, casting Prometheus somewhat in the light of a protest against military technology. But they feel like afterthoughts, tossed away in the midst of the much more pressing concern of dealing with all that lethal proliferating alien life.
A movie like Prometheus—and that is the extraordinary power of its genre—serves as an outlet for irrational connections. It’s a form of divination, of finding what you were not necessarily looking for. The visual plotting of DNA strands and the decipherment of lost languages connects suddenly and overwhelmingly with the old motif of the Evil Pregnancy and we are back in the world of Rosemary’s Baby or The Omen. It is only momentarily surprising to find the issues of abortion politics in the middle of a cosmological quest. This is a film that dares, however implicitly, to raise the question: Is a Christian believer justified in aborting, or more precisely killing immediately after delivery, the predatory spawn of an alien race with which she was unwittingly impregnated?
By the time that question comes along we are far from the pleasures of selfless speculation. But the film’s other major set piece provides something like a visualization of such pleasures. The android David, from his deepening understanding of the lost race of engineers, discovers how to set in motion a three-dimensional star map that he can watch sitting on a dark throne: a dematerialized mental theater in the mode of what might be called digital baroque, a futuristic period piece conjuring up images of astrolabes and alembics and encircling orbs out of the old Faustian laboratory and making them new. They are so new as to barely exist yet, a promise at the glistening edge of a future about to arrive but not quite here. Then the illusion shuts off and we are alone again in an ancient mausoleum.
At least a few moments of such pure enjoyment were necessary to alleviate the otherwise crushing cumulative horror that is finally the ground note of Prometheus: the horror of time, of the future, of the past, of the infinite spaces within which nothing exists but what is to be feared. The likable presence of Idris Elba and his concertina is about all that anchors Prometheus to any recollection of the pleasures of earthly life, especially since the only trace of sexual tenderness in the film leads directly to embryonic horror remedied by an automated C-section. What is at issue, it seems, is not the horror of alien life but of life in any form; not the existence of monsters but the monstrousness of existing. The dread that rises to the surface here hints at a culture variously afraid of sex, afraid of Darwin, afraid of DNA, afraid of aliens—afraid no matter which way it looks, forward or backward—and finding its way at last, as a last resort, to a planet of death. After that, the only destination left is The Great Unknown: or more precisely (and perhaps we have this to look forward to as a sequel) the home planet of the Manichaean demiurges who engineered us randomly and then just as randomly set out to eradicate us.
This film explores the question of preparing the site so that it is not disturbed for 100,000 years, even though no structure in human history has stayed standing for such a long period.
“Every day, the world over, large amounts of high-level radioactive waste created by nuclear power plants are placed in interim storage, which is vulnerable to natural disasters, man-made disasters, and societal changes. In Finland, the world’s first permanent repository is being hewn out of solid rock – a huge system of underground tunnels – that must last the entire period the waste remains hazardous: 100,000 years.”
Once the repository waste has been deposited and is full, the facility is to be sealed off and never opened again. Or so we hope, but can we ensure that? And how is it possible to warn our descendants of the deadly waste we left behind? How do we prevent them from thinking they have found the Giza pyramids of our time, mystical burial grounds, hidden treasures? Which languages and signs will they understand? And if they understand, will they respect our instructions?
Experts above ground strive to find solutions to this crucially important radioactive waste issue to secure mankind and all species on planet Earth now and in the near and very distant future.”
Kunsthaus Grenchen, 19. Oktober 2014 – 25. Januar 2015
This exhibition in Grenchen, Switzerland curated by Eva Inversini gathers printed matter the artist produced over the last 50 years. Rolf Winnewisser is one of the most exciting Swiss artists of an older generation. He was born in 1949 in Niedergösgen, canton Solothurn and grew up in Lucerne where he got a degree in then manual graphic design back in 1971. In the following years he lived in different places such as Lucerne, Zurich, Banjul (Gambia), New York, Schongau, Rom, London, Paris and is now based in Ennetbaden near Aarau. After an initial exposure at Documenta V in Kassell (where he was invited by Harald Szeeman and Jean-Christophe Ammann), Winnewisser followed and artist path far from the art market. I assume many of his residencies abroad were connected to state grants or teaching assignments. The mindset of an itinerant type must have influenced the way he worked and conceived artworks. His works were often produced with travel and baggage requirements in mind; a series of paintings have the format that can fit in a suitcase. Winnewisser is a traveller, a silent explorer (more of an inner-worldly kind perhaps), a world citizen, a flaneur and thoughtful observer. As his oeuvre might testify, he perceives the world not as factual, not as a series of precise events, but as an endless stream of images and waves in constant flux. The outside world might trigger and unleash series of images, but it hardly ever enters his work in simple, recognisable ways. Winnewisser’s approach to images and work is more complex, intuitive, gestural, poetic. Images of different kinds can enter his unique image world, but never as predetermined or fixated entities. The image he select for his prints and paintings themselves reflect on the labyrinthine openness and intricacies of image production.
The ‘image itself’ is Rolf Winnewisser’s territory of investigation. He is a Bild-Forscher (image researcher), a Bild-agent (image agent). There is no precise subject matter as such, each work circles around the notion of image and image production. The circling cannot come to a halt, there is no endpoint Winnewisser would be inclined to gravitate towards. Rather, one image might hide another one, give way to a series of interlinked, associative image connections. Winnewisser would not want to entrap images in meaning. His images could be seen as open-ended inquiries on that strange being that is an image and how it travels and shapeshift through space and time. Winnewisser’s work escapes clear and narrow definitions. With each new drawing or print, another investigation into the realm of image begins.
He works in drawing, paintings, objets, photography, film, texts, prints etc. In 2007 the Kunsthaus Aarau organised the largest Rolf Winnewisser exhibition to date called ‘Alphabet des Bildes’ (alphabet of the image). The catalogue of the Aarau exhibition was structured as an open glossary of the artist’s media, working methods, travels, preoccupations with images.
A review of the Aarau exhibition (in German) http://www.nzz.ch/aktuell/feuilleton/uebersicht/ein-film-der-dinge-1.783201 (review of the Aarau exhibition)http://www.kunstbulletin.ch/eingang_besucher/dsp_frame.cfm?token_session_id=141221133822OZA&token_session_benutzer_id=anonymous&a=070913172919RSN-7&p=&i=&e=&abo=&shop=&anzeigen=
Kunstbulletin (a Swiss Art Magazine) interview with Winnewisser (in German) http://www.kunstbulletin.ch/eingang_besucher/dsp_frame.cfm?token_session_id=141221133822OZA&token_session_benutzer_id=anonymous&a=070913172919RSN-7&p=&i=&e=&abo=&shop=&anzeigen=
Excerpts from the Kunstbulletin interview (translated by the author):
Winnewisser: This always-on-the-way, always-seeking attitude is crucial. One does not find a new island. The island is already there. And the one which one is looking for might not exist. One finds another island. One is preoccupied over a long period of time with a theme, changes are made in the experimental set-up. Tests are made, discarded again, one acts as a researcher or mathematician. In such an analogy, I recognise my position as a painter. One has ideas, prerequisites, one starts a search, experiences are made. One digs deeper into something already familiar, recombines something that is usually constructed differently. One works on material and – in the best case – finds somethings and is being guided into a new direction by the discovery. One dissects concurrences and connects nonsimultaneities. And if all goes well, the problem solves itself and opens up other points of view.
In this vein I see my objects and images which function as tools within a bigger frame that has yet to be defined. There are many wheel-like objects, dices continue to interest me. And if these appear in my images, it is in the form of machine parts that interact and interfere with an image-apparatus and so question the mechanism of the image itself. Ultimately, it is a time machine of seeing.
Hans-Joachim Müller: Is it be a problem for you if the viewer’s associations in front of your pictures would go into a direction you wouldn’t have assumed?
Rolf Winnewisser: No, not a problem at all. I do want to leave the freedom. I don’t want to impose possible image-meanings, nor advocate for a possible handling or reading. There are no prescriptions. I praise the imaginary solution of pataphysicians (note: the concept of ‘Pataphysics’ was coined by French writer Alfred Jarry (1873–1907), who defined ‘pataphysics as ‘the science of imaginary solutions, which symbolically attributes the properties of objects, described by their virtuality, to their lineaments’). And if there are misunderstandings or if I think there is a misinterpretation, then this is kind of a gift. Communication functions when there are misjudgments of signs. I make the assumption that something happens in the understanding of art that isn’t strictly prescribed. (…) I was never attracted to clearly defined things.
Hans-Joachim Müller: Is painting representing processes of consciousness?
Rolf Winnewisser: A big issue. I can only describe it from experiences and reflections on experiences. Aspects like self-obesrvation are part of it. By all means, while working on images I try to pay attention to all kinds of ‘Bildhaftigkeit’ (image-being/image-states)- There are analytic situations, and others that may resemble dream work.
Rolf Winnewisser: It sprawls and sprawls, I don’t no the formula. The is not end in sight. This is the impetus, to follow intricate paths, detours, to trace incongruous trajectories. And sometimes it happens that one sees more clearly, out of rifts, insights emerge, something opens itself up to whatever side – for example if one is offered an exhibition. It is important that from time to time there is an instance of things being put to test, in order to see and reflect on images or image-apparatuses from a distance.
Hans-Joachim Müller: What do you like to read?
Rolf Winnewisser: It is quite diverse, writings on image theory, then literature. I read different kinds of texts. When it comes to classic literature, authors like Joseph Conrad, Herman Melville, Swift and particularly Lawrence Sterne oder Jean Paul. Recently I re-read Eichendorffs Life of a Good-For-Nothing. Also I have an interest in artist novels. Cahiers by Paul Valéry. Then contemporary authors like Felix Philipp Ingold oder Bruno Steiger, among many others. Important to me is Oswald Wiener. Other names include: Louis-René des Forêts, Reinhard Priessnitz … Or theoretical texts like: The language of masks, The Discovery of the Mind von Bruno Snell, Grenzen des Sichtbaren (Limits of the visible) by Karlheinz Lüdeking. I just discovered a wonderful poetry book by Steffen Popp, Wie Alpen (Like alps)
The following iphone photos were taken by the author at the Kunsthaus Grenchen in December 2014.