For many years, there was no animation art to be found in museums or other art exhibitions, with the exception of William Kentridge’s social criticisms. Recently, the genre is blooming, in all its manifestations. Paul Chan’s shadow plays at TENT and the Amsterdam Stedelijk Museum, Jan van Nuenen’s videographic experiments at the Centraal Museum in Utrecht and W139, Nathalie Djurberg’s clay characters at locations all over Europe: what is going on here?
Breathless, you stare like a child, glued to the screen. In a narrow, dimly lit old schoolroom, films are being shown in which attractively coloured figures modelled from plasticine tell their tale in a scrappily concocted décor of cardboard, wire and cotton cloth. The story is like a fairy tale, but the plot is more perverse and nauseating than reassuring. A tiger is licking a little girl’s buttocks. Instead of resisting, the little girl lets him continue, finally gets bored and sighs, ‘Why do I have this urge to do these things over and over again?’ Tiger Licking Girl’s Butt (2004) is an animation film by the Swedish artist, Nathalie Djurberg, presented at the recent Berlin Biennial. Last summer, the Holland Festival devoted a podium to the ‘Kafkaesque’ fictions of the Quay Brothers, animation films whose protagonists are marionettes or other animated figures. In February, W139 will host an exhibition with animations by Jan van Nuenen. A month later, the Amsterdam Stedelijk Museum is presenting The 7 Lights, by the American, Paul Chan, an installation comprised of shadow animations projected onto the floor. This summer and fall, the relationship between the reality around us and non-analogous forms of art were scrutinized at the Caixa Forum in Barcelona, in an exhibition entitled Històries animades. Along with films by William Kentridge and Hans Op de Beeck, it included works by Carlos Amorales and Martijn Veldhoen – all of them animation.
In Paris, the rise of animation in the fine arts has led to intense debate. The exhibition Once Upon a Time Was Walt Disney diligently sought to identify the art historical roots of animation. Why do we suddenly have to find out what was responsible for Disney’s (too) playful, all-too-familiar characters? Animation is suddenly being taken seriously. Short shrift is being made of what was once the genre’s marginal existence. Didn’t Disney, one of animation’s pioneers, find an important source of inspiration in the grotesque characters of Breughel’s paintings? Didn’t the ‘romantic’ castles for Disney’s Snow White look strikingly similar to Victor Hugo’s drawings? Disney’s critics felt that this only helped bring misconceptions about Breughel and Victor Hugo into the world. The debate on what place animation should have in the fine arts continues unabated. How are we to read it? How should the contemporary actuality of animation in the fine arts be interpreted?
Timothy and Stephen Quay, who are identical twins, have already enjoyed years of success with films that combine ‘live’ action and animation. Marionettes play the leading roles. Using blurred images, the Quay Brothers create an intimate, self-contained and introspective world, localizing the ‘other’ – the unconscious, the subconscious, the absurd, the dream. In The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer (1984), characters made of compasses, balls and all sorts of other paraphernalia find themselves in a filing cabinet that most resembles an old-fashioned Wunderkammer. The puppets mechanically pull the cabinet drawers open and closed, their movements performed under dramatic lighting. In the drawers of the cabinet lie the ‘Elemente’, or so say the labels, from which the marionettes themselves were created. In Street of Crocodiles (1986), the clay from which the dolls’ heads are made is visibly cracked. A serial number has been punched into their necks: marionettes are not alive – they are dead things. They are reproduced. Gigantic cutting shears are poised to cut through the strings that control their movements. Unexpectedly, a single human finger silences the network of cogs that steer the puppets. All is deadly still.
Heinrich von Kleist referred to the rhythm of dancing marionettes as gracious, precisely because marionettes were utterly devoid of any semblance of awareness (Über das Marionettentheater, 1810). The Quay Brothers, in contrast, do not allude to the automatic, mechanical behaviour of their creations as unconscious. In a symbolic way, the characters teach their audiences about life. You are looking at montages, at hand-modelled or cardboard imitations. According to a quote inserted at the end of Street of Crocodiles, from the writer Bruno Schulz, they are the only means of escaping this modern world, this corrupted metropolis. Is animation a form of escapism?
It is not so much the animation film as such that intrigues the artists as its technical aspects. Jan Svankmajer, a surrealist and animation artist from Prague, whose work inspired and is closely related to that of the Quay brothers, describes the techniques as alchemy and pure magic. Animation, as Svankmajer explains, makes it possible to visualize human dreams and our all-but-innocent childhood. Technique transforms daily reality and offers insight into human existence. Svankmajer’s Dimensions of a Dialogue (1982) make his intentions clear. The film is centred around sixteenth-century portraits by Arcimboldo. Fruits and vegetables, flowers and leaves enter the image and disappear again, creating the portrait heads and disassembling them again. Depending on how you look at it, a peach is either a chubby cheek or a juicy summertime fruit. A fish stands for a mackerel or for an unpleasant, elongated nose. As Arcimboldo had done before him, Svankmajer wants the viewer to reread the same surface again and again, each time with a new interpretation. As viewers, we have no choice but to remain ‘imprisoned’ within an image that is at once alienating, weird and wonderful, and familiar. The artist has restricted the space within which we can ascribe meaning. This is why Roland Barthes characterized Arcimboldo’s portraits as ‘extremely modern’.1 Arcimboldo was a ‘creator of metamorphosis’ and a ‘creator of metaphor’, par excellence. (The ancient Greek metaphérein means ‘to transfer’). The world is animated and suggestive, bizarrely in motion, yet simultaneously still and hushed.
At the time, William Kentridge felt far removed from the American modernists. A South African, the artist wanted to make a statement, produce a reaction, a critique or commentary on what was so shocking in real life, something that, according to Kentridge, Robert Motherwell had neglected to do in Elegy to the Spanish Republic #34 (1953-54). What possible lament can be sung by wide-stroked, abstract shapes on a white canvas? For Kentridge, drawing, more than painting, offered the potential for reflecting on the regime of the period, on apartheid and the distorted human relationships it had generated. Representation expressed in drawing not only gave its creator knowledge and insight into the human body, but it also gave insight into the outside world. A draughtsman analyzes and presents his findings to the person who studies that drawing in the same way that an MRI scan tells more about the brain than just looking at it.2 Looking is a construction, as we see in Kentridge’s film, Stereoscope (1998-99). The animation underscores the alienating sensation that creeps up on someone as he beholds himself and his situation, which is equally a construction. Consistent with this, our concept of landscape is derived from Western European landscape painting, a vision that failed to fit Kentridge’s South African environment. According to the artist, for the duration of the film, the perpetual state of disbelief in which mankind finds himself is suspended or broken altogether.
A society functions by the grace of agreements that are, in principle, arbitrary. From such ‘fictional’ constructions, which repress and control, which rein in a society’s desires, its longings and its freedom, abuses are inevitably created. Artist and political activist Paul Chan claims to keep the two areas in which he is active strictly separated. The objectives he aims for in his political activities and those of his art are different. Where politics make direct, concrete demands on current social conditions, art is ambiguous and proposes ‘new questions for possible futures’, as Chan explained last summer in Artforum. Nonetheless, Chan adds, both he and his art express his dissatisfaction with society’s unfair relationships: between high and low, between rich and poor, between the poetic and the pornographic. Politics serve both as a narrative and as a motor for Chan’s imagery, which in this case is a shadow play projected onto the floor, with sweet figures in sometimes tragic circumstances. Highlighting or illustrating the cross-pollination between the realms of politics and art has proven the more interesting option. Chan’s digital animations read like a reaction to and a hidden criticism of the aberrant deviations of the established media.
In addition to a reflection on the outside world, Kentridge’s films are a reflection on the mechanisms of our memories and our capacity to remember. This aspect was already present in the work of the Quay brothers. The archive as a metaphor for memory is nothing new. Kentridge again and again erases his lines of charcoal on paper, then applies new lines. Each distinct stage of the drawings is a frame in the film – imaginings of a past life, past experiences, the most intimate of thoughts, the subconscious and the unconscious. They visualize what everyone hopes will remain neatly concealed, never to escape the boundaries of our protective layer of skin. Even after they have been erased, the lines are still present on the paper on which they once more boldly stood. They are traces, tracks, evidence. Kentridge’s animations are a palimpsest, an ‘in memoriam’, a merciless stamp of time.
The Belgian artist, Anouk De Clercq, similarly describes her animations as mindscapes. Minimal image and sound dissolve into a waving, synthetic whole. Her films are graphic animations that threaten to become figurative, but in which landscape, an object or a building (Petit Palais, 2002) appears, just to disappear again. By treading in a ‘different’ space, De Clercq explains, she hopes to better understand this world.3 By investigating individual mechanisms, the artist gets a better grip on reality. Despite, or perhaps because of the fact that De Clercq’s animations are abstract, her images are models for a model, as it were, or for a mechanism. De Clercq’s abstracted animations are a meta-form, a veiled commentary on reality.
The visual arts have borrowed the suggestive power of compositions produced through the conscious combining of image fragments from the world of music. There, such ‘sampling’ has long been an accepted norm. Jan van Nuenen’s animations are a form of sampling. His visual fragments are associative and ambiguous. Van Nuenen channel-hops television stations, reusing the images he finds. Set 4 (2003) is made up of the repeated jumps and strokes of volleyball players and swimmers from EuroSport broadcasts. The artist’s cut-and-paste techniques mesh together the nonsensical and artistically uninteresting fragments. According to their maker, the animations are simple ‘tinkering’. If only in the formal sense, Van Nuenen’s animations offer a commentary on the enormous inundation of visual images around us. Visuals are everywhere. But Van Nuenen also explicitly expresses himself on the sometimes shocking, aggressive, all-determining tenor of images in the media. His film, Optimizer Customizer (2002), is self-generating. The animation, in which rudely constructed machines spawn hybrids that, in the end, prove to be nothing more than yet other machines, presents its own laboratory. In this sense, the work is comparable to the Quay brothers’ Cabinet. Van Nuenen’s Optimizer Customizer demonstrates that in our digital age, ‘everything’ is not only reproducible, but infinitely reproducible: money, clothing, pictures, even human DNA. Our society is autistic, and in the artist’s opinion, art is the only way we can resist.4
As he has done in the past, in Warning: Petroleum Pipeline (2004), Van Nuenen opposes American domination of the world economy. Mechanically moving yes-men are driven by what the title warns against: ‘petroleum’. The coarse grain in Warning: Petroleum Pipeline reminds us of the industrial aesthetic of films and photographs from the 1920s. Then, graininess was evidence of the unpolished directness of analogue camera imagery. In sampled images, such as those in Van Nuenen’s work, the fragment directly refers to pixels in digitally acquired images. Digital images are a product, a compilation, a summing up of zeros and ones. Only when the separate entities are added up together is the image visible to us. In Van Nuenen’s Seeing Bush Through the Trees (2003), only when the separate Marlboro, Shell and McDonald’s logos are combined and condensed do we see the image of the American President.
Animation is a mask. A mask hides, yet it exposes at the same time. Beneath the more or less abstract, hand-drawn or modelled get-up hides the commentary: our world is in fact an absurd gathering of individuals who, based on a carefully constructed hierarchical system, maintain contact with each other. Ubu, the carnavalesque brainchild of the French playwright, Alfred Jarry (b. 1896), a source of inspiration for the Dadaists as well as for Kentridge, was a parody of social relationships. Ubu’s grotesque appearance contributed, ironically enough, to the play’s popularity amongst those it criticized – the bourgeoisie. How bizarre the world is – c’est tout Ubu.
Genuine surprise and astonishment, outrage on the parts of artists because of the world’s off-kilter relationships, is universal, a thing of all ages. People in the past felt the contradiction between living their own lives and having their lives lived for them just as we do now. The substance and the form, however, in which that disillusionment is cast, varies. Jarry parodied the preoccupations of his century with techniques, machines and movements by having Ubu run a race on a bicycle with five wheels. In today’s animation, disguise is still an important element. The digital form that it takes in the work of Chan and Van Nuenen relates to its own, contemporary times. The techniques employed mean that space is limited. Animation can be seen as a reflection on its own medium, and in this sense, it is modern. But it is striking that animation is coming to the fore at a time in which the world is in a ‘perpetual state of war’, when we are unceasingly staring at ‘the pain of others’, when neither the quantity nor the quality of visual imagery is shocking enough to show us ‘truth’ about the world. The horrors are too horrible.
Animation tells this story. The work of Chan, Van Nuenen and Djurberg sends a message. In an age in which real life is a nightmare that sometimes seems like fiction, in which the believability of documentary images has lost its strength or no longer seems relevant, this is the moment when colourful, animated images can – even literally – bridge the gulf between art and non-art, between art and life. All is animation. Only in animated form does the art reach its audience.
Borderline Behaviour. Drawn Towards Animation
25 January-18 March
Paul Chan-The 7 Lights
Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam
9 March-17 June
18 March-15 April
- R. Barthes, ‘Arcimboldo, or Magician and Rhétoriqueur’ (1978), in The Responsibility of Forms, Berkeley, 1985, p. 142
- William Kentridge in an interview with C. Christov-Bakargiev, in Cameron, D., ea. (ed.), William Kentridge, London 1999, p. 23
- ‘By entering this other space, I hope to understand this world better.’ Anouk de Clercq in Log, Antwerp, 2005
- Interview in Zone 5300 10/03 (autumn 2003), p. 38-39