The Magic Art of Jan Svankmajer

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Three years ago I binged on all the Jan Svankmajer feature films after buying the box of blu-rays released by the director’s Athanor company. Once I’d worked my way through that lot, and rewatched the BFI collection of Svankmajer’s short films, I went through all the documentaries I’ve managed to accumulate, including this two-part BBC study which I taped when it was first broadcast in 1992. It’s likely that Svankmajer’s approach to film and to Surrealism no longer requires the kind of introduction that seemed necessary in the 1990s, but for those who do need such a thing this is a good place to start.

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Ben Fox’s documentary was made to coincide with an exhibition of Svankmajer’s films and artworks being shown at an animation festival in Cardiff. The two installments examine a different aspect of Svankmajer’s cinematic works: “Memories of Mysterious Beings” concerns the films that deal with childhood dreams and fears, while “The Naming of Demons” concentrates on his use of Surrealism as a tool for satire or social critique. In between lengthy extracts from the films the camera prowls around some of the director’s artworks while an actor reads statements Svankmajer has made about his interests and intentions. This last feature isn’t something I enjoy very much, not when the actor’s nasal delivery is so different from Svankmajer’s own voice. It’s a common ploy in documentaries, having someone impersonate an interviewee to avoid using subtitles, but it’s one I find distracting when done like this.

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Eva liked statues.

At this point I would have directed your attention once again to Jan Svankmajer, Director, a documentary about Czech cinema which featured the man himself talking at length about his activities in the 1960s, but this has now been removed from YouTube. In its place, however, there’s a more recent upload, Les Chimères des Svankmajer, an 80-minute documentary for French TV by Bertrand Schmitt and Michel Leclerc which is included among the extras on the BFI’s collection of Svankmajer’s short films. The only trouble here is that the YT copy has no subtitles, you’ll need to be a French speaker to understand the voice-overs which run throughout. This is one of the best of all the Svankmajer documentaries since it shows the range of activities conducted by Svankmajer and his late wife, Eva Svankmajerová, as artists and foremost members of the Prague Surrealist Group; film-making, as Svankmajer has often stressed in interviews, was only one outlet for his creativity. (It was also one he was forbidden to practice for several years when the Communist authorities took exception to his work.) In addition to seeing the Svankmajers preparing an exhibition of their creations, Schmidt and Leclerc show us something of their home outside Prague, an artwork in itself that combines the sculpture park and Wunderkammer. Eva Svankmajerová was the creator of many of those sculptures, a celebrated artist in her own right whose contribution to her husband’s films has often been overlooked.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Svankmajer’s cats
Jan Svankmajer: The Animator of Prague
Jan Svankmajer, Director
Don Juan, a film by Jan Svankmajer
The Pendulum, the Pit and Hope
Two sides of Liska

Weekend links 656

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Mobius Strip II (1963) by MC Escher.

• Old music: Warp Records is reissuing two recent Jon Hassell discs later this year: The Living City (Hassell’s ensemble playing live in NYC, 1989) and Psychogeography (Zones Of Feeling) (remixes from City: Works Of Fiction), which will be available as standalone releases or bundled together as Further Fictions together with Hassell’s Atmospherics book.

• “His library is an immense and enviable wellspring, a demimonde of objects by murky creators who for decades have gnawed away at the inner organs of polite society.” Steven Heller talks to Glenn Bray about Library, an 800-page collection of scans from Bray’s trove of books, comics and print ephemera.

• New music: Tsathoggua, the latest in the Lovecraftian series of Cryo Chamber Collaborations which reminds me that I’m still missing the more recent entries. Also the non-Lovecraftian Coil by Ian Boddy.

• “Music is a way to express yourself beyond words,” says Hildur Gudnadóttir.

• See this year’s winners of the annual Close-up Photographer of the Year competition.

• At Dennis Cooper’s: Spotlight on…Ishmael Reed The Last Days of Louisiana Red (1974).

• A few new photos of Michael Heizer’s City in the Nevada desert.

City Of Night (1994) by David Toop & Max Eastley | City As Memory (1995) by John Foxx | City Appearing (2013) by Julia Holter

 

Weekend links 649

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Niijima Floats: Mottled Blue Black Float with Silver Leaf (1991) by Dale Chihuly.

• “Blue whale songs fall below the range of human hearing. If you want to listen to one, to actually hear its ethereal patterns of wobbly pulses and haunting moans, you have to speed it up by at least two-fold. But according to Hildebrand and McDonald’s instruments, the tonal frequencies of the songs had been sinking to even greater depths for three straight years. ‘This is weird,’ Hildebrand thought. To figure out if it was just an anomaly or something more, Hildebrand and McDonald embarked on a quest to find some really old songs. Eventually they got their hands on some of the earliest known recordings, created by the Navy in the 1960s and stored on analog cassettes. They were floored. The frequencies had declined by 30 percent over 40 years.” Kristen French on a mysterious development in blue whale songs.

• “She didn’t see it as a game, or for divination, but as a model of the universe.” Joanna Moorhead on the Tarot designs of Leonora Carrington.

• “A collection of blogs about every topic”: ooh.directory. (Ta to whoever added this place to the list.)

• New music: Pop Ambient 2023 by Various Artists, and Aeolian Mixtape by Quinta.

• At Public Domain Review: The Tanzmasken of Lavinia Schulz and Walter Holdt.

• At Wormwoodiana: Mark Valentine on mazes and labyrinths. (Previously)

• At Spoon & Tamago: Paper-cut cityscapes by kirie artist Hiroki Saito.

• At Smithsonian Magazine: The Unrivaled Legacy of Dale Chihuly.

• Mix of the week: Neo-Medieval Mix by Moon Wiring Club.

• Old music: Back To The Woodlands by Ernest Hood.

• At Dennis Cooper’s: Jacques Rivette Day.

Weyes Blood’s favourite music.

(Gorgeous Curves Lovely Fragments Labyrinthed On Occasions Entwined Charms, A Few Stories At Any Longer Sworn To Gathered From A Guileless Angel And The Hilt Edges Of Old Hearts, If They Do In The Guilt Of Deep Despondency.) (2004) by Akira Rabelais | The Private Labyrinth (2008) by The Wounded Kings | Labyrinths (2018) by Jonathan Fitoussi & Clemens Hourrière

Kafka’s machine

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In der Strafkolonie (In the Penal Colony, 1919), a short story by Franz Kafka

“Yes, the harrow,” said the Officer. “The name fits. The needles are arranged as in a harrow, and the whole thing is driven like a harrow, although it stays in one place and is, in principle, much more artistic. You’ll understand in a moment. The condemned is laid out here on the bed. First, I’ll describe the apparatus and only then let the procedure go to work. That way you’ll be able to follow it better. Also a sprocket in the inscriber is excessively worn. It really squeaks. When it’s in motion one can hardly make oneself understood. Unfortunately replacement parts are difficult to come by in this place. So, here is the bed, as I said. The whole thing is completely covered with a layer of cotton wool, the purpose of which you’ll find out in a moment. The condemned man is laid out on his stomach on the cotton wool—naked, of course. There are straps for the hands here, for the feet here, and for the throat here, to tie him in securely. At the head of the bed here, where the man, as I have mentioned, first lies face down, is this small protruding lump of felt, which can easily be adjusted so that it presses right into the man’s mouth. Its purpose is to prevent him screaming and biting his tongue to pieces. Of course, the man has to let the felt in his mouth—otherwise the straps around his throat would break his neck.” “That’s cotton wool?” asked the Traveler and bent down. “Yes, it is,” said the Officer smiling, “feel it for yourself.”

He took the Traveler’s hand and led him over to the bed. “It’s a specially prepared cotton wool. That’s why it looks so unrecognizable. I’ll get around to mentioning its purpose in a moment.” The Traveler was already being won over a little to the apparatus. With his hand over his eyes to protect them from the sun, he looked at the apparatus in the hole. It was a massive construction. The bed and the inscriber were the same size and looked like two dark chests. The inscriber was set about two metres above the bed, and the two were joined together at the corners by four brass rods, which almost reflected the sun. The harrow hung between the chests on a band of steel.

The Officer had hardly noticed the earlier indifference of the Traveler, but he did have a sense now of how the latter’s interest was being aroused for the first time. So he paused in his explanation in order to allow the Traveler time to observe the apparatus undisturbed. The Condemned Man imitated the Traveler, but since he could not put his hand over his eyes, he blinked upward with his eyes uncovered.

“So now the man is lying down,” said the Traveler. He leaned back in his chair and crossed his legs.

“Yes,” said the Officer, pushing his cap back a little and running his hand over his hot face. “Now, listen. Both the bed and the inscriber have their own electric batteries. The bed needs them for itself, and the inscriber for the harrow. As soon as the man is strapped in securely, the bed is set in motion. It quivers with tiny, very rapid oscillations from side to side and up and down simultaneously. You will have seen similar devices in mental hospitals. Only with our bed all movements are precisely calibrated, for they must be meticulously coordinated with the movements of the harrow. But it’s the harrow which has the job of actually carrying out the sentence.”

(Translation by Ian Johnston)


An authorless construction for The Bachelor Machines, 1975–77, an exhibition curated by by Harald Szeemann

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Kafka: The Execution (1989), a comic strip by Leopoldo Duranona

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Read the full strip.


A page from Introducing Kafka (1993), an illustrated biography of Franz Kafka by David Zane Mairowitz and Robert Crumb

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In the Penal Colony, 1920, from Franz Kafka: Dreams, Diaries, and Fragments (1994), a print by Robert Andrew Parker

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Zoetrope (1999), a short film by Charlie Deaux

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Franz Kafka: The Peculiar Apparatus from the Story In the Penal Colony (undated), a sculpture by Martin Senn

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Previously on { feuilleton }
The Metamorphosis of Mr Samsa, a film by Caroline Leaf
Kafkaesque
Screening Kafka
Designs on Kafka
Kafka’s porn unveiled
A postcard from Doctor Kafka
Steven Soderbergh’s Kafka
Kafka and Kupka

The teamLab experience

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One of the surprise pleasures of browsing Rambalac’s YouTube channel was finding two visits to his local teamLab exhibitions. teamLab is a Japan-based arts collective who use digital technology to create immersive artworks using light and sound. Rambalac’s main excursion takes you to teamLab Borderless in Odaiba, Tokyo*, a building-sized collection of the group’s past creations situated in interconnected rooms on two floors. As with other Rambalac videos, what you have here is one man wandering around the place with a camera, which in this case gives us the opportunity to see Borderless from a visitor’s point of view. teamLab also has its own YouTube channel but most of the videos there are promotional pieces, usually a few minutes in length and heavily-edited. Rambalac seldom edits his videos which generally run for an hour at a time.

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The Borderless exhibits variously resemble nightclub interiors, Yayoi Kusama installations, theme-park attractions and psychedelic lightshows, with some of the larger, projection-filled areas giving the impression of walking around inside the DMT trip from Enter the Void. Kusama’s infinite mirror reflections are obvious precursors, especially in The Infinite Crystal Universe, a room containing a mass of illuminated cables running from mirrored floor to mirrored ceiling. The main difference, of course, is that Kusama’s installations are as static as most contemporary art, whereas teamLab’s creations are continually in flux. Some of the change relies on viewer participation; there are touch-sensitive surfaces and phone apps that allow visitors to adjust the parameters of specific works. It’s not all child-friendly psychedelia, at least at the conceptual level. The titles of some of the creations remind me of the portentous declarations favoured by Keiji Haino for his doom-laden recordings: Life is Flickering Light Floating in the Dark; Continuous Life and Death at the Now of Eternity; Massless Suns and Dark Spheres; Matter is Void

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I find all of this fascinating and exciting, it’s just a shame that you have to travel halfway around the world to see the things in person. teamLab does exhibit in other countries but to date most of their external work has been close to Japan. Some of the musical accompaniment at Borderless is overly dramatic for my tastes, like extracts from an anime soundtrack, but elsewhere the exhibits have their own brand of generative ambient music which in this context is genuinely ambient, not the diluted techno that we’ve been burdened with since the early 1990s. A good example of this is can be found in the other Rambalac video which visits Resonating Life in the Acorn Forest, an exhibit in a wooded park at Higashi-Tokorozawa.

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In this installation the trees are lit with coloured lights controlled by the illuminated polythene blobs sitting beneath them. The blobs emit electronic chimes when touched; each chime affects the nearest blobs which in turn change the colours of the lights. An additional bonus in Rambalac’s video is the nocturnal chirping of cicadas. teamLab are big on rippling fluctuation, it’s a quality found in many of their other exhibits. The ripples have become physical in more recent exhibits which require visitors to get their feet wet. I’ve no idea how Living Crystallized Light has been created but whatever the technology behind it the end result is quite incredible.

I’m predisposed to enjoy this kind of thing when I’ve always liked art that involves coloured light and mirrors—I’ve a lot of time for the creations of James Turrell and Olafur Eliasson—but I’ve been wondering for a while now when we’d start to see the emergence of art that feels like it belongs in this century instead of yet more expensive (and inert) novelties sitting in blank-walled galleries. teamLab aren’t the only people using technology in this way, there’s an increasing overlap between art and sound among electronic musicians like Robert Henke and Ryoji Ikeda, while Brian Eno has been evolving his own abstract sound-and-light environments for many years. More like this, please.


* Borderless in Odaiba permanently closed in August but teamLab will be opening a similar venue in Toyko next year.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Light Leaks
Eno’s Luminous Opera House panorama
Infinite reflections
Yayoi Kusama
Maximum Silence by Giancarlo Neri