The Quay Brothers
The Pharmacist’s Prescription for Lip-reading Puppets
University of Brighton Gallery
22 November-20 December 2008
Reviewed by Dorothy Max Prior
Inventorium brings together two installations of work by the Brothers Quay – Dormatorium: Film Decors of the Quay Brothers (2006), and Eurydice – She, So Beloved (2007), a version of the Orpheus/Eurydice myth (much beloved of puppeteers and animators, it would seem!) which combines an optical box with a video projection (of a new version of Monteverdi’s Orfeo) and what is described as ‘an anamorphic painting’. More on that later…
But first – Dormatorium, which takes up most of the space in the large and usually airy and bright University of Brighton Gallery. For this exhibition, the whole-wall windows which make up one long side of the gallery are shaded and the lights are dimmed, giving a slightly uneasy and dreamlike feeling to the space. Anyone familiar with the Quays (Stephen and Timothy Quay are twins who originally hailed from America but who now seem to spend a great deal of their time in the UK, working as filmmakers, animators, and set designers for theatre, ballet and opera) will note that this is a perfect setting for their work, which is famously dark, gloomy, eerie, dreamy, and more often than not inspired by European fairy tale and myth. The gallery, for this exhibition, becomes the sort of space that the Quays hanker after in their work: a ‘poetic space. A space half awake, half asleep, in between’ (this from their programme notes for their film Institute Benjamenta).
Theirs is a land of dark woods, gnarled trees, silent woodcutters, wild-eyed crows, blackened metal instruments, endlessly ticking clocks, whirring machines, narrow alleyways, tall crooked houses, and hybrid beasts. Peopling this land are puppets – doll-head creatures with gouged eyes wearing Hessian sacks; humanoids fashioned from the roots of trees; beings with twisted metal bodies and bulging heads – each going about their business of chopping or scribing or whatever with monotonous urgency.
As the subtitle of this exhibition (‘film decors’) implies, what we see here are scenes or extracts or models from their various, much-lauded, film animations, including Street of Crocodiles, Rehearsals for Extinct Anatomies, Still Nacht, In Absentia, and The Comb (all of which, and more, were screened at the Duke of Yorks cinema in Brighton, in a complementary programme, which was part of the annual CINECITY festival – as was this exhibition).
Each scene is set in its own specially created space – usually a deep box made of wood and glass, often with multiply viewing points and perspectives supplied by fish-eyed lenses inserted into the box sides and/or magnifying glass peepholes. Multiple perspectives are a key element of much of their work…
The boxes are rather like those machines that you used to get at funfairs or on the pier, where you place a coin in a slot and the little world comes to life (often a Haunted House!). There’s no penny in the slot here, but the viewer’s imagination has no trouble animating the scene.
For example, in a ‘décor’ from the film The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes (2005), we peer through the front glass into a deep box with a steep, hurriedly-narrowing perspective. It’s a kind of wooden cave, with gnarled branches twisting around each other on all sides. In the foreground is a grounded boat with oars; to the boat’s left a tree of metal spikes bearing corks at each tip, to its right, a triangular sign bearing markings etched into metal. It is impossible not to construct one’s own narratives – mine’s a kind of hybrid between Persephone’s journey into the underworld and the Twelve Dancing Princesses…
Another ‘décor’ from the same film features a different wooden-bark habitat – this time, there is a door to the side with an eye and a bell at its top; a skewed black metal spiral staircase tipples to the right; and the view narrows to a lone, empty, rusted chair, stones on metal wires hanging above it. A peephole with a magnifying lens set in the back of the box gives a view into a ‘secret’ room, perhaps the room on the other side of the door.
There is a strong debt to the work of the mid-twentieth century Eastern European animators here and in particular to the work of Jan Svankmajer, a debt acknowledged in an artistic homage entitled The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer (1984), a title which also gives a nod to another influence, the film classics of German expressionism in general, and the Cabinet of Dr Caligari in particular.
In a décor entitled The Alchemist of Prague (from the above film which was made two years before they gained fame with Street of Crocodiles in 1986), we see many of the Quays interests and obsessions played out: the relationship between 2D and 3D and the interest in optical illusion; a love of calligraphy and etching; an enjoyment of the trompe l’oeil element; a love of monochrome or washed out tones (although this piece, like some others in the exhibition, has a number of playful little dashes of colour – a pink plastic comb, a teeny yellow gun, a red foil hat). There are two puppets in this box, both typical Quay ‘puppet types’. One is a ‘doll-head’, with its head sliced open at the top, and raged Hessian cloth-dress; the other is an object-creature with metal compass limbs and a splayed book-leaf head.
One of the oddest (and most remarked upon) exhibits here is an empty bell-shaped glass container with a trail of powder on its wooden floor, two nostril ‘pipes, and a sign reading ’Please sniff. Powdered Deer Ejaculate’. And yes, dear reader, I did. It smelled more like old fireworks to me, but what would I know? This from he Quays’ feature film Institute Benjamenta (1994), a ‘live action fairy tale’ starring Mark Rylance.
In a smaller room to the rear is the second installation Eurydice, – She So beloved.
Created to mark the four hundredth anniversary of Monteverdi’s Orfeo, the piece is made up of three components. Projected large across one wall is the video, commissioned by Opera North and Capture, and a collaboration with choreographer Kim Brandstrup, the Royal Ballet’s Zenaida Yanowsky and opera singer Simon Keenlyside. In what I presume to be a deliberate homage or reference, the monochrome video evokes the versions of the Orpheus legend explored by French filmmaker Jean Cocteau, with a similar use of moonlight-like lighting, swirling mists, sensuous close-ups on faces, and blowing hair and cloth. It has a mesmeric quality; the beautiful, melancholic voices, drifting bodies, and play of light and shadow perfectly evoking Orpheus’s search for his lost bride.
Accompanying the video are an ‘optical box’ reminiscent of the film decors in the previous room: in this case, a deep coffin-shaped box shows, when viewed from the front, a desolate scene of metal power masts set on a moon-like, or perhaps volcanic, black surface peppered with white trail-lines or tracks (a rather different aesthetic to the earlier work in Dormatorium, although with the customary Quay gnarled bark-and-cork surrounds). At the rear of the box, a peephole shows us Eurydice, trapped, her body bark-like and moulded to the tree roots, her glazed eyes staring back at us. ‘She has become all root’, to quote the Rilke poem that inspired the Quays re-telling of the myth.
The third part is the Anamorphic Painting. And no, I didn’t know what this meant, and I am still grappling with the term, but it is (as far as I understand it) a specific technical term used in cinematography to describe a deliberately-distorting effect created by using the ‘wrong’ lens and/or a photographic projection format using a so-called anamorphic lens. I’m still unsure of how this relates to the image in the installation, a mass of white lines that at first looks like a constellation of stars, but I think it is perhaps a metaphorical use of the term to explain that one has to ‘distort’ one’s view of the painting in order to perceive the image of Orpheus playing his lute that is hidden within, which the viewer can see if they view the painting by looking though the optical box.
An optical illusion, in other words…
It felt an enormous pleasure and privilege to see so much of the Quays’ work brought together for this special series of events in Brighton. Included was an ‘in conversation’ appearance by the Quays, which will be reported on in a future edition of Animations.
$19.95 import (available to purchase from the website)
Reviewed by Dorothy Max Prior
Classics In Miniature is a series of films that bring great classics of literature to life using puppet characters. Faust is the latest in this series, a 30-minute ‘visual interpretation’ of Goethe’s Faust Part One. The project is based in California, USA, but is an international collaboration from puppeteer/producer Steven Ritz-Barr; film director Hoku Uchiyama; puppet maker Eugene Seregin; and composer John Greaves.
For some reason (perhaps because I’d spent so much time with the Quays’ work of late) I was expecting stop-frame animation. Instead, I found that this was a filmed marionette puppet- theatre piece. The set is a lovely mix of painted constructions and found objects that are often oddly (in a good way) human rather than puppet sized: a nightlight, a heap of pebbles, roses that spring from the ground. Russian émigré Eugene Seregin’s wooden puppets are beautifully crafted: old Dr Faust is wonderfully gnarled; Gretchen a wide-eyed, rather gormless beauty; and Mephisto a cheery strong-chinned chap. Their strings are very much on show and I like the way that their ‘puppet-ness’ is integral to the story, which plays on the ‘we are but puppets of the gods’ aspect of the story. There’s a lovely moment in which we are taken into Faust’s nightmare, and see him lifted and shaken by real human hands.
The story is told almost wordlessly: there are a few silent movie style lettered frames, and the odd mumbled or scribbled word, but the film’s visual action is mostly carried forward by Greaves’ musical score, an extraordinary mish-mash of jazz-tango, musical saw, electronica, and grunge. It’s an odd mix, but somehow it works. But what else would we expect of one of the doyens of UK experimental music? (Greaves was the bass player in the legendary Henry Cow).
So all-in-all a rather oddball production, but there’s nowt wrong with that. There’s a great ending too, which I won’t reveal…