Self-Obliteration

Curated by Seth Watter

In 1965, Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama began an installation series titled “Infinity Mirror Rooms.” The viewer enters a space entirely made up of reflective surfaces, which indeed infinitely mirror one another in a dizzying mise-en-abîme. This impulse to dissolve the visitor in a play of pure color or shimmering light was carried over into Kusama’s happenings, which took place in galleries, studios, or in public locations like Washington Square. They were variously advertised as “body festivals” or “anatomic explosions,” and Kusama became notorious for covering her nude performers (like most everything else she touched) with painted polka dots to help erode the barriers of the individual self, body pressing against body in a drug- and music-filled delirium. When asked what the phrase “self-obliteration” meant, the aging and mentally ill artist replied: “By obliterating one’s individual self, one returns to the infinite universe.”*

Several of these relics from the psychedelic age were recorded by American filmmaker Jud Yalkut in collaboration with Kusama. The resulting work forms the centerpiece of this program, which explores the theme of self-obliteration throughout the history of avant-garde film and video. What is a body? Where does the body begin and end? And what are the aesthetic, spiritual, or political possibilities that might arise from its radical negation? Each work featured in “Self-Obliteration” poses these questions in one shape or another. Dissolution and disfiguration are terrifying prospects, and the odd subgenre of “body horror” caters to a real and deep-seated human anxiety. Yet the spectacle of bodily breakdown continues to hold both filmmakers and viewers in its thrall, promising self-transcendence even if only in the form of, precisely, a self-obliteration.

TRT: approx. 92 min.

FEATURING:
Trance and Dance in Bali, Gregory Bateson & Margaret Mead, 1952, 16mm, b&w/sound, 22 min.
Filmed in 1937 and 1939 by then-married anthropological duo Bateson and Mead, “Trance and Dance” is culled from hours and hours of footage of Balinese possession rituals, and forms part of a much larger archive that would result in their 1942 study, “Balinese Character.” Funded by the Committee for Research in Dementia Praecox, the film was “supposed to lead to methods of child rearing in America that would reduce the incidence of schizophrenia and thus build a stronger individualist culture” (Catherine Russell). While the scientific project of Bateson and Mead has been widely discredited, the film appears to us now as a precursor to cinema verite and a testament to modernism’s primitivizing impulse, as well as an object lesson for ethnographic analysis: How can one represent the unrepresentable, the ecstatic moment of possession by the Other?

Thanatopsis, Ed Emshwiller, 1962, 16mm, b&w/sound, 5 min.
Generally considered one of Emshwiller’s early dance films, “Thanatopsis” might more accurately be described as psychological horror: a stark meditation on death or, at the very least, extreme torment. A man with downcast eyes is somberly lit against a black background while a stuttering female body—the angel of death?—flits about him in circles. Successive close-ups render the image as little more than abstract shapes, an agitated composition in high-contrast black and white, while the sounds of a beating heart and power saws heighten the sense of existential angst.

Hysterionics: A Buffer Between Expression and Meaning, Carolyn Tennant, 2006, DVD, color/sound, 6 min.
Based on the early Biograph short “Photographing a Female Crook” (aka “A Subject for the Rogues Gallery”), the performance recorded in “Hysterionics” probes “the resistant body’s relationship to the camera eye” (CT). Whereas the woman of 1904 disfigured herself by grimacing wildly in an attempt to thwart the disciplinary gaze of the police, Tennant’s disturbing rendition over a century later is further eviscerated by the accumulation of digital artifacts.

Monster Movie, Takeshi Murata, 2005, DVD, color/sound, 4 min.
Kanye West wasn’t the first to exploit datamoshing to great artistic effect. In this piece, footage sourced from the 1981 Ringo Starr vehicle “Caveman” joyously explodes into pixellated anarchy, crumbling and reshaping itself at a rate of thirty times per second. Murata’s humanoid creature seems to relish its own digital dispersion.

Kusama’s Self-Obliteration, Jud Yalkut & Yayoi Kusama, 1967, 16mm/color, sound, 24 min.
“… an atomistic collection of figures interacting but one emergent, undulating Meat-Cloud-Being” (Paul Sharits).

Spiritual Constructions, Oskar Fischinger, 1927-29, 16mm, b&w/silent, 10 min.
Two seated figures guzzle mugs of beer. They begin to morph into all kinds of grotesque and comic shapes; architecture and landscape take on animate qualities, poking, prodding and violently expelling the two tipplers; and any distinction between figure and ground soon becomes entirely meaningless. William Moritz has described the film as a “meditation on violence,” a reaction to Fischinger’s childhood years spent at the family brewery and a reflection of “all his loathing of the German penchant for drunkenness and aggression.” A landmark in experimental animation, its nightmarish quality may also reflect the inflationary crisis then gripping the Weimar Republic. Spirit, of course, can mean ghost, wit, and alcohol—each of which has its place in this marvelous ‘silhouette film.’

Syntagma, VALIE EXPORT, 1983, 16mm, color/magnetic sound, 17 min.
The fragmentation and fetishization of the female body is, of course, endemic to the history of Western representation. Yet one cannot return to an imaginary unity and coherence—a masculine ideal in any case. Rather, the feminist artist finds agency through a rearticulation of the fragments, “taking structures apart and selecting each part for its value as raw material” (Roswitha Mueller). Indeed, “Syntagma” is multiple to its very core. Projections overlap with live action; film, video, photography, sculpture and painting intermingle; and the screen is diffracted into two, sometimes four discrete sections—the city made over into a playground of difference.

Hare Krishna, Jonas Mekas, 1966, 16mm, color/sound, 4 min.
Later included in “Walden” (1969), “Hare Krishna” is a stunning document of a Krishna street gathering, where the participants fissure and dissolve in Mekas’ trademark frame-by-frame style. The droning chant further adds to the feeling of communion with the infinite rhythms of the universe. Featuring Allen Ginsberg and Barbara Rubin.