I have a dubious relationship with contemporary art. By which I mean that I generally dislike all contemporary art, but as a general concept I love it. This is essentially due to the notion of alchemy – turning the ordinary into something extraordinary or using it as a means of representation for something greater than itself.
The best contemporary art exhibition I ever saw was at the Baltic in Newcastle around 2005.
I used to have a poster of this on my bedroom wall when I was 18.
It was an exhibition of the work of Edward and Nancy Kienholz. It was a collection of free-standing environmental tableauxs. Kienholz’ assemblages were of found objects – the detritus of modern existence, often consisting of figures cast from life. It was vulgar, brutal, and gruesome. The idea was to confront the viewer with questions about human existence and the inhumanity of twentieth-century society. This was largely achieved. While on one hand these were mostly a graphic and almost Ballardian commentary on the nature of the American dream, there was also The Hoerengracht. On the surface, this was Kienholz’ visual representation of Amsterdam.
As you walked through The Hoerengracht, full of garishly lit alleyways and tacky, seedy, run-down rooms, the joke was that by viewing the exhibition, you became part of the grungy, sordid, voyeuristic spectacle.
I was reminded of this tonight as I was watching Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers. I honestly think it’s one of my favourite movies. It is so good on every level: amazing cinematography, editing and storytelling. It is all here. If, as a career path, Kienholz had opted for film-making rather than creating tableauxs, I suspect you’d end up with something fairly similar. A movie that starts by driving through a psychotropic collection of images of America, but is set up and presented in such a way, that the viewer is watching Mickey and Mallory watch a movie. So you in turn become part of the spectacle, because what you have here from the off the is a the story that is overtly built around cinema as a medium.
I suppose you could do a negative reading of this movie in which it is simply an extended bit of nasty sadism and torture porn, but that would lead to an interesting commentary in itself, as the year this movie was released, 1994, was the year the World Wide Web was born. In the movie itself, there is a very clear link between sex and television in terms of the depiction of Mallory’s abuse at the hands of her father. As the World Wide Web is still being born, we’re at the point in history where the link between television and pornography is still growing, and hasn’t yet been usurped by the internet. It’s ’94 and we have VCR, which means that television isn’t just simply a broadcast medium but a medium of storage and replaying. Which means, of course, that it’s possible to have pornography on it. In practice, though, most of the pornography that could still actually be easily obtained at the time was scarcely what you would consider pornography by 2018 standards – it was mostly soft-core titillations. More common throughout the rise of VCR was cheap, dirty, and violent movies, dubbed ‘video nasties.’ So in turn, the movie is at once transgressing against these kinds of ‘video nasties’ of the eighties, while alluding to the every increasing public fascination with celebrity, sex, violence and what is to come in the form of the internet. Interestingly, in terms of sex, celebrity and video, arguably the most famous example would arrive the following year in the form of the Tommy Lee and Pamela Anderson sex tape, when the medium would reach its zenith (nadir?). Natural Born Killers is a fascinating insight into this time period, as it stands at the precipice of a new era. This isn’t actually a film about two mass murderers. It’s a film about us and how we consume media, and how in turn a veritable buffet of mindless sex, violence and celebrity becomes a consumer product. Like Kienholz’s tableaux, and this is evident from the very first shot of the movie, through viewing we become part of the spectacle.