Author is on Fire
If ‘the air is on fire’, as David Lynch states in the title of his hugely successful exhibition in Paris, then it is also the author who is part of this flame. It is a fire that has been constantly smouldering in his mind for over forty years, years in which he has been in a state of permanent and uninterrupted work. Being a true Gesamtkunstler, he does everything, from painting to sculpture, drawing to filmmaking, photography and even composing music, as he has done for this exhibition. Yet, this Gesamtkunstler may only serve as a departure point to comprehending an unsettling, irregular dimension that shapes Lynch’s oeuvre. True, each expressive means is built on the other, or grows next to or against the other, always expressing a new point of view, applying different materials, finding another tone. When following the impressive series of his huge paintings, it is clear that only some kind of ceaseless blaze can keep him in this flickering state. However, the disquieting heterogeneity of his work never becomes an unrestrained impetuosity. In his seemingly infinite ‘excursions’, a free and uninhibited self-expression is revealed. David Lynch’s paintings, photographs and drawings, though they embody an unsettling, wild whirl of monstrosities, do not betray any tormenting pressure or painful constraint The suspense is natural, as it records his shivering, deadly-precise vision. It is an unparalleled personal vision that defiantly addresses the viewer; sometimes it might embarrasses us, or have the same impact as the simplicity and directness of infantile fantasy images do, including the spectre of the grotesque.
| The almost
unfathomable fluidity of nightmares, the coalescence of irrational images
and the constant metamorphosis of odd forms keep Lynch’s works in motion.
The encounter of different textures, colours and lines in their real and
deformed shape seems to be the normal nature of these paintings.
It is a bizarre universe. A unique, decomposed oneness.
Lynch’s work is different from the surrealists, the Magritte-like, playful inversion of limbs. Neither is it Bacon’s flesh-penetrating, screaming distortions, his famous ‘cry’. The stiff aura that strikes us in Hopper’s quotidian, chilly-vacant characters does not come readily to mind, though all three are Lynch’s admitted inspirations. In the world of crawling insects, bloody dogs and firing guns Lynch evokes an always similar, greyish, tenebrous darkness, a night, which places in question the daylight. There is no usual proportion between man and environment, no border between man and animal, the transition from visionary imagination to palpable earthy reality. In the middle of a large grey canvas, for instance, a tiny bug, surrounded by glittering light, dreams of the hereafter. It is at once stupefying, poetic and horrifying. In another work the limbs of a doglike figure represent different functions: one reaches out for a gun, to kill, the other is indifferent, a frightening stump. Elsewhere, in the foreground of a large photograph a painted face of a mangled body disturbs the image, with a scribbled inscription: ‘This man was shot 0.9502 minutes ago’. This time the background is Pop-colorful: a yellow-green modern interior of perhaps an office. However, from the breast of the ‘normal’ figure, something (a phallus-like member?) leaps out, named in small letters ‘spirit’.
‘All my paintings are dramas, violent and organic. They have to be realised in a primitive and gross way,’ says the master. ‘The more black is put in a colour, the more it becomes oneiric. Black has depth. It is like a passage: one can enter into it, and as it becomes more and more sombre, the spirit is engulfed ... One starts seeing that which one is scared of. One starts seeing what we like and this becomes a kind of dream.’
Frightening, repulsive? Much more shivering, tragicomically absurd. Its enigmatic and ominous nature, along with its directness, affects us sometimes almost like the childish playing out of an innocent fantasy and therefore part of it is a kind of humour, even black humour. The seamless jumps in texture, means and topic work with such an accumulated force that, despite the vigorous sensuality, the whole picture moves toward abstraction. As if it would denude rawness and cruelty to a mere sign, one single metaphor. The large scale of the paintings (one canvas is 152 x 296 cm) and the audacious blend of different materials (glue, mud, hair and dry animal parts) render the ‘message’ as a blunt, rough demonstration. Wire and metal, protruding forms, driftsand and rubble build the canvas. Weird fragments, incongruent qualities bring about an outcry, a grievous blow. Yet, it is our impression that the picture is the result of one single gesture. An incredibly undisturbed naturalness addresses us, without the slightest trace of any artificial effort. His characters are fractured, impassible monsters. The dynamics of passion or emotion are missing in their gestures. They do or have done what the order of devastation has prescribed in this world. An awkward man, knife is his hand, stands before a half-naked humiliated black woman. He says to her, ‘Do you want to know what I really think?’ It would be difficult to say whether the absurdity or the horror of the situation dominates.
Because ‘Bob’, the recurring character in a series of works and a wreckage of a miserable man, is a disturbed, lost being in the huge incomprehensible world; his paltry desires, like guns and money, are dispersed around him. In his anxiety he sees a black house in ‘antigravity’, moving upward, a tree burning with huge flames or a house becoming a burning ruin ... Can he wake up before it is too late? Too late for what? Presumably for the next nightmare.
Where are we? In what depths of a vagrant mind from which there is no awakening? It cannot be that much different from the shuddering feeling of a menacing evil. When, for instance, in another work, a bit farther from a dark house a tiny, wretched and bloody shag lies alone in the middle of nowhere, the written text states ‘She was hurt, badly’. Not fooling anybody, we see something monstrous, but in what a simple and dense form, in its full gross physical directness! The ‘thing’ is obviously female and the confession unmasked, since the legs of a man allude to the culprit. Indeed, this is the depiction of a ‘violent drama’, the end of one, although already truly in the afterwards.
Apparently, for Lynch the outside-inside lurking bestiary is inalienable, it inhabits him. But whether this weight is really so very painful, whether he truly, constantly suffers from it, would be hard to say. Maybe he is already beyond it, since he throws out from his soul both the wounding experience and the recording of it as well.
It is very significant that the large works are dressed in colorful red, yellow and purple curtains, like theatrical draperies. It is Lynch’s mise en scène. Similarly, the gold classical mountings that enframe the murderous scenes contribute to the stagy effect. This is a highly paradoxical interpretation: when poor Bob, this bloody fool who is unable to understand what the whole damned world means, ‘loves Sally until her face is blue’, what are we to think? This is more than a severe statement about a maddening harm, it treats the wild action as banality; no wonder that faded roses, the kitschy symbols of love, decorate the scene. In fact, the picture shows the event as ‘normal’ madness, while the solemnly theatrical, the monumental, is defiantly linked to it.
In the same space Lynch’s maimed, headless androgen torsos are shown, called ‘Distorted Nudes’. The representation of them is extremely complicated: photomontages using a numeric camera in order to utilise nineteenth-century porno stills to form the figures with precision into frightful freaks. Here again the absurd and incongruent are ordered in a perfect, cool composition and placed in beautiful gold frames. From the mouth of an androgynous figure a huge phallic-like tongue lolls out, with the inscription: ‘Sleep’. The image is deeply ambivalent: deterrent, repulsive but at the same time it also wryly questions its bizarre existence.
Nothing inhuman is far from the other nude torsos. The cold, beautifully velvet white flesh makes it impossible to distinguish whether they are men, women or animal-men. Notwithstanding this, the principle of aesthetic is prevailing; in its scary simplicity we meet a kind of elated aura.
In the exhibition Lynch consciously avoids chronology: there is no data about when the pieces have been made. However, it is clear that the numeric photos are more recent than the huge dark paintings of the 1980s, and we also feel that many of them were created before the famous films. Since the hideous, the deformed, the hurt and the dangerous are always at the heart of Lynch’s vision, all the works speak about the same thing: the original existence of the ‘duality of nature’ – as Lynch calls it – to confront peril and death as the fundamental experience in life and therefore the mother tongue of creation as well.
It would be impossible to neglect Lynch’s series of drawings, 500 miniature works on napkins, matchboxes, torn papers; coloured and black and white, some of them anticipate an image or emblem from a forthcoming film (red lips with the cry: ‘Oh, Donna!’ which leads us into the emblematic gist of Blue Velvet). Some of them are mere buoyant lines, sweeping sketches: masterworks of phantasm, unbridled imagination. Here the crayon doesn’t linger in the darkness of shadows but reveals the freedom of the gesture, geometrical or winding, seizing the mysteries of gardens, silent paths and opaque figures ...
Contradictory impulses are accumulated in the immense stuff of this exhibition. We immediately recognise the sources of the universe known from his famous films. The title of Lynch’s latest film, Inland Empire, sums up best the genuine content of all his films. Indeed, this streaming, always moving inner empire doesn’t offer easy transparence, or calm orientation, but rather a feverish heterogeneity, uneven vegetation.
The release of the film followed the exhibition; to find correspondences between the two is inevitable. Not that Inland Empire betrays a steadier coherence, or that the intertwining of the parallel threads of the story (stories?) offers a clearer transparence, but the creative vision is still unequivocal and very strong in its density.
Inland Empire does have a story (a murder story, foretold, if you want) detectable through the meandering of the central character, an actress in life, played by Laura Dern. It starts with a bewildering sequence: a new neighbor visits a weird old lady, announcing the deepest sense of her adventure to come, ‘If today would be tomorrow, would you yet remember that you have a debt to pay?’, mixing up present, past and future in the form of an odd hypothetical challenge. The predictive question is the heart of the movie: one cannot know what is before or what is after; time doesn’t follow predictable logic and order. Thus, in the course of the subsequent events we freely transgress the realm of dream, fantasy, real life, but also performances for a film in the making. Lynch’s ambition consists precisely in his unhindered liberty: the murder story is a pretext to enter into this mysterious, unfathomable empire. The heroine has to die (at great length, infinitely slowly) and this is the debt to be paid. But it is not the ultimate end. Only her voyage as an actress arrives at a final stage. Enriched with all that horror and terrifying experience, maybe she keeps going on ...
We know the unique journey of this film’s production: three years of interrupted and renewed inspiration to follow the potential twists and turns, travelling across troubling realms. Some French critics rightly refer to Lewis Carroll, and indeed, aren’t we here traversing constantly the mirror, moving from one side to the other? As long as we are confronted with the heroine’s labyrinthine wandering, between filmmaking and real life, nightmares and loss, we are ready to accompany her, but when certain episodes seem to become gratuitous (precisely the evocation of Carroll’s Mad Hatter’s Tea Party with the March Hare) we may fall into a nebulous uncertainty. In these moments, the courage to deny the sense of time brings about some confusion, if not a void. True enough, the announced murder, which is the departure point of the story, maintains an inevitable suspense, but not always on the same level. The preferred plotting method of Lynch, doubling parallel stories, determines the structure again this time. Our main characters have to play roles in a film in which the heroes are murdered. This is obviously a baleful foreshadowing of coming events. We are always waiting for something similar to happen, knowing it really will happen. Yet all the incidental fusions and intertwinements can appear sometimes as too forced, artificial, without having the convincing sense of a contributing value. Roles are, of course, roles in life as well as in artistic performance, but never identically, switching so capriciously from one state to the other.
Thanks to Laura Dern’s admirable flexibility, going through countless transformations, from innocent to cool and indifferent, from trembling to playful or suffering, this metamorphosis elicits sincere interest and lends exceptional value to the movie. Her presence, more than simply a fine performance, embodies and conjures best the turbulence of Lynch’s surging inner world.
The diversity of the frequently used close-ups, expressing the ever-changing emotions of the characters, either with the help of special effects or gloomy light, is startling. The mood is that of overwhelming fear and anxiety, bringing the murky fragments close to each other. No less effective is the way Lynch conveys the particular texture of the environment, rendering its tactile quality. Which aspect is more prevailing in Inland Empire? The tragic and painful, elaborated in such minute detail, or the perturbing and ironically sceptical, situated in the middle of ‘before and after’? Once again, in this film, we are on a specifically Lynchian planet: his people are wild at heart on a lost highway. And all their dreams and anguish, as well as the obscure imaginary that we know so well, are organic parts of the ‘other side’, the ‘double’ and repressed. These are the haunting and recurring themes of the artist and therefore the ambience, like in all his films, cannot be but uncanny. If the story of Inland Empire suggests, in Lynch’s unmistakable voice, that a smooth balance in life or in the work of art is unobtainable, the spectator is not surprised to see that life after death can exist. This loop is more than a twist. The endlessness of the journey is the core of Lynch’s disquieting vision.
David Lynch: The Air is on Fire is published by the Fondation Cartier pour l'art contemporain and distributed by Thames and Hudson.
© Yvette Bíró and Rouge 2007. Cannot be reprinted without the permission of the author and editors.