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Dave McKean: MIRRORMASK, Art And Reality

Dave McKean Mirrormask is a film where reality is a constrantly changing, dreamy work of art. The interview explores the artist’s views of art and life.

I spoke to Dave McKean in March 2006 when he came to Manchester to the premiere of his film MirrorMask at the Cornerhouse. The film that received awards at the Locarno and Sarasota Film Festivals in 2005 is about Helena, a girl who lives and tours with her family’s circus but wishes – like all teenagers – that she could be able to break free into the ‘real’ world. What happens instead is that she finds herself on the journey into the Dark Lands, in quest for a powerful object, the MirrorMask, to save the Queen of Light. On her way she encounters sphinxes, monkeybirds, strange objects a-la Henry Moore sculptures, and the omnipotent and dangerous Queen of Darkness. As the film progresses, Helena’s task becomes not only to find the MirrorMask, but also to escape the Dark Lands.              

MirrorMask is yet another fruit of a long-lasting collaboration between McKean and Neil Gaiman. The duo has been working together since the 1980s, enriching the world with one of the best-loved and original comic books, Sandman. McKean, a distinguished artist, has produced numerous works, among which are book illustrations, tarot cards and posters, promotional campaigns for brands, like Smirnoff and Sony, and films, like Sleepy Hollow (dir. Tim Burton). Although MirrorMask is his first feature, he made several shorts in the past, and, on top, he owns a jazz record label together with saxophonist Iain Ballamy.        


MirrorMask may be one of the most original films of the recent years and at the very least is a compelling achievement on the part of McKean who wanted to transfer the surreal images, so often found in his drawings, on screen. There are several reasons for his opting for surrealist stylistics in the film’s cinematography. On the one hand, his own artwork has been influenced by this art movement; on the other, surrealist artists were dedicated explorers of the realm of dreams, and Helena’s journey, as we eventually find out, was also a dream.          

The dream-like, phantasmagorical type of story was in part dictated by the Jim Hanson Company, who provided the budget for the film. But you wouldn’t expect anything too realistic from Gaiman&McKean.

“We ended up with a long email conversation and a kitchen table full of books, and CDs, and sketches, and bits of dialogue, and notes…I really wanted to build a city and wander round it, and Neil fancied doing something that was basically ‘The Prince and the Pauper’”.    

In Dave’s words, he didn’t want to settle a film in one place, and, to add subtlety to the theme of dreamy peregrinations, a wandering circus thus became a metaphor for his vision. He does love circuses, both lavish performances of the Cirque du Soleil and little odd family troupes, travelling along the South Coast of England, where the artist lives. Some circuses or acts are the true gems, and finding them may be quite fascinating in itself. But whether big or small, these troupes of artists are always changing place, and their constant drifting in space and time was an inspiration for McKean.            

The same sense of unsettledness is conveyed through the score composed by Iain Ballamy that intertwines Indian and Middle European music with tango, folk, and jazz. Fellini’s cinematic wanderings and Bunuel’s imagery also influenced the film to some extent. Ultimately, McKean’s goal was

‘to try and do some things that did not look literal. Most fantasy stories are sort of very realistic, and it’s great and extraordinary technical achievement, but… I wanted to do something that was non-literal and a bit more abstract’. It wasn’t difficult in some way, as McKean had a clear vision of what he wanted to achieve: ‘Basically a lot of my work is collage, and making the film is a kind of collage as well… so in that respect it was easy’.                    

What was not easy was, in particular, dealing with computers. The four Mackintoshes that the crew used for editing were named after the Beatles.

‘I was John’, says Dave, ‘and that was OK… But then we needed a fifth one, and our technical manager called it Yoko. And they all just refused to get on from then on. The Beatles broke up!’  

From start till the end, MirrorMask is about connections and contradictions between ‘reality’ and ‘image’. The prevalence of one over another is frequently debated and never ceases to attract interest. For McKean, known for his darkish ethereal images, which he lavishly brought to screen in MirrorMask, this question must have been particularly intriguing. So, ‘what is more certain: reality or image?’ I ask Dave.      

‘I think most of my work, and this film is as well’, he replies, ‘it’s about that connection between what is the present, what is right now. We’re now talking here, we actually know this… But everything else – what we just did, walking in through the door, and an hour ago, and five hours ago, this now doesn’t exist anymore. It only exists in our memories, and so as far as I’m concerned it’s already up for debate, and it’s already a fantasy. And what will happen in a few hours time is also a fantasy. And we’re surrounded by it, and we have dreams, we have thoughts, and you have interpretation of what is going on right now, and I have a different interpretation. So, we’re sort of surrounded by this ball of fantasy, and it’s basically a fantasy, or dream, or imagination, or interpretation, any of those things. And so, that’s interesting to me, exploring the link between this tiny little nucleus of reality in the centre, and this great ball of imagination around it’.  

Nevertheless, McKean’s work has always been about real life, as we normally understand it. I asked him to describe the imaginary world that he has been creating as an artist.

‘My own world is just trying to make sense of the real world’, he says. ‘I don’t like the sort of science-fiction art and fantasy art that is just about goblins and fairies and spaceships. I don’t really see the point of that. It’s entertaining and it’s fine, but I couldn’t do it. I needed to be about people, people who I have to deal with every day, and that’s what I’m interested in, I’m interested in what people think and how they think, and the things that they believe in, and desire, and are frightened of. So I’m interested in that side of life, really. And then I’m trying to sort of look at those things from a different point of view, or from metaphor, or from dreams, or from these other angles, because I think these are just interesting ways of seeing things’.          

The continuous evolution and change have been McKean’s stimuli throughout his career, and he utters that his favourite project is always the one that comes next:

‘I love learning new things, so trying to make a film is an immense learning curve. And I don’t think you ever stop learning… I love the differences between things. If I haven’t drawn for a while, and I’ve instead made some music, or written something, or done some filming, when I go back to drawing, it always seems to be stronger and informed by all those other things’.              

As expected, taking a rest is not in McKean’s plans, and he has already been planning several other projects, because ‘they just take so long to set up’. In his turn, Neil Gaiman has been working on the script for a Hollywood adaptation of Beowulf, the Anglo-Saxon epic poem, which will be released in 2007. It only remains to wait to see what this fruitful collaboration brings in future. One thing is certain – it will, as always, be surreal.    

©  Julia Shuvalova 2006

Other posts on Cinema.

An Interview with Dave McKean (10 March, 2006, by Julia Shuvalova, Manchester, UK)

The Russian Rock Band Wings of Autumn – Interview

Yet another project as part of the team interviews I do in Moscow with other photographers, musicians, authors, and bloggers.

My relations with rock music have never been smooth. On the one hand, I am a melody person, for which reason punk or Goth styles don’t fare well with me. On another hand, I do believe that you have to approach a subject, however important, with a pinch of salt. In other words, you cannot be too serious – although you have to be concentrated. I think people often mistake concentration for seriousness, and that has been the problem I have had with rock music.
Particularly in Russia, the trials and tribulations of rock’n’roll music have been such that for a long time rock was considered politically incorrect. Inevitably, it has never been free from political, ideological or cultural musings; in this, if I understand anything, Russian rock has always been closer to punk than rock’n’roll.
The Wings of Autumn rock band that has been playing since 2005 is trying to move in a different direction. Rather than scribbling lyrics about topical societal problems or blantly copying Nirvana and the like, they write songs that should help establish a more artistic and global dimension for Russian rock music.
Taking inspiration from nearly every music style, including bard songs and classical music, the group, consisting of 4 people (3 guitarists and 1 percussionist), performs primarily original material. They only have two covers in their current repertoire: one is a well-known folk song from a Soviet movie, another – surprise! surprise? – is The Beatles’ Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da.
One thing that certainly surpises me is their take on a “legend”, which, the showbiz tells us, has to exist to entice people. There is no legend in their story, except many ups and downs that make a pretty good story, without any tales attached. And they seem to be rather avert to the idea of advertising or even seeking out the “audience”, stating that they merely want to compose and perform good music for whoever wants to listen.
My main wish for them is to bring a smile to rock music. The reason I love Aerosmith is because Steve Tyler easily takes the mickey out on his band and on rock music. You cannot be too serious, whatever you do. Humour adds a new dimension, this is how we learn to see things in a different way, to reframe them. The Wings of Autumn, especially being Russian guys, have a unique chance to bridge our habitual “image d’Epinal” and what often remains behind the closed doors for the Western public. We, Russians, are actually very positive people when we let our hair down. The more of that gets into music, the better.
Many thanks to Oleg and Kirill for photos, to Vassily, Vadim and others who took part, and to The Wings of Autumn.
Also, here are 3 of their tracks, “Crossroads”, “Long, long away”, and “In the meadow”. Why not share your views and comments via a poll here – http://www.misterpoll.com/polls/531573


Other posts (in Russian):
On The Wings of Autumn and Musicians – Kirill @ kirill-kuzmin
The Wings of Autumn – Oleg @ chuma3
“The Wings of Autumn” – Vadim @ravik-06
“The Wings of Autumn” – Dmitry @ aspammer

Drew Hemment: From FutureSonic to Future Everything

I didn’t give it much thought right after the event, but my experience of Futuresonic has so far appeared to always connect to some kind of a festival’s anniversary. Back in 2006, when I attended it for the first time, the participants were trailing the city, carrying balloons with the Futuresonic logo. In 2006, the festival was in its tenth calendar year, so there was a good reason to celebrate. 2006, too, saw the first Social Technologies Summit. I vividly remember Last.fm debuting there. Geolocation and mapping have already been in the focus, and Stanislav Roudavski, a Russian-born, UK-based architect, artist and researcher, shared the insights into what now seems to make Performative Places. In 2006, I was able to review Manchester Peripheral before it officially debuted during the first Manchester International Festival, and it was pleasant to see David Gunn returning to Futuresonic in 2009, with Echo Archive commission from Opera North. Back in the day, David was involved in Folk Songs project, particularly collaborating with Victor Gama, an Angolan-Portuguese composer, on two projects: Folk Songs for the Five Points (2005) and Cinco Cidades (2007). Victor himself, who not only composes music but also makes instruments, was exhibiting at Futuresonic 2006 with his Pangeia Intrumentos.

That festival alone orchestrated a major change in my life. I grew up without the Internet. I didn’t even have a computer well until I was 18. I never really prepared myself to the Internet-led future. Of course, I became proficient with applications and programs that were necessary for my work, but with Social Media still emerging in 2006, I was on the sceptical side. Yet the frustration from not being able to do everything I wanted in the radio environment was growing, and I had already started updating the (now discontinued AOL Homepage) website of a radio programme with short stories, links, poems, quotes… yet I was limited in space on the page, so I had to come up with another idea. The idea culminated in Los Cuadernos and in turn led to many happy, encouraging, amazing, unexpected, and ultimately enlightening, beginnings, meeting, and projects.

Three years later I returned to Futuresonic, this time primarily for Social Technologies Summit, granted I was a delegate. As a result, my impression of the festival is very different: it’s more about technology than art or music. I was more focused on the summit than in 2006; and in 2009, I was an active user of social technologies, hence Identity and Trust or Semantic Web talks were the ones where I naturally found myself actively participating – via Twitter, no less. I was also a more “engaged” or even “embedded” attendant, since I knew more people at the festival than in the previous years. And suddenly it turned out that Futuresonic was once again marking the anniversary: it was the official 10th edition of the festival, although it wasn’t celebrated. But it was also a goodbye to Futuresonic and a hello to Future Everything.

Is there a sprinkle of nostalgy in what I’ve written? There isn’t, and there is. Certainly, there is nothing that I regret, and I wholeheartedly wish that the festival continues growing stronger and even more creative under the new name. On Friday 15 May, I made several impromptu interviews at the festival, which will finally begin to appear here; one of them was with Drew Hemment, the artistic director of the festival, who kindly agreed to a quick chat after a long day at the conference. We talked in 2006, too, and on second thoughts I decided to make both interviews available. They were made in different times of the day: in 2006 we talked in the afternoon; in 2009, it was after 7pm. The changes in skills and voices is audible, too. But one of the questions I asked Drew in 2009 was about special moments, and how they all combined influence the person. For him as the organiser, there were many such moments, and ultimately it’s the journey that one makes that matters and that creates everything that is special about Futuresonic. So, in what I’ve written there’s not really any nostalgy… it’s just the desire and hope to stay on the road and to continue with the journey.


One last thing, which I can only see myself saying on this blog – not in Future Everything Community, for integrity reason… I’m not from Manchester originally, and arrived fairly late to be influenced by the late Tony Wilson. I know who he was, of course, and I’m aware that he’s often praised for pioneering many things, including the proliferation of the digital technologies in the city. As you will hear Drew saying in 2006, one of the reasons Futuresonic landed in Manchester, and not London or Glasgow, was the strength of Manchester’s music culture that had already had a digital/electronic dimension. But just last year at The Circle Club they were searching for the next Tony Wilson. As much as I’m not at ease with this (and any similar) quest, I can’t help thinking that Manchester is throwing away its own baby. Having emerged nearly at the same time as Hacienda vanished in the haze, Futuresonic has been around for over 10 years. Drew’s humility and passion for the festival and the projects he curates are admirable, and I hope he doesn’t lose that in the years to come. Maybe it’s good if Futuresonic continues as a fairly independent event, shunning away from the media hype, attracting the true enthusiasts, and subtly changing the lives of the new attendees. I only hope that, when time comes, Drew’s trouble-making skills will receive the recognition they deserve.

Simon Cunningham: “Looking Is an Activity”

The opportunity to attend Beck’s Canvas 2008 and to see the work by four RCA graduates instantly prompted me to inquire about an interview with one of them. I was offered to choose. I studied the winners’ profiles and, bearing in mind my own interest in photography, requested a talk with Simon Cunningham.

You can now listen to Simon’s interview below. In 18 minutes we find out about Simon’s work, artistic practice, inspirations, his views as an artist on using the WWW space… There is some laughter (as well as tinkling of the bottles in the background, with the gallery space then being prepared for the event), and a mad wizardy question at the very end of the talk. Once again, thanks to Simon, and to James Fell from OnlineFire for organising the interview.

Originally from the Midlands, Simon has now been living and working in London for a number of years. We are told that he sold more work than he has been able to exhibit, mainly through group shows and to private collectors . His shows in 2008 included exhibitions at Galleria Civica di Modena (Italy), Bloomberg SPACE (UK), and Espai Ubu (Barcelona, Spain). The list needs now to be updated with the show of his work at the RCA in Kensington Gore in London at the launch of Beck’s Canvas. In a way, Beck’s Canvas and Cunningham’s work were practically made for one another. In his work, Simon often explores the other “side” or “angle” of an image – and this is exactly what Beck’s Canvas is: it is a beer bottle label that can become an artist’s canvas.

The cornerstone of Cunningham’s artistic practice is the act of looking. As he aptly observes in his interview, he takes “looking” in the broadest sense of the word: “it’s about looking, and seeing, and searching…” – and I think we all too often forget about these “other sides” of any activity we undertake. “Mollymuddle” (left) is exemplary in this sense because in this video Simon attempted to record, in the proper sense of the word, all the stages of looking at an object. True, at the first glance it does look like a guy is merely holding his leg and staring at it. But try and look at it closer, or a bit longer, or from a different angle, and you will realise suddenly that there is more to this image. There is attention and tenderness in the image akin to mother-and-child relationship, and “Mollymuddle” may instantly become the newest reverberation of a mother-and-child theme in art. Think about multiple Our Lady and Christ representations where the baby Jesus is placed on his mother’s knee or in her arms, and looking at Simon’s face I think Leonardo’s “Madonna Litta” (right) may be a good reference; or we can recall pietà images. At the same time, the presence of a male figure, even recorded in this position, from this angle, may bring to mind the depth of Rodin’s work and Rodin’s preoccupation with human emotions and reactions. Or it may remind one of Picasso’s “The Old Guitarist” (right). “Mollymuddle” and our own looking at it prove Simon’s faithful adherence to Wittgenstein‘s idea of perception: “the expression of a change of aspect is the expression of a new perception and at the same time of the perception’s being unchanged“. We can find many more references in “Mollymuddle”, while only looking at Cunningham’s solitary figure.

If it is possible to draw a quick conclusion from the above, it will be that Simon Cunningham is teaching us that there is a direct connection between looking, thinking, and envisaging. The actual physical activity becomes possible after all those stages, even if they are not strictly discernible. Not that this sounds totally new, but perhaps we expect – and are expected – to always be active, and hence “having a look” is dismissed as insufficient, one is urged to produce, to exert some effect upon the world. Simon’s work, quirky and poetic at once, proves that with looking there is more going on than meets the eye – to which his “Duckrabbit” is a perfect illustration. It suffices to say that after this work ducks and rabbits will never be as we knew them before.

Links for Simon Cunningham:

In Our World exhibition profile
RCA profile.
Personal website.

A few extracts from Simon’s interview:

About his work:

I am trying to make these images that are in a state of flux, that are kind of wrestling with each other, and I always try and force myself to see what I saw when I looked at the images as a whole, where I was trying not to see a duck, or a rabbit, but trying to see both at the same time…

About his art:

It’s about maybe trying and find my own practice and name it, and I’ve always had a problem with naming it. The work has become in a way outside of language, it’s what I can’t name, or meshing words together, like Duckrabbit. They’re all pushing things together to make new meanings.

About photography

Photography is fascinating! It’s a way of bringing you closer to something but always keeps you at distance, it’s quite like this frustrated things, it’s looking at the world, and my work in general is about looking in the broadest sense of the world. It’s about looking, and seeing, and searching… Photography was the most accessible way of pointing and not naming but saying “this has got something to do with that, but I’m not quite sure what it is”…

About the Royal College of Art:

That’s an experience. I came here very much aware of how precious it would be to have two years where you could just experiment. And maybe a lot of people get hung up on the show, but luckily what made it for me was getting a Paris studio residency for three months.., and it kind of liberated me. And it also made me understand that I never had a studio… The studio became a sort of architecture of the space, and that space swept everything together.

About Paris:

Paris is amazing, it’s just a dream space, and because I am not very good with languages, I could go down the street, and there was no noise. Not that I go around listening to other people’s conversations, but when I was there I would switch off and find my own space…

What Do You Think an Artist Is?

Is pain-inflicting, self-mutilating “art” worthy of such name? Can we not sympathise with another person until we literally wear his shoes and physically experience his sufferings?

Update (29 July 2009):

Almost three years on, this has become one of the most popular posts on Los Cuadernos blog. And in the first half of 2009 I saw one site and one video that presented individuals performing self-mutilating acts for art’s sake. First, a pair of twin brothers exchanged arms: one brother’s arm was cut off from his body and reattached to his twin’s body. Thus one man remained with only one arm, while another ended up with three. And the video below taken from TrendHunter explores artistic self-mutilation further, with ten jaw-dropping examples of what is considered art.

Far from decrying anything you see in the video, I will, however, reiterate the point I made in the original post: why, after all wars and losses, do people still need to “practise” pain and mutilation, as if viewing the images of the dead and disabled people is not enough to understand what pain and death is? Three years on, I think I know the answer.

Humanity is fascinated by Death because, like Love and Pain, this is an eternal secret. It is a mystery. Camus said that suicide is the only true philosophical problem, but since the result of a suicide is death, it means that death itself may be the only true philosophical problem. Philosophy, since its origins, has been preoccupied with making sense of Life and of Man as a living being; but much rarely has it delved into the mystery of Death, and this may be its biggest challenge and hurdle.

It is human therefore that everything morbid fascinates, intrigues, and perplexes us. (Zizek comes to mind: people are forever concerned with what they cannot change). Memento mori. Danse macabre. The theme of Death and the Maiden in art (e.g., Hans Baldung, 1517 (right)). Venus at the Mirror as the parable of the fleeting beauty and deplorable life… the list can be continued, and all it will serve to do is to prove to us how truly interested artists are in what philosophy isn’t so eager to discuss. And in this regard it is probably only normal that there are people who use their own bodies to understand the mystery of pain or the secret of being on the brink of dying. In order to live on, art must be experimental, even if it has to experiment with itself.

Having said so, I’d rather not have this kind of art being performed publicly, let alone covered by the media. With our inclination to build hype around things it would be hard to see the forest for the trees.

Most importantly, I am always somewhat confused when artists, writers in particular, claim that in order to write about something they must know it, experience it first-hand. I’m uttering things, but does that mean that Dostoyevsky would need to kill a couple of old ladies to be able to write Crime and Punishment? And at the same time, speaking of literature, can it not help us gain the life experience that we seek?

It may depend on how we read, of course. Reading is both mental and emotional process. However, what is interesting is that because we most often use words to express ourselves, our entire life is one huge text, and each of us is reading it and making sense of it according to our aptitude and experience. We have to translate this text, either in the language of our experience, or in the foreign language, or in the language of other arts or disciplines.

Can it be therefore that after all the millenia humanity has learnt to do pretty much everything, including the genetic engineering and flying into space, but is still rubbish at such important thing as reading? Reading is understanding. Understanding gives one a key to influence things, to change the world. But what is there at the heart of it? Love, no doubt. For we only care to understand things we care about. And nothing can drive us to care about something as much as Love does. However…

…if we cannot love enough to care to understand, does it not mean that even in our Christian world we have never taken Jesus as an example? Does it not mean that we broke the teaching into citations and took to memorise the words without understanding (sic!) their meaning? It’s been a while since I thought: how odd it is that we are told to love God – but not people. How odd that people love God but distrust their neighbours. Maybe it simply means that people inherently distrust themselves. Maybe it means that they find it easier to trust in the Object that is forever absent and therefore cannot let them down more than it already does, rather than trusting another human being whose money isn’t always where the mouth is. But if Art is born in Love, and the present generation of artists often lacks empathy, does this not explain the rising concerns that contemporary art is devoid of essence?

Original post (2 October, 2006)

Several sayings by Pablo Picasso have already appeared on The LOOK’s front page in the past. I also love this photo of him made by Robert Doisneau. A genuine portrait of the genius.

Another portrait of the genius was made by Jean Dieuzaide, and I’ll leave it for you to guess, whose historic moustache you’re gazing at.

I’ve also found this phrase by Picasso a while ago on the web:

What do you think an artist is? An imbecile who has only eyes, if he is a painter, or ears if he is a musician, or a lyre in every chamber of his heart if he is a poet, or even, if he is a boxer, just his muscles? Far from it: at the same time, he is also a political being, constantly aware of the heartbreaking, passionate, or delightful things that happen in the world, shaping himself completely in their image. How could it be possible to feel no interest in other people, and with a cool indifference to detach yourself from the very life which they bring to you so abundantly? No, painting is not done to decorate apartments. It is an instrument of war.

One may say that Picasso’s viewpoint is somewhat outdated, in that people want to live in the world as peaceful as possible, hence art-as-war is no longer interesting. But there are many kinds of war, and not all are fought with tanks and missiles. There are language wars, religious wars, ‘moral’ wars, media wars, and all use art as a type of warfare. Furthermore, as George Orwell has put it, there are four main reasons to write prose, one of which is ‘political purpose‘ – ‘using the word “political” in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certan direction, to alter other people’s idea of the kind of society that they should strive after. Once again, no book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude‘ (Orwell, G., Why I write).

It would be very hard indeed to disagree with either Picasso or Orwell, and there are modern artists who follow in their footsteps. Perhaps, they don’t get involved in politics very much, but they nonetheless admit that their art exists because of people. One such artist is Dave McKean, who put it this way:

My own world is just trying to make sense of the real world. I don’t like the sort of science-fiction art and fantasy art that is just about goblins and fairies and spaceships. I don’t really see the point of that. It’s entertaining and it’s fine, but I couldn’t do it. I needed to be about people, who I have to deal with every day, and that’s what I’m interested in. I’m interested in what people think and how they think, and the things that they believe in, and desire, and are frightened of. So I’m interested in that side of life, really. And then I’m trying to sort of look at those things from a different point of view, or from metaphor, or from dreams, or from these other angles, because I think they are just interesting ways of seeing things, you know, that you have to deal with everyday for fresh, and you see them with different eyes, I think. [read full article based on McKean’s interview].
Finally, however, comes this passage from The Wicked and Unfaithful Song of Marcel Duchamp to His Queen by Paul Carroll:


Art? A form
of intimate hygiene for
the ghosts we really are.

This brings to my mind a TV programme made by Channel 4, which explored the anti-art, particularly in the form of inflicting pain on oneself as a means of teaching the audience a lesson of empathy. One of my ‘favourite’ moments on the programme was the couple who drank tea with biscuits, while literally “hanging down” from the ceiling on chains, hooks perceing their skin. The idea was to explore their experience of pain and also to expand people’s understanding of pain through such performances.

Having read the entire 120 Days of Sodome by de Sade, I wasn’t scared or repulsed by what I saw on screen, but it made me think. The question I asked myself was this: why in the world where there are so many wars and where the footage of deaths and casualties is already available on the Internet, is it necessary to appeal to people’s empathy by sticking iron hooks in your chest? Far from telling the artists what not to do for their art’s sake, I’m simply wondering about the purpose of such art. If the knowledge of the two World Wars and many other military conflicts doesn’t automatically make people detest the very idea of an offensive war, if the photos of destroyed houses, orphaned children and open wounds don’t change people’s view of loss and pain, then why would seeing two able-bodied adults hanging on chains drinking tea influence people’s idea of pain, or make people more compassionate? I’d imagine that after watching such ‘performance’ people would lose interest in pain altogether. If it’s endurable, then what’s the problem?

Some people with whom I discussed this previously have pointed out that this practice of piercing and inflicting pain is ritual in some countries and cultures. The problem, though, is that the only instance of it on our continent that springs to my mind was flagellantism that had spread in Europe in the 13-14th c. and was later revived as a sexual practice. There is evidently a difference between the culture of piercing in African or Aboriginous societies and this ‘hygienic’ European movement, and as far as I am concerned, this difference is much bigger than someone may think. This ‘civilized’ pain-inflicting art, given its purposes, is – in my opinion – exactly the kind of ‘personal hygiene’ Carroll had written about. An artist, no matter how politically involved, is above all a human being, and when he lacks empathy and cannot relate to other people’s experience, unless he shares it physically, forces to raise questions as to how worthwhile, creative and useful his art is.

And don’t quote Wilde’s ‘all art is quite useless‘. Unknowingly, in this witticism Wilde precluded Sartre who would say that culture doesn’t save or justify anyone – but that it is the mirror in which humanity sees itself. Considering that the Wildean phrase comes from The Portrait of Dorian Gray, culture or art as the mirror symbolically connects Wilde and Sartre. Perhaps it is good if humanity finally notices that it spends more time destructing and inflicting pain instead of learning to love. But will it finally start doing something about it?

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