By Aarón Rodríguez Serrano
I remember exactly the first time I saw a work by Bill Viola. I was less than ten. My father worked for SEAT in a factory on the outskirts and my mother helped the family economy with her jobs as the neighbourhood’s seamstress, copying dresses featured on Lecturas magazine for the queens of the lumpenproletariat to show off at the weddings of San Blas. As many other humble families from the late Transición, my parents had never set a foot on a museum, least of all one of those now called Contemporary Art Centres, but they sensed that giving me an art overdose during the Saturday mornings of my primary school years would be a good antidote for me not to end up adding neon to the kids’ Ford Fiestas and, on top of that, taking coke in front of the wise mirrors of the Fabrik.
From that Bill Viola installation I recall some isolated details: giant screens, a close up of a woman giving birth, an old lady agonising on a hospital bed. And then, obviously, the nightmares… In ten years, I’d never experienced terror in such a pure form.
There are many –and very good– theories about our relation, as spectators, to horror films: Sigfried Kracauer, Robin Wood, Carol J. Clover, Pérez Ochando, Antonio José Navarro. You can choose freely: genre approach, fascist fascination, a return of the repressed, and an exhibition of trauma… Psychoanalysis, chainsaws, amputated limbs and queer panic, you name it! As it happens with a great deal of contemporary art, horror cinema is maintained in part by its discursive frameworks, its references, its closed circuits and commonplaces. In fact, the expressions we use to talk about both disciplines are disturbingly similar. If we say, for instance, that in one piece the problem of the body emerges we might be talking about American Mary or Silvia Giambrone’s actions. Cindy Sherman’s crazy clowns seem to emerge directly from the spine-chilling Mockingbird. Pushing this to the limit, the crimes of the series Hannibal –as Tonio L. Alarcón already pointed out– are baroque proposals indebted to Damien Hirst or Joel-Peter Witkin.
Certainly, it might be argued, before the apparent similarities, that horror films and contemporary art completely differ when it comes to their production processes and objectives. In the first case, we almost always find ourselves with chain manufactured industrial products directly designed to sell popcorn, nachos with cheese and condoms. In the second, for decades theoreticians have been constructing a complex fabric of signifiers including visibility, emancipation, denunciation, and, lately, blessed empowerment. However, we can’t deny that, as Wittgenstein would say, both types of text share a certain family air.
My intuition, in the last months, works precisely against everything that would be expected in a first approach on the topic. I’ve always found horror films, against all odds, a lot less terrifying than contemporary art. In fact, I think that I’ve felt more unease and angst watching performances and going to art experiment centres than in front of the last slasher’s never-ending collection of more or less inspired mutilations. The same could be said of the each time more frequent memorials featured in all sorts of museums and areas devoted to the remembrance of a catastrophe: corridors going down towards darkness, indirect lights, enumerations of the names of the victims that echo in scary open spaces… Moshe Safdie or Daniel Libeskind’s fractured architecture seems ready to welcome those distressing memory boxes that Boltanski piles up in his installations, in what finally ends up becoming a nightmare’s giant filming set.
In this twinning between horror films and contemporary art there is, however, a capital difference. Save for notable exceptions –the truly terrifying–, horror films always move inside a classic tale frame. No matter how “transgressive” –be it told through found footage or including lots of meta-references–, it can all be comfortably ordered in a reasonably closed strategy: characters with a twist, accessible chronological precedents, causal processes. The same can be argued about its form: the structure shot/countershot, the centre framing of the characters and the chronological edition finally show us, from the point of view of the receiver, the security of finding ourselves before a “familiar game,” to put it somehow. Let’s take as an example the usual structure of the film fright, which is no more than a trick based on the managing of time: the director puts on hold any events for a few seconds –who’s behind that door? What will happen when I look on the mirror?– generating a question that the viewer, deep down, can already answer: a dog, a monster, a murderer; highlighted, on top of that, through a sonic effect.
In video art looking to consciously overwhelm the viewer, on the contrary, it’s generally impossible to trace the storylines. They are almost always fragmented, suggested. The narrative language in itself is destroyed after each decision: a character jumps into a tilted frame. The next shot lasts five minutes and is a homemade panoramic view of a cornfield taken from a car. After that, the screen remains black and we hear, in the background, the blunt and ice-cold narration of a rape from the mouth of its victim. Logically, contemporary art is immersing itself here in the capital problem of the presence of evil in our world, but it does so by destroying the causal logic sustaining it. Evil is there, nothingness is there and the artist, precisely, by denying the narrative, makes us feel a much more terrifying impact before that succession of images. In contemporary art, evil has no final cause –and can’t be controlled in any way either–, it simply is.
Sometimes, horror films want to take advantage of that impressive force –the terrifying force of nothingness– but it’s unable to do it. I’m thinking, in particular, about two inspired pieces of video art not considered as such: the Sadako video in the Japanese version of The Ring and the atrocious recordings of murders of Sinister. Both cases include the same chaotic and brutal textures of visual fractures that the works about images of a certain Stan Brakhage, Peter Tscherkassky or Morgan Dews have left us. However, they haven’t got enough value to let them flow. In this “video art understood as horror” the time of the fright, plain and simple, never ends. The empathy mechanisms are blocked. The logics of diegesis are denied and, of course, what they manage is a burst of pure horror.
After all these years, I’ve seen again Bill Viola’s work and I have never ceased to marvel before his wonderfully impressive visual power, his sense of beauty, his bravery to face the spiritual sphere. Still, each time I enter an installation or a museum, I inevitably remember my parents’ silence when, pointing at the screen, I asked them: “Why is that woman really dying?”
Horror films give us a mask and passionately kiss our mouth, between laughs, as an answer to that question. Contemporary art closes our eyes and prudishly kisses our cheek. Its lips, by the way, are a lot colder.