April 13th, 2016
I can’t confess to being a huge Kafka Fan, having only read Metamorphosis 20 odd years ago and letting most of his other celebrated books such as The Trial and The Castle pass me by. But such is the iconic nature of the man – the term Kafka-esque is now part of common parlance – it often feels like I know far more about him than is actually the case.
What I did know about him was that he was deeply troubled and conflicted; a tortured soul who threw his lot into writing at a young age with an unflailing compulsion to let his thoughts spill onto the empty page, often as diatribes against a society increasingly governed by de-humanizing bureaucracy and mechanization. This and his own sense of isolation and feelings of inferiority – due in part to a fractious relationship with his overbearing father – would become consistent themes in his work, as would his relationship to Prague as both an intellectual and a Jew.
His was a light that burned fierce but brief as he died of Tuberculosis in 1924 at the age of 40, and his work – while lauded and celebrated today – was often reviled or simply ignored when originally published.
In an effort to find out more about the man, I visited the Kafka museum in Prague which sits beside the Vltava riverbank not too far from the Charles Bridge.
The exhibition designers have succeeded in creating a disorienting and slightly unnerving experience; using sound, lighting, visuals and props in imaginitive ways to tell, first, the story of Kafka’s formative years as a youngster growing up in Prague that later led him into literary circles and, second, more thematic content tied closely to his most famous novels.
I’m not sure if it was their intent, but the whole thing – set over two floors – feels like a journey through the man’s psyche – as if we’ve entered through a tiny hatch directly into Kafka’s head, quietly creeping around a dimly-lit ‘innerscape’ uncovering clues to Kafka’s enigmatic imagination.
The sound of bleating crows pierces the general stillness and a constant brooding drone can be heard as you navigate your way around the oddly shaped rooms with their skewed walls and low ceilings. A series of exhibition cases on the top floor contain book extracts, photographs and letters while more general information and intermittent quotes – in both Czech and English – are found dotted about on wall panels. Video screens show abstract short films more as atmospheric filler than to inform, but are effective in contextualizing Kafka’s thought process – particularly his love/hate relationship to Prague and how he saw the city as both an oppressive prison and the place that gifted him the many opportunities he had as a writer. As a direct reference to the time spent by Kafka in his administrative role for an insurance company, two rows of large black filing cabinets take up an entire room upstairs and a maze-like corridor on the ground floor. These black caskets strongly embody the stranglehold that this job would have on Kafka’s life and which forced him to relegate writing to his spare time.
An ominously lit wood paneled staircase leads down to the ground floor which includes – amongst other things – a model of the elaborate torture and execution device featured in the 1918 story In the Penal Colony, a selection of book covers and more lengthy analysis of the author’s key works.
Non Czech readers are at a definite disadvantage with this exhibition as so much of the original material is only partially translated. Kafka’s letters and diaries hold the key to so much of his pain, frustration and creative process – so not being able to read them in their entirety means that I was only getting glimpses of a picture rather than the picture as a whole. Space obviously limits the application of too much wordy captioning and signage, so it’s best for any English visitors to buy the exhibition catalogue for a fuller insight.
Categories: Architecture Design Film Photography
January 24th, 2016
When I was six years old, my father sat me down to watch the short 1956 film The Red Balloon directed by Frenchman Albert Lamorisse about the unconventional tale of friendship between a young boy and a large, red balloon. In the same way that Toy Story would anthropomorphize gangly cowboy dolls and slinky dogs some 40 years later, Lamorisse’s film succeeded in imbuing an inanimate object with emotional resonance – eliciting in the viewer the same sense of crushing sadness and heartening elation normally reserved for the likes of a Gone with the Wind or a Casablanca. I returned to the film recently as both a nostalgic trip down memory lane and to introduce it to my own children, curious to see whether it would have the same effect on them.
I’m pleased to say that it did.
‘No ideas but in things’ said the American poet William Carlos Williams, and it’s clear to see how film-makers have exploited the evocative power of objects ever since the Lumière brothers used an oncoming train to make audiences jump out of their seats in 1895.
As a primarily visual medium, film uses sequential still imagery to evoke emotional responses to a given narrative. Key to this emotional connection is the use of objects to support character development and help drive a story.
Some objects are richly symbolic, others are purely entertaining and yet others have transcended the boundaries of the screen; acting as shorthand for an entire film and often becoming themselves icons of popular culture. Dorothy’s red slippers from the Wizard of Oz, Marilyn Monroe’s billowing white dress in The Seven Year Itch, Harry Callahan’s .44 Magnum in Dirty Harry – all can stake a claim as cultural artifacts that help to define character and narrative.
Film posters, tasked with grabbing attention while attempting to make clear both the story and genre often use objects as an abbreviated language. Would Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket poster work with anything other that the darkly ironic soldier’s helmet, or the poster for Rosemary’s Baby be as effective without the ominous silhouetted pram in the foreground? Quite possibly, but would they be as memorable? Probably not.
Since its inception, film has often relied on objects to create lasting and indelible impressions on audiences. The silent era of film was marked by distinctive characters that were defined in part by objects, such as Charlie Chaplin’s bowler hat, cane and oversized shoes or Harold Lloyd’s round spectacles. Props too would be used by these same characters to create some of the most memorable scenes in movie history, such as the clock from which Harold Lloyd dangles in Safety Last! or the floating globe that Charlie Chaplin teasingly plays with in The Great Dictator.
The presence of a simple, tangible object can also often lend a film gravitas, as is the case with Metropolis’s Maria the robot or Back to the Future’s DeLorean shaped time machine, and – in keeping with the literary plot device of a MacGuffin – provide the driving motivations for an entire story (think the glowing briefcase from Pulp Fiction [itself heavily inspired by the 1955 film Kiss Me Deadly] or the Maltese Falcon from the film of the same name). These objects act as characters in themselves – magnetic ‘totems’ that are as integral to a film as setting or sound.
The visual iconography of objects also contribute to their film’s respective legacies and fan followings, often providing myriad commercial opportunities for people able to harness their pulling power. The web is littered with fan sites selling all manner of merchandise adorned with images of The Terminator’s T-1000, The Lord of the Rings ‘One Ring’ or Lolita’s heart shaped sunglasses. The online gadget and game retailer Firebox even sells Cast Away inspired ‘Wilson’ volleyballs, which – while seeming like an odd choice of object to extol, makes total sense when you consider the emotional resonance of the ball to the film’s central character and to the audience’s sense of empathy. What images of Che Guevara or Bob Marley plastered on posters have done to popularize revolutionary ideals, so too have images of Jason Vorhees’ hockey mask (Friday the 13th) or Freddy Kruger’s bladed glove done for fear of the bogeyman.
Artists too have immense fun with film objects such as New York based Ji Li whose online game ‘Famous Objects from Classic Movies’ requires players to guess the name of films from a single silhouetted image. Highly sophisticated fan art in the form of collectible prints and other published ephemera further demonstrate the marketing potential of cinematic objects, as can be seen in limited edition posters sold by the likes of US based Mondo and Dark Hall Mansions or Belgium’s Nautilus Art Prints, whose founding partner Laurent Durieux is fast becoming the most celebrated artist on the alternative movie poster scene.
Naturally this fascination with screen objects has attracted the attention of more ‘serious’ collectors and, ever since the seminal MGM Studios auction in 1970 – in which the studio created a three day film memorabilia auction to clear seven soundstages in an effort to consolidate space – a whole new collectors market has emerged that previously only existed for a few film enthusiasts. Among the vast array of over 350,000 costumes, film props and related property that went under the hammer at MGM were a pair of ruby red slippers worn by Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz that sold for $15,000. To give a sense of how this particular area of collectibles has grown, consider that a second pair of the ruby slippers sold at auction in the 1980s for $165,000 and the final pair available (of four known to exist) sold in 2012 for $2 million.
This transition of objects from the films in which they appear into the ‘real world’ as coveted collectibles and auction house treasures, reveal new meanings of ownership, identification and value. Films are suspended in a timeless realm of magic and wonder, and thus owning a piece of them makes us in some way immortal by association. Similar to the ways in which objects like the Batmobile or Darth Vader’s helmet are extensions of the characters which own them, collectors are looking for the closest and most intimate form of emotional connection to a film, and thus – paying such enormous sums for them seems oddly justifiable. The objects are often also direct links to childhood; times in most people’s lives less burdened by responsibility and more fuelled by active and fertile imaginations – an idea that was mined for full effect by Orson Welles’ use of the ‘Rosebud’ sled in Citizen Kane (1931) or Alfie’s coveted Red Ryder BB Gun in A Christmas Story (Bob Clark, 1983).
It seems that Albert Lamorisse too was fully aware of the power that objects can have on us when, in 1956, he dreamed up the idea of an unconventional but lasting friendship between a young boy and a red balloon.
Visit my new Facebook page ‘Seeing Things’ which is solely dedicated to objects onscreen and Read more about film objects in Rosebud Sleds and Horses’ Heads: 50 of Film’s Most Evocative Objects, a book developed by yours truly and authored by Scott Jordan Harris.
Categories: Film Uncategorized
September 28th, 2015
During a recent trip to Zagreb for a conference, I finally got the chance to visit a museum that i’d read so much about and was keen to experience for myself.
The Museum of Broken Relationships, a permanent memoriam to ‘temporary union’ is a unique place. Not simply due to its collection of seemingly trivial objects, but because a museum dedicated to such a collection has become a pilgrimage site for visitors from around the world.
Set up following the real-life break-up of founders Olinka Vištica and Drazen Grubišić in 2006, the museum’s exhibition of personal objects donated by ordinary people snakes its way through six or so rooms, each loosely based on a theme. Poetic interludes by the likes of Mary Oliver are sparsely and discreetly applied on walls to remind the visitor of the importance of connection and inevitable separation.
The objects themselves are accompanied by texts in both Croatian and English that range in length from a few words to essay long diatribes – some humorous, others tragic but all are honest testament to each donor’s feeling of sadness and loss.
A stuffed animal is positioned next to a cheque book or a roll of film and all are displayed respectfully on illuminated plain white risers or wall mounted cabinets. Minimal decoration is used as a thematic device such as the discoloured tile backdrop in the “Resonance of Grief” room which includes a bottle of conditioner, heroin testing kit and an axe violently impaled into a plinth. While some donors are clearly confident with their ability to weave a well told (and written) story, I found some of the strongest pieces accompanied by fewer words. One object in particular – a fairly kitche ceramic frog ornament found in the room dedicated to family relationships – simply has the following heartbreaking caption:
‘Mom left when I was 3, this is one of the few Christmas gifts she has given me’
While some objects speak of shared interests or commemorate events such as the broken glasses used each year to celebrate a couple’s anniversary ritual, others suggest that trouble was on the horizon from the get go. The boy who mistakenly thought that his gift of a Galileo thermograph would capture his beloved heart’s affections eventually has it added to the scrapheap of doomed romance as his Taiwanese ex-lover simply states: ‘WTF! Could that be the kind of birthday gift a 20-year old girl would expect?!’
An unused stun gun given as an odd gesture of protection, a can of love incense which in the words of its doner ‘Doesn’t work’ and a wedding dress that symbolizes failed promises – all are physical testimony to relationships that fizzled, burned out or broke apart.
Speaking to someone the day after about the reasons why we both felt elated at the end of our visit rather than cynical or morose, it struck me that at the heart of the museum’s existence lies a cathartic ‘letting go’ of something meaningful and symbolic for each donor – a gesture of ending to allow for a new beginning.
While some of the stories may be depressing and, by nature of the museum’s title suggest heartbreak, the donation of each object to the museum is anything but. Rather than a selfish act of opportunism, it could be said that each donation is a selfless gesture affording the viewer a chance to connect emotionally with his or her own pain or suffering. A problem aired is a problem shared after all, and similar to the way in which Princess Diana’s death seemed to open up a public channel of grief in the UK – objects in the MoBR offer a quiet and contemplative space to mourn our own fractured past.
This quasi-religious subtext may explain why the museum, which has had a travelling element since 2008, chose as one of its venues the Oude Kerk (Old Church) right in the middle of Amsterdam’s red light district in 2013. The Organisers of that particular exhibition – the workgroup “Art and Church” – went one step further by choosing objects that related in some way to stories being told in Biblical readings at the church in the run-up to Christmas.
As with other of its temporary residences around the world, the museum has a committed and active group of regional ‘ambassadors’ who curate each show based on objects collected from the local community.
This global network of passionate advocates for the museum is helping to ensure its survival and is testament to the universal appeal of a place dedicated to telling extraordinary stories by ordinary people. The unpretentious nature of their endeavor is what makes it such a success in my opinion, as museums traditionally tend to be quite alienating or stuffy by way of their ‘look but don’t touch’ policy. The MOBR also has a no touch policy, but the objects displayed are by no means precious artifacts of historical or monetary value in the traditional sense. Each object is rather a signifier of a commonplace human experience – that of the ‘death’ of love. While some would argue that this in and of itself doesn’t merit the establishing of a museum – I would counter that this is exactly the sort of thing that a modern museum should be about.
The acclaimed Turkish author Orhan Pamuk suggested as much when he opened his Museum of Innocence in 2012, as both an accompaniment to his novel of the same name (published in 2008) and as a declaration of love to his home city of Istanbul. He too believes that museums should celebrate the individual strory and feels strongly that ‘…our daily lives are honourable – the details of our gestures, our words, our smells, our sounds, our objects, are worthy of preservation.’
In an age when technology and the proliferation of ‘smart’ cities seems to be divorcing us from real human interaction, a museum such as this refocuses our attention on an essential human need – that of emotional connection through shared experiences.
Objects are inherently evocative and many of us define ourselves by the things we work, play and think with. We invest energy, time and money in choosing gifts for our loved ones and so each of these objects subsequently ‘hold’ meaning to ourselves and others. They often embody a time and place, acting as conduits of good and bad memories that help us to compose our life’s narrative.
The everyday nature of these ordinary objects are often far more meaningful that anything we may find in a traditional museum, and is therefore another reason to be thankful that the Museum of Broken Relationships exists.
The museum provides a place for anyone and everyone to share their stories of heartbreak and loss – safe in the knowledge that visitors will empathise with their grief rather than judge. Morbid curiosity may bring many punters through the door, but a profound sense of connectivity is more likely to be what is taken out – as was the case when I exited into the fading light of a breezy September evening in Zagreb.
Categories: Design Education Uncategorized