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New Art Examiner

July, 2001
SHINY HAPPY PEOPLE: ART AND SPECIAL EFFECTS

Jacqueline Cooper

THIS IS A STORY ABOUT PERFECT FORMS, or at least how a few of those forms got to live in Los Angeles. By examining the materials, techniques, methodologies, and implications of Hollywood’s special-effects industry, I will try to deduce the influence this commercial practice exerts on the production of sculpture created in the contemporary urban areas of Southern California. Because the special-effects business is primarily engaged in the fabrication (or at least modification) of three-dimensional objects, this article will be concerned primarily with sculpture as a concrete and spatial manifestation of the plastic arts.

 
Taking Los Angeles as ground zero for aesthetic and industrial cross-contamination between fine art and the movie industry, this intersection has frequently occurred in tandem with the development of the West Coast art scene. Early in the 1960s, artists such as Larry Bell, John McCracken, Robert Irwin, and Bruce Nauman were exploring the capacity of new material and industrial manufacture to carry the concepts and metaphors that interested them. While Helen Frankenthaler and Morris Louis were exploring the (then) revolutionary characteristics of acrylic paint, Irwin, Bell, McCracken, et al. were playing with the optical and spatial properties of the paints, procedures, and application techniques used in the aerospace, automotive, and fiberglass industries. Fortunately, at the time there was no established painting or sculptural tradition in Los Angeles beyond romantic regionalism, an absence that permitted technology and play to invigorate the local art scene.
 
Los Angeles has moved on since then and the aerospace industry that dominated the suburbs of Long Beach, Lakewood, and Anaheim has dwindled to little more than a memory of the cold war and the military industrial clout of Boeing and Lockheed. However, other equally tantalizing technologies have taken hold and defined the face of the city. I would assert that the vitality of the art world in Southern California is tied directly to the relative health of whatever industry dominates. Here, the tropes and syntax of the movie and entertainment business have become inseparable from those of certain West Coast art practices. For example, the miniaturized environments created for and ultimately destroyed within action movies find a mirror in Chris Burden’s largescale dioramas. And Hollywood’s alien or fantastic life forms find themselves duplicated in works by artists such as Charles LaBelle and Liz Craft. Increasingly, material processes such as the widespread use of silicone in the special-effects industry have found a place in the technical vocabulary of artists, many of whom received their initial introduction to a variety of materials and mold-making techniques
through internships in the Special-effects industry.

A crossover between the Special-effects industry and the fine arts is almost inevitable in Los Angeles, and these two arenas often share very similar methods of production and use of materials, but they differ with regard to their objects’ intended final function. In the case of the fine arts, an object has a certain luxury; it functions as a reflection or critique of the society and system that produced it, rather than a simple surrogate or prop. Although both types of objects may be more or less ephemeral, special-effects objects are performative they are erected, filmed, often blown up, and finally discarded-where the fine-art object lives on, at least conceptually. One point of similarity persists, however. Given that the special-effects industry has been established in Los Angeles for over half a century and that it continues to push the boundaries of technology and, most recently, interactive and digital media, it seems only reasonable to propose that artists who are using the same language as Hollywood should approximate the same exacting standards.

The objects that comprise Jennifer Pastor’s Four Seasons from 1997 are hyper-realistic but symbolic representations of the different times of the year. Rendered in plastic and other artificial materials, they look like fantasy objects for a movie set as they disrupt the viewer’s cognizance of both scale and authenticity. With dazzling craftsmanship the objects seduce and sustain the attention of the viewer. Pastor’s gigantic stalks of corn–Fall--and pearly seashells–Summer--sit alongside evergreen trees–Winter–cantilevered off the wall. (This suite was in the 1997 Whitney Biennial.) Spring is an enormous moth pinned like anentomological specimen to the wall. Pastor has been working with prop-like objects since 1994. Her first solo exhibition in Los Angeles thwarted gallery goers who were trying to negotiate the cramped exhibition space filled with artificial Christmas trees
encrusted in fake cascades of ice.

The flawless level of Pastor’s technical execution is decisive. Her work looks like a good fake. It seems that if an artist provides a critical examination of manufactured reality in a city whose main industry is manufacturing flctional reality, the artist is obligated to replicate industry standards as accurately as possible, If the artist fails to do this, the audience is unlikely to get beyond seeing a dubious approximation of industry standards. The audience here is
already trained to expect incredible craftsmanship so anything approximating Hollywood product is judged accordingly. The only other recourse an artist has is to deliberately subvert technique in order to call attention to it. This strategy is used self-consciously in the work of Sam Durant, where abjection intentionally replaces the sterile perfection of the architectural model. For example, in his 2000 installation Proposal for Monument in Friendship Park, Jacksonville, Florida, Durant deliberately employed the most wretched, low-grade building materials (foamcore, fiberglass rocks, and cheap lumber) to construct an alternative theme park to the corporate Orlando, Florida behemoth Walt Disney World.

The special-effects industry strives toward the reasonable approximation of reality, whether or not that “reality” is a product of the imagination or a mirror of that which already exists, In that industry, getting to that point is the goal; the dialogue beyond production is largely irrelevant, unlike artists who work in a Surrealistic mode, who strategically use displacement of time and scale to imply extended allegory, the special-effects industry uses scale for efficiency. For the purposes of filming, the reduction of entire towns to the size of a tabletop is not only cheaper but also a great deal more controllable in terms of lighting, climate, and camera angle. Even when special effects are used to create the fantastic, the point is to encourage the suspension of disbelief. Therefore, even if one cannot reasonably comprehend how a Martian might look. once the concept “Martian” has been presented on film, the idea that it could exist is no longer in question, With the development of increasingly sophisticated production techniques the craft of the fantasy object is no longer a barrier to its credibility, the caveat being that because believability is increasingly dependent on craftsmanship, increasingly urbane audiences are unwilling to engage in fantasy in
the face of substandard effects.

The growth in theme parks over the last five decades and the resurgence of Las Vegas as a fantasy playland mirror this desire to live out a fictive “virtual” existence in some reasonable way in the “real” world. Since the 1940s and ’50s Americans have been trained to accept multiple layers of experience, and even to prefer manufactured entertainment to the original. Perhaps the acme of this achievement is the recent opening of Disney’s California Adventure, a theme park replete with replicas of California landmarks, scenery, and idioms stuck light in the middle of suburban Anaheim, California. Costing over $1.4 billion to build and occupying 55 acres, the park delivers a succinct yet fictional narrative experience describing the history and development of the Golden State. Sanitized, utopian, and wildly romantic, this consummate product is delivered under the good-humored guise of Mickey Mouse’s overarching gaze.

Robert Devine has been involved in the special-effects industry for over 20 years. After graduating from college, he worked on a film that was being shot a block away from his home in Venice, California. He became seduced by the technical challenges
presented by short deadlines, material innovations, and Cinematography and went on to form his own company specializing in animatronic puppets. Serendipitously, the film he first worked on–Ridley Scott’s 1980 Blade Runner–would come to define the anxiety and aesthetics of popular Postmodernism.

Visiting Devine’s company Anatomorphex, located in a nondescript business park in North Hollywood, is more than a little surreal. Hydraulically controlled animal puppets-animatronics-are lined up on shelves alongside architectural fragments, plastic skulls, and anthropomorphic vegetables. On the day I visited the company, employees were busy putting the finishing touches on a talking lettuce, one applying pigment, another making sure the hydraulic tubing that would make the leaves flex and gesture was operating correctly. Devine’s bookshelves are stacked with monographs and art history texts to which he constantly refers in researching the necessary anatomical and aesthetic parameters for his projects. The puppets are designed based on the minutiae of real animal movement so that they appear lifelike. The texture of “alien” skin on creatures from movies such as Mars Attacks and Stargate is rendered in silicone so that it can undulate and flex, approximating the pulse of a living form. Devine’s job is to replicate a given concept to a degree of accuracy that defies disbelief when presented on film. When asked, he willingly admits that the money and time spent by studios for such commercial projects allow for incredible technical and material innovations. Recently, he manufactured iridescent dung beetles for an advertising campaign, inventing an ew use for a praticular type fo plastic in the process. A materials pack rat, Devine had encountered the irridescent substance as part of his general research into various types of plastic months prior to this project. As is often the case in the special effects business, the short deadline and unusual characteristics of the insect triggered a memory of the material and resulted in its subsequent application. Understanding both the business and the creative requirements of his work, Devine hires mostly art students to work for him, and has facilitated the production of some fine-art pieces including works by Joyce Treiman and Robert Graham.

 
Now that the special effects industry and theme-park designers are so good at faking it, it seems important to concentrate on why artists are attempting to do thesame. Whereas the former favor the seamless simulation of natural, live creatures, artists who use special-effects materials and processes attempt to point out the strategies they employ. But as the quality of materials available and the craft of artists improves, their work depends more and more on the overlay of irony and skepticism to show that it is commentary on rather than collusion with, Hollywood artifice. For example, as Pastor’s work has evolved over the past ten years she has moved from the simple displacement of found objects (the artificial Christmas trees) to the manufacture of the perfectly formed and detailed objects that are displaced through scale (“Four Seasons”). As her work has become more operatic in scope and narrative, the objects themselves frequently call attention to the genesis of tehir manufacture instead of relying on the art-historical precedent of the readymade. In a more poignant take on Hollywood techniques, Paul Sietsema’s elegiac film Beautiful Place splices Warholian cinematography with teh craft of special-effects production. As the film slowly pans over Sietsema’s handmade modeling clay and paper flowers, the viewer is absorbed by the rhythm of the film itself and seduced by the capacity of artifice to contain the poetic moment and disrupt logical interpretation. Instead of Hollywood’s “seamless” special effects, Sietsema’s flowers revel in the deceit and inconsistency that ultimately reveal their true identity as fakes. Crafted lovingly from a variety of modeling materials, these artificial flora bloom and lie to a diurnal rhythm created within the 16-millimeter film.
 
As fantastic objects in the art world become more and more constrained to higher and higher standards of craft and believability, the imagination is eroded. Gaps in belief are compressed so that imagination is subordinated to both content and concept, until the object approximates perfection and requires imagination, once again, to breathe life back into a fantastical out sterile replicant. One way of engaging in this system is to make objects using industry methods and materials that are as
convincing as possible. For example, Liz Craft’s well-manufactured pieces always hark back to a winsome, post-adolescent moment of desire. Her early installations evoked the labyrinthine passageways of fairy tale palaces and fantastic architecture. Lately these large spaces have been formalized into multilevel tableaux first seen in an untitled work from 1998. A bright red monkey sits atop a precarious tower assembled from items in a suburban living room (a coffee table simultaneously sprouts from and supports the piece), while situated in the simulated environs of the Los Angeles municipal zoo. Most recently, Craft has directly focused her attention on cinematographic narrative with the work Six Dwarves Made in Austria. The sculpture was in part inspired by her tenure as a visiting artist in Linz, Austria, where Craft saw the landscape and castles through the lens of her own internalized vision of the classic 1937 animated movie of Snow White. Although in her retelling the prince has been eradicated and there are only six dwarves, Craft’s piece is as much an allegorical rendition of Disneyland as it is a take on the classic Grimms fairy tale. In a recent installation, the absent Snow White was replaced by a manga-inflected sculpture titled Foxy Lady. The six-foot-tall, fiberglass Amazon was assembled variously from a cast of the artist’s own torso and the modeled head and oversized tail of a fox. The cunning dominatrix, bedecked only in a leather collar and leash, stood over the six diminutive and slightly cranky-looking, white plaster dwarves, closely grouped together like a Circle of old men discussing current affairs. The seventh dwarf, like the fairytale princess, was notably omitted; both characters, having had their own narrative usurped, were perhaps off in search of an alternative. By intentionally subverting the original narrative to the requirements of her own conceptual practice Craft actively acknowledges the debt she owes to Disney in the breadth of her artistic license.
At the other end of the size scale, toying with whimsy but celebrating a certain miniaturized masculinity, Tom La Duke’s model dioramas sit happily on cast portions of the artist’s body. In EBS, La Duke perched a detailed scale model of an antenna-studded hillSide atop me subtle curve of a cast of his own knee. La Duke’s work in part extends the continued mediation between art and technology that has been me subject of Chris Burden’s sculptural interventions for at least the last two decades. By using scale models and simple allusions to cast play and warfare as polemics, Burden has analyzed the aesthetic strategies employed by the military industrial complex as a means to further geographic and economic expansion. Unlike the expendable dioramas constructed for me movie industry, Burden’s pieces use model-making techniques and materials to indict the lasting influence corporate and urban expansion exert on society. Recently, the work A Tale of Two Cities, originally from 1981, was reconstructed at The Orange County Museum of Art. A miniature reconstruction of two City-states at war that uses over 5,000 war toys from me United States, Japan, and Europe; the entire tableau is set on a sand base that simultaneously represents both the desert and the ocean. The acts of aggression and isolation portrayed by the work resonate as clearly now as they did nearly 20 years ago, suggesting that Burden’s investigations tap into a timeless exploration of violence and alienation, contingent on toys and games, as part of the human condition.
Perhaps the most significant difference in the application of materials and techniques between the artisans of special effects and artists is the fundamental aspect of visibility. Devine’s doppelgangers are created to disappear into the story of their movie context. Their manufacture is such that they might be able to integrate seamlessly into whatever world they are approximating. For example, an animatronic squirrel produced by Anatomorphex for the 2001 Nintendo advertising campaign would look equally at home perched atop an oak tree. By contrast, the artist Julian Hoeber uses cinema to foreground this analysis. When he first began to make films critiquing the narrative and form of low-budget horror movies, Hoeber remembered a book on the techniques of special-effects make-up he had read as a child. His first attempts to create props and pros me tics for his own art failed partially due to lack of technical acuity, which he later perfected working on the production team for Mathew Barney’s Cremaster 2from 1999/2000. In his own work, Hoeber seeks to expose special effects and then subordinate them to the internal rhythm of cinematic narrative. Two recent videos initially approximate the experience of watching low-budget slasher flicks. A realistic head explodes spectacularly into shards of plaster bone and fake blood. The image is repeated serially until the horror engendered by the high level of realism is subsumed into the overall rhythm of repetition and the head becomes convincingly fake.
 
If we are in danger of losing ourselves to things that are perfectly replicated, the question becomes: What if the replicant was even better than it is now? Herein lies the specter of the cyborg. In surpassing the human conditions of mortality and decay the cyborg is an intentional. technological rupture of the idea of evolution. Instead of changing slowly over time, moving ever toward me eradication of vestigial traits, the cyborg short-circuits this process and emerges fully formed and preternaturally perfect. Wim the arrival of the cyborg we slip ever more comfortably into the quest for the realm of perfect forms, obviated by our own technological doppelgangers. Our inability to discriminate between the natural and artificial eventually results in denial and an inability to care. Amidst this maelstrom the artist takes on the role of ombudsman by examining the very tools and technologies that provoked this clisis, and is given the opportunity to create a new, more humanistic revision of the technological being.
 
Jacqueline Cooper is a writer and artist currently
living in Los Angeles.