Magazine article Art Monthly

Kenneth Anger: Icons

Magazine article Art Monthly

Kenneth Anger: Icons

Article excerpt

The life and oeuvre of Kenneth Anger are poised between mass culture and what, in the post-Second World War world, acted as the avant-garde: between, to put it crudely, product and poetry, between the annihilation of critical subjectivity by entertainment and the hoped-for preservation of its autonomy and difference. For the neo-avantgarde, that otherness would often be defined through sexual difference - including the formative work of Anger, Jack Smith and Gregory Markopoulos, and the later projects of Su Friedrich and Sadie Benning. For me, Anger's genius has lain in the magpie manner in which he plucked the especially pretty, shiny paste jewels out of Hollywood's decolletage, and the real diamonds from high fashion. Anger stuck those gems into films that were simultaneously scrapbooks, diaries and something larger, a faery whose organic form is so unlike the architecture of our own dear puritan present.

Anger's world is so utterly antithetical to both the sterile tradition of structuralist film and the performance of difference and radical posturing for the market that characterises contemporary neo-avantgardism that it is never less than a joy to enter. The transpositions between cultures in Anger's work were most engaging when they played with motifs that had already been reified by modernity, drawn from high into low culture. Anger brought those motifs back in modified form to new purpose: I'm thinking, for example, of his use of the body in Fireworks, 1947, his first film, where the sailor's body is lit like one of Alexander Rodchenko's Stakhanovite heroes of Soviet industry, but where that style has been so filtered through 1930s fashion photography (George Platt Lynes, Karsh of Ottowa, Cecil Beaton) until it finds its new, motile basis in the men's body-builder magazines of California and the oeuvre of the wonderful Bruce Bellas, aka Bruce of Los Angeles. At its best Anger's work is not a reflection of the surface of this mass-cultural world, not even its subversion, which would be compliment enough, but its perversion.

As the press release for Spruth Mager's show makes clear, the filmmaker's own practice has been profoundly influential to subsequent mainstream filmmakers, such as George Lucas and Martin Scorsese, and pop culture - in particular the music video. Thankfully Anger has been influential to more interesting directors: the New Queer Cinema of the 1990s owed him a considerable debt, in particular Greg Araki in Totally F****d Up, 1993, as did Sadie Benning's use of pop culture. However, the point of my comment here is primarily to criticise the apologetic nature of the gallery handout. We do not need to justify Anger's cultural import through his subsequent exploitation, reification and influence within commercial filmmaking or indeed his association in the 1960s with the tediously self-obsessed gods of pop music. Anger's significance lies in his utopian recycling of the mass cultural and the technical facility with which that is accomplished. Anger is in some sense an old-fashioned modernist collagist whose working processes provide that same profane illumination of the life cycles of capital that Walter Benjamin saw as central to Surrealism.

Anger's show at Spruth Magers includes no films: rather, it is a gatherum of photographs, film posters, press cuttings and assorted paraphernalia that relates not so much to his own creations as to the golden ages of Hollywood - its silent era and the years of studio domination - and to their hedonistic, narcissistic, exploitative undertow. …

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