Exhibitions: Agitprop! at the Brooklyn Museum

agitprop-postersVarious posters and ephemera on view in Agitprop!. All photos by the author unless otherwise noted.

“Agitprop” is a word I never learned in my art history classes, despite the fact that there has pretty much always been political art. I guess the term sounds too Communist for the classroom. Historically, political motivations were generally seen in portraiture, monuments, and materials, with artwork intrinsically linked to wealth, power, and faith. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, artists have increasingly found ways to create politically charged artwork that speaks for the oppressed rather than the privileged, often moving into the public sphere with poster campaigns, performances, protests, and press. Now more than ever it seems harder for new artists to operate in a world separate from their surroundings, with ever-present media over-saturation and the volatile state of current affairs, and increased awareness of how race, gender, class, and sexuality affect personal experience (and therefore, artistic production).

On view at the Brooklyn Museum through August 7, 2016, Agitprop! is a thought-provoking group exhibition that collects together over 100 years of work made “as a call to action to create political and social change.” There are posters and newspaper clippings, films and documentary photography, performance records and public sculpture, with work from long-established artists like Jenny Holzer and Yoko Ono, as well as newer collectives like Occupy Museums and Not an Alternative. Participating artists were invited to recommend others for the show, making even the curatorial process a study in collaboration and egalitarianism. The resulting exhibit is organized loosely by theme, connecting decades and different activist approaches, addressing both domestic and international issues.

intlworkingwomensday-postersPosters by Valentina Kulagina, 1931. Right-hand image via The Charnel House.

eisenstein-miseryStill from Misery and Fortune of Woman, 1929. Directed by Sergei Eisenstein and Eduard Tisse.

The first room I went through greeted me with a series of Soviet propaganda promoting women’s health and labor, with vintage posters for International Working Women’s Day, and an educational film by Sergei Eisenstein advocating for safe abortions across the world (the USSR had legalized abortion in 1920). The posters were created by Valentina Kulagina, a leading Constructivist designer in the 20s and 30s. Her work combines monochrome photo-collage with brightly colored illustration in the bold social realist style, pairing real women of the USSR with the ideal, sturdy working woman seen in official advertising. The sharp diagonals, stark text, and heavy use of red are perfect examples of the Constructivist aesthetic popular in the early years of the USSR, which endeavored to establish its own unique art style that visually symbolized utilitarianism, unity, and strength. Meant to be inspirational, Kulagina’s imagery also highlights the struggle women still faced entering the workforce after the revolution, while still expected to retain domestic duties. The artist’s creative output was later restricted under increased Stalinist scrutiny and her progressive revolutionary ideology was rejected.

Communist messages were further represented by a section on Tina Modotti’s photography, taken in Mexico during the 1930s. Born in Italy, Modotti immigrated to San Francisco as a teenager and, after a brief career as a film and stage actress, she moved to Mexico City with photographer Edward Weston. There she became part of the revolutionary avant-garde alongside artists like Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, joining the Mexican Communist Party in 1927. She was known for her documentary photographs of murals, peasant farmers, and laborers, and her work was often used in Communist literature and propaganda. Agitprop! features a selection of her photographs paired with magazines and newspapers that featured them, including The New Masses. Her style is characterized by its empathy, stark contrast, and attention to details.

tinamodottiWoman With Flag and Mexican sombrero with hammer and sickle by Tina Modotti, seen in issues of A-I-Z and The New Masses, respectively.

suffragette-banner Standing Together… by the National Women’s Party, 1913-1920.

dykeactionmachineLesbian Americans: Don’t Sell Out, 1998, and Do You Love the Dyke in Your Life?, 1993, by Dyke Action Machine.

granfury-guerrillagirlsWomen Don’t Get AIDS, They Just Die From it by Gran Fury, 1991; When Racism and Sexism Are No Longer Fashionable, What Will Your Art Collection Be Worth?, 1989, and Dear Art Collector, 2015, by the Guerrilla Girls.

Soundararajan-DalitWomenFight-2014#DalitWomenFight by Thenmozhi Soundararajan, 2014.

Feminist messages are represented in various ways throughout the show, with historic and contemporary activism side by side. Vintage suffragette banners hang high above a mural by Dyke Action Machine that wryly inserts lesbian themes into 90s advertising imagery. A poster by Gran Fury (displayed in various NYC bus shelters in 1991) calls for more inclusive treatment and discussion of AIDS by the Center for Disease Control. Several pieces by the Guerrilla Girls highlight trenchant sexism in the art world, employing sarcasm, statistics, and advertising to target collectors, art scholars, and museum leaders. Formed in the 1980s, their message continues to be relevant today as museums and galleries remain heavily white and male in their collections and major exhibits. Thenmozhi Soundararajan’s LED text-based sculpture references her project, #DalitWomenFight, which fights caste-based sexual violence in India and promotes the stories of Dalit women across the world.

In the center of it all is Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party, a sculptural installation that is permanently on view as part of the Brooklyn Museum’s collection within the Elizabeth Sackler Center for Feminist Art. This room-size work represents the artist’s idea of a dinner table set for important women throughout history, including some mythological figures. Each place setting features an embroidered banner with the woman’s name and symbols connected to her culture or experience, and a porcelain plate with painted or sculpted yonic imagery. The floor is painted with names of many more women, some connected to the major figures with plates. Within the realm of feminist art history, this is a landmark, a quintessential work of second wave feminism with its focus on the body, on vaginal motifs, on goddess culture, and on women’s history. Today many recognize this brand of feminism as being too exclusive, generally prioritizing cis white women, equating vaginas with womanhood and Western-centric historical figures. I definitely agree with this criticism, but I do still view the movement as significant and influential, and I feel art being made by women like Chicago was radical for its time, and I was moved by her sweeping vision when I stood within The Dinner Party. So there that is. The lack of women of color (I think there are, like, three?) is a big distraction while viewing it, though.

chicago-dinnerparty1The Dinner Party by Judy Chicago, 1974-79.

chicago-dinnerparty2The Dinner Party (detail – Virginia Woolf) by Judy Chicago, 1974-79

chicago-dinnerparty3 The Dinner Party (detail – Sojourner Truth) by Judy Chicago, 1974-79.

chicago-dinnerparty4 The Dinner Party (detail – Hildegarde von Bingen) by Judy Chicago, 1974-79.

chicago-dinnerparty5 The Dinner Party (detail – Amazon) by Judy Chicago, 1974-79.

chicago-dinnerparty6The Dinner Party (detail – Sacajawea) by Judy Chicago, 1974-79.

Moving back into Agitprop!, there are works linking decades of police oppression and government inaction regarding black deaths in this country. One display compiles film (Oscar Micheaux’s Within Our Gates), photography, illustration, and painting to starkly remind viewers of our history of ignorance, prejudice, and, especially, lynching. Wall text relates how the NAACP “made a cultural campaign for hearts and minds” a central part of their strategy to “end the terrorism of these unprosecuted mob-driven murders,” resulting in plays, films, songs, and artwork that sought to combat stereotyping and misinformation about African Americans in the early twentieth century. On a nearby wall hang photographs from Dread Scott’s 2014 performance, On the Impossibility of Freedom in a Country Founded on Slavery and Genocide, which links recent incidents of police brutality (indicated by the “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” gesture) with 1963 demonstrations in Birmingham, AL, when anti-segregation demonstrators were met with high-pressure fire hoses. In an earlier gallery, a piece by Otabenga Jones & Associates reminds viewers of the Free Breakfast Program launched by the Black Panthers, sabotaged by J Edgar Hoover. (Recently, this inspired their own “People’s Plate” educational nutrition program in Houston, TX.)

A variety of other social and political issues are addressed in further works, again both historical and contemporary. Posters from the WPA advertise theatrical productions about housing and labor concerns during the Great Depression, while a “Mili-Tent” from the Not an Alternative collective is displayed as a sculpture, having been used as a symbol in protests against foreclosure, eviction, and displacement in New York City. Cartoon illustrations by Coco Fusco relate to her infamous performance piece from the early 90s, in which she and collaborator Guillermo Gomez-Peña presented themselves as fake “Undiscovered Amerindians,” with stereotypically “primitive” clothing and language, kept in a cage and put on display in the tradition of World’s Fair displays. Viewers were told that they were indigenous to an island untouched by Western culture, and for a fee they would perform dances and take photos with the crowd. Adejoke Tugbiyele’s sprawling gay pride flag addresses homophobic persecution in Nigeria, made of women’s headscarves (gele) traditionally worn at funerals. In another gallery, a huge mural collects together drawings by Egyptian graffiti artist Ganzeer, responding to violence in his own country as well as in the US. Across the room a powerful piece by The Yes Men and various collaborators imagines a peaceful, utopian future after Obama’s first election through a fake newspaper with headlines like “IRAQ WAR ENDS” and “ALL PUBLIC UNIVERSITIES TO BE FREE.”

lynched-peoplesplateFlag, announcing lynching, flown from the window of the NAACP headquarters on 69 Fifth Ave, New York City, 1936. Via Brooklyn Museum; and The People’s Plate on the Move by Otabenga Jones & Associates, 2015.

WPA-postersFederal Theatre Project posters, late 1930s. Right-hand poster via Wikimedia Commons.

notanalternative-mili-tent-2011Mili-Tent by Not an Alternative, 2011.

cocofusco-theamerindians-2012The Undiscovered Amerindians: “Oh Please!” Begged the Gentleman at the Whitney Biennial by Coco Fusco, 2012.

AdejokeTugbiyele-GelePrideFlag-2014Gele Pride Flag by Adejoke Tugbiyele, 2014.

ganzeer-urgentvisions-2015Urgent Visions by Ganzeer, 2015.

yesmen-nytimesThe New York Times Special Edition by The Yes Men with Steve Lambert, et al, 2008.

Agitprop! is jam-packed with work, and at times can be overwhelming as a viewer, but only because the emotional content is so high. Almost everywhere I turned I was met with evidence of people who cared, deeply, about the world around them, and who earnestly try to effect change through their art and activist practices. In many ways the exhibit moved me, and there were moments when I had to turn away because the subjects were too upsetting. But that’s good, that’s the point, we should be upset by what we see here, especially the realization that so many of the historical issues are still relevant today. Often when confronted with such knowledge and imagery of suffering, I shut down and try to take my mind off it, because it’s too much, and I feel helpless. But seeing a show like this makes me realize I can be hopeful that things can get better, and that people from all around the world are using what skills they have (in this case, their artistic and collaborative abilities) to gradually make things better, bit by bit.

What I Read in 2015

I’ve never set goals for myself when it came to reading. I read what I read, when I want to, but it is safe to say that at any given moment I am in the middle of at least one book, often two or three. I do most of my reading during my commute, and admittedly have slowed down a bit in recent years. For 2015 I felt like making some kind of commitment, and was inspired to dedicate the year to women authors after seeing some twitter friends do the same in previous years. I primarily read women anyway, but saw this is as an opportunity to get into authors I’d always meant to read but never had, as well as expand on some whom I’d enjoyed once or twice but hadn’t explored more. I chose mostly fiction—both classic and contemporary—but threw in some memoirs and one film theory essay collection to round things out a bit. Several books were recommendations from friends, since my friends are awesome and have great taste. Most I liked a lot, only one was a real flop. Here are my loosely-organized thoughts on what I read.


Fantasy and Science-Fiction
I have always leaned on these genres for my reading, ever since I was a kid and gorged on the likes of KA Applegate, Edward Eager, and, a little later, Terry Brooks. That being said, there is still so much I’ve missed, especially when it comes to women in sci-fi, and so this year I got into new-to-me authors Connie Willis, Ann Leckie, and Lauren Beukes, while going deeper into Ursula Le Guin, Octavia Butler, and Sharon Shinn. My favorite of this group is definitely Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, a gorgeous, imaginative, heartbreaking look at an icy planet whose inhabitants have no defined gender, and the well-meaning human male ambassador who tries to make sense of their culture. Second favorite here would be Connie Willis’s To Say Nothing of the Dog, a delightful sci-fi romantic comedy written with the kind of droll British wit found in Terry Pratchett while incorporating a host of wacky time travel conceits. Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy was a decidedly interesting read, with an intriguing premise and intricate world-building, but I think reading all three as one volume lessened the writing’s impact- it felt repetitive at times, and the pacing was off. It was probably the most inventive book I read this year, though, and Butler’s attention to detail and character complexities is remarkable.

Lauren Beukes’s Zoo City was the first book of 2015, before I even officially embarked on this project, and her creative and bizarre premise (a future where those who’ve killed have their “sin” manifest itself as a permanent animal companion while also developing certain magic powers) is fascinating. The overarching mystery plot was a little too convoluted and drawn-out at times but overall the book was too weird not to like. Among the final books I read were Lumberjanes Volumes I and II by Noelle Stevenson and Grace Ellis, a comic series about a Girl Scout-esque camp beset by mysterious mythological creatures. Its lighthearted writing style and compellingly strange mystery made for a quick, fun read. Anne Leckie’s Ancillary Justice was officially the last book, about an AI on a revenge mission in an imperial society that doesn’t see gender. While it took me a little while to get into it, I was quite hooked by the end, and look forward to finishing the trilogy soon.

As a group, the fantasy/sci-fi novels I chose were exciting and thought-provoking, and for the most part progressive, with explorations of gender in Le Guin and Leckie, religion and class in Shinn and Willis, and protagonists of color in almost all of them. Le Guin’s Gifts was on the weaker end, but I feel like I’m just not into her young adult stuff as much as her more mature novels; and Sharon Shinn’s Angel-Seeker had some problematic cultural parallels, but damn it I do love her whole sexy angel sci-fi biblical dystopia thing.


I don’t read much nonfiction aside from art history/art criticism books, but I try to mindfully take breaks from the fantasy/sci-fi I always want to be reading. And I’m glad I did since these books were great! Three were memoirs: In her Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl, Carrie Brownstein reminisces about her childhood and musical career with Excuse 17 and Sleater-Kinney, writing with an easygoing, self-aware style that lends insight into the dynamics and development of one of my favorite rock groups. Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel Fun Home traces her complex relationship with her father, connecting her own experience of coming out to his life as a closeted homosexual. Her storytelling style is equally funny and heartbreaking, and I was moved to tears more than once.

Yayoi Kusama’s autobiography was my most prized find, as I’d been wanting to read it for years but hadn’t found a copy until recently. She is my favorite artist, and her life has been as fascinating as her body of work. Her book loosely traces her life from childhood in Japan during WWII, to her move to the US in the 60s with the sponsorship of Georgia O’Keeffe, to her involvement in the swinging experimental art scene of 1960s New York, to her return to her home country in the 70s, where she fell into obscurity before being rediscovered in the 90s. She is open about her struggle with mental illness and its inextricable link to her art. She devotes a whole section to her relationships (mostly platonic) with different artists of the time, including Donald Judd and Joseph Cornell. I love her poetic, emotional writing and how her idiosyncratic personality showed through even in translation. My main issue with the book is I could feel her holding back a lot of details, and I wanted to know more. Plus it skips over like 3 decades at the end.

The final nonfiction book I got into in 2015 was Men, Women, and Chain Saws by Carol Clover, a landmark critical text dealing with gender in horror. Though I didn’t always agree with her assessments, and the writing could be a bit dry, overall it’s such a fascinating and significant resource for any horror lover. Plus I got so many film recommendations out of it!


One of my specific goals with the reading-only-women thing was to get into some classic female authors I’d never read. And, since the first-ever novel was written by a woman, that seemed like a good place to start. I had an abridged copy of The Tale of Genji sitting around, and I gotta say, it was my least favorite book I read this year. I studied Japanese art and culture in college and grad school, and this Heian Period work is incredibly important in visual art and literature, but I think I am too removed from its context to really appreciate it. It’s riddled with references I didn’t understand, resulting in annotations as long as each chapter, but more importantly the main character is a terrible human being whose beauty seems to excuse all his actions, including adopting a young girl so he can raise her to be his wife because she reminds him of a woman he loves but can’t have. That is so gross! Everyone in this book is pretty sex-positive though, which is neat for something written in the eleventh century.

The two other classics I read were The Scarlet Pimpernel, a story I was familiar with from myriad stage/film adaptations, and Middlemarch, another story I knew from an adaptation (the BBC miniseries) but had been too intimidated to read due to its length. The Scarlet Pimpernel is a fun historical adventure but not especially remarkable, my main takeaway being that the entire plot is told from the point of view of female protagonist Marguerite, whereas every version of it I’ve ever seen adapting it splits the storytelling between her and the male lead, Percy. Despite its title, the book is actually a woman’s story and that was pretty cool to discover. Middlemarch is what I actually want to talk about. Because Middlemarch is one of the most beautiful books I have ever read. George Eliot’s prose is so full and sincere and complex that I feel rude even trying to talk about it, because I do not have the words. It is simultaneously about everything and nothing, giving equal focus to the most significant moments and the smallest details of its character’s lives. Every single person who plays any role in her story is painted so lovingly, so that even the most unlikable characters are revealed to be layered, complicated, and sympathetic. Though it rounds out at about 900 pages, I found I didn’t want it to end, I wanted to forever be living within Eliot’s words, her thoughtful writing style equal parts comforting and gripping.


General Fiction
Besides Middlemarch and The Left Hand of Darkness, my favorite discovery of 2015 was probably Shirley Jackson. Sure I’d read “The Lottery” in high school, but I never knew much else about her work. Then I devoured We Have Always Lived in the Castle and The Haunting of Hill House in a few sittings and suddenly she was my new favorite writer. Her work is weird and eerie and emotional, with an intimate, detail-driven style and a knack for saying a lot with a little. She wholeheartedly invites the reader to live inside the heads of mentally unsettled characters whose skewed perspectives reveal themselves gradually and subtly, and my only criticism is that her books are too short. Tied for favorite fiction find is Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake, which I found for free in my workplace’s break room. I’d seen the film but didn’t remember it well, so the story of the unfortunately-named Gogol and his attempts to distance himself from his Indian immigrant parents felt new to me. Lahiri’s writing is gorgeous and heart-breaking, bringing me to tears on numerous occasions with its realism and honesty. It is episodic but fast-paced, with well-drawn characters and a cross-cultural focus that I found compelling as well as edifying.

I didn’t read too many comedic books in 2015, I’m realizing, but the main one I did was Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos, which could easily tide me over for the whole year. Written in diary format by lovable faux-sophisticate Lorelei Lee, it is an at-times scathing little satire featuring bizarre linguistic inventions and laugh-out-loud jokes on every page. On the opposite side of the spectrum was Night Film by Marisha Pessl, a nail-biter mystery-thriller about a fictional filmmaker and his mysterious missing daughter. The subject matter definitely appealed to me and I loved the cinematic myth-building that propelled the story, but the fact of the matter is I don’t do well with thrillers because I find them exhausting to read! Any book where things are happening all the time and no one ever gets a break and no one ever seems to eat dinner or get any sleep just make ME want to take a break. Which is why typically I only read one book like this a year.

A few books in this area came to my attention because of their artsy premises, namely The People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks and The Art Forger by Barbara Shapiro. The former I liked a lot, it’s a bit gimmicky but I loved the story it told as it delved into the imagined creation of a famous illuminated manuscript, the Sarajevo Haggadah. The latter is a decent art crime novel, not particularly well-written but quick-moving, imaginative, and well-researched. It’s the kind of book people had recommended to me as an art historian, but that mostly just means I already knew a lot of what the author goes out of her way to expound. Some fun made-up (???) facts about Isabella Stewart Gardner though.

So there it is, all the books I read in 2015! Not an impressive number, it’s true, but I was aiming for quality over quantity (plus keep in mind that Middlemarch is like the longest book ever, after, I recently discovered the hard way, The Count of Monte Cristo, which I just started). I finished two series (Sharon Shinn’s Samaria and Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis series) and began two more (Anne Leckie’s Ancillary and Ursula Le Guin’s Annals of the Western Shore series). I knocked out a few classics I’d been putting off and got into a few new authors. I read about fascinating men and women (and a few gender-neutral figures), real and imagined, super-powered and average, flawed and fantastic. I discovered some books that will definitely stay with me for a long time.

Top 5 Weird Movies of Fantastic Fest

Note: This article was original posted on 366 Weird Movies.

Dedicated to films from all over the world of the horror, thriller, sci-fi, action, experimental, and/or mash-up persuasions, Fantastic Fest is the perfect place to discover all-new weird movies of various origins. I tried to take in a little bit of everything, and I’ve come out with a list of the Top 5 Weird Movies of Fantastic Fest for 2015. Note: Due to scheduling conflicts I missed Yakuza Apocalypse, which I suspect would have made this list. I also missed Anomalisa. Oh well.

belladonna of sadness

5) Belladonna of Sadness (1973, Japan)
This was the most significant repertory screening for weird-movie lovers: a long-lost anime acid trip directed by Eiichi Yamamoto that never received a proper release in the US, but has been restored and re-released by Cinelicious Pics for 2015. Known to some for its use as a backdrop for musicians, the film’s visuals are without par, composed primarily of sprawling watercolor paintings that the camera pans across like an unraveling scroll. The art style is complex and elegant, with detailed linework and selective color, a kind of animated Art Nouveau, and the soundtrack is a thumping psychedelic score that pairs perfectly with the hallucinogenic imagery onscreen. As a purely sensory experience, the film is remarkable. The script and themes are less so. Hailed by some as a feminist statement, the story (inspired by Jules Michelet’s 19th-century nonfiction book Satanism and Witchcraft) follows Jeanne, a peasant woman in feudal France who is publicly raped on her wedding night by a skeletal baron and his courtiers. Physically and emotionally shattered, she turns to a demon spirit who offers her revenge in exchange for sexual devotion, and eventually she becomes a powerful sorceress who controls her whole town. On paper it sounds empowering, but in action it tends to stray far more into pornographic objectification of Jeanne, and the script is so bare-bones it would be about half the length without all the sex scenes. Narrative issues aside, this is definitely a must-see for anyone interested in experimental animation or weird stuff from Japan.

men & chicken

4) Men & Chicken (2015, Denmark/Germany)
My first foray into the wacky world of Danish filmmaker Anders Thomas Jensen, Men & Chicken is a sick, strange, and funny family drama about 5 brothers and their enigmatic scientist father. Mads Mikkelsen plays Elias, a chronic masturbator who, upon his father’s death, discovers that he and his brother were both adopted, and that they come from different mothers. The two go on a quest to find their biological dad and end up gaining three more brothers they never knew existed, all with odd habits and a decidedly anti-social bent. The five men try to make it as a family, to mixed success and much hilarity, while digging into the mystery of their brilliant-but-abusive father’s experiments. The narrative is meandering to say the least, but so incredibly enjoyable it doesn’t matter, with a perfect comedic cast, ridiculous dialogue, downright silly situational humor, and a unique story tinged with darkness. The result is an unexpected mix of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and The Island of Dr Moreau, and if that doesn’t appeal to you then you might be beyond saving.


3) High-Rise (2015, UK)
Ben Wheatley engages a little with his inner Cronenberg in this adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s 1975 novel, crafting an unsettling class satire set almost entirely within an ultra-lux high-rise apartment building. Thanks to a built-in grocery store, pool, gardens, and school, the tenants are provided with everything they might need, but after a prolonged power failure the lower (and, naturally, lower-class) floors grow restless and rebellious. The situation quickly escalates into an all-out war between floors, with frequent breaks for parties, drugs, orgies, and redecorating. Through the eyes of popular new resident Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston), we see the penthouse-dwelling Architect (Jeremy Irons) delving into the depths of vulgarity while an irascible documentarian (Luke Evans) tries to make his way to the top to expose the wealthy businessmen living there. Alliances are forged and broken, and money becomes meaningless. One of the more polarizing films at the fest, High-Rise is jarring in its strange pacing decisions, uneven tone, and extreme visuals, but Wheatley’s unexpected choices make for the most brilliant moments. An incisive and grim social commentary, it is also bitingly funny and irreverent in that droll, British kind of way. The 1970s setting allows for fun retro-futuristic visuals and copious sideburns, but its themes of societal collapse and barbaric classism are timeless.

The Lobster

2) The Lobster (2015, Ireland/UK/Greece)
Dogtooth-helmer Giorgos Lanthimos’s first English-language feature, The Lobster is set in a magical realist dystopia in which everyone must be in a government-mandated two-person romantic relationship. Singletons are sent to a special hotel where they must find a mate within 45 days or else they will be turned into an animal of their choosing. The plot follows a dumpy divorcé (Colin Farrell) as he settles into the hotel, taking part in bizarre rituals and social events designed to teach guests the importance of codependency, and going on regular stints into the wilderness where he and his cohorts are tasked with shooting down escaped rebels who believe in independent lifestyles. The premise is fascinating, set in a world of extremes, of shallow ideals and confused emotion, with offbeat characters and deadpan narration that propel the story through quite a few twists and turns. It is marked by a warped sense of humor, with comedic moments found in nosebleeds, attempted suicide, and heartless violence, but there is also a surprisingly poignant thread running throughout in its understanding of loneliness. Elements of Logan’s Run and The Apple inform its science-fiction setting, while the romantic satire and flippant nihilism give the story a compelling angle, blending together into a totally strange and wonderful film with a knock-out ambiguous ending.


1) Love & Peace (2015, Japan)
The weirdness inherent in Shion Sono‘s newest bit of madness is encapsulated within its plot summary: a sniveling wannabe songwriter dreams of leaving his miserable office job and becoming a star. After his best friend/pet turtle Pikadon is flushed down the toilet, his luck suddenly changes when he writes a hit song and finds himself signed to a major label with a punk backing band. Pikadon ends up with a herd of toys and small animals who had all been thrown away and given magical speech candies by a kindly old man who lives with them all in the sewer. The old man accidentally gives Pikadon a wish candy, which allows the turtle to wish for his owner’s success. But things go awry due to magical mishaps and big egos, and eventually the city has a Gamera situation on its hands. Though the Ratatouille-meets-“Island-of-Misfit-Toys” story sounds convoluted, Love & Peace works thanks to Sono’s masterful juggling of various interconnected ideas. It is equal parts adorable and hilarious, with the familiar rags-to-riches structure completely upended by the bizarre circumstances surrounding it. With its sweetness, this film wraps its audience in a big, crazy hug and charms us into hugging right back, while always maintaining its essential Weirdness. Bonus: The title song is catchy as hell, and you will definitely have it caught in your head for a very long time. I am currently singing it as I write this, and probably still as you read it.

Honorable Mentions
Liza the Fox-Fairy (2015, Hungary): For those who liked Amelie but wish it had more deaths, this Hungarian fantasy about a lonely woman who believes she is cursed due to her suitors consistently dying around her is an absolute delight. Its saturated palette, Soviet settings, endearing performances, and biting humor won me over completely, and the Japanese classic rock soundtrack made me want to dance the night away. The only thing keeping it out of this top 5 is that it’s more quirky than weird, but it was probably my overall favorite film of the fest.

Der Bunker (2015, Germany): This off-kilter domestic comedy about a family who willingly shut themselves up in a secluded bunker features a 31-year-old actor playing an 8-year-old boy and a strange disembodied presence that instructs the mother in all things. I knew this movie would be weird, but it got weird in a way I didn’t expect and I really respect that.

Evolution (2015, France/Spain): Lucile Hadžihalilović’s quiet, subtle sci-fi mystery about an island of pale-faced women who have found a way to propagate without men definitely isn’t for everyone. However, its meditative air and rich visuals have stuck with me days after viewing, and its approach to gender is thought-provoking and different, especially for the genre.

Stand By for Tape Back-up (2015, UK): The most emotionally affecting film I saw at the fest, I consider this weird not for its content but for its style, which amounts to a kind of analog performance art as filmmaker Ross Sutherland narrates a spoken-word autobiographical poem over tv clips recorded onto a worn VHS tape during his childhood. It’s an experimental form of memoir that effectively blends pop culture nostalgia, freestyle rap, and forthright honesty, and I’ve never seen anything like it before. And it made me cry. Like, a lot.

Social Uniforms in Film: The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)


Wes Anderson’s films offer the most consistent examples of cinematic social uniforms (the idea of a single costume or variation on one that a character wears as an everyday outfit, separate from a school- or work-related uniform), aside from those of Hal Hartley (who is a clearly a major influence on Anderson). His characters typically sport one specific outfit, or variations on one, or, at times, literal uniforms related to a job or association. They come to define the characters in some way, and allow the actors to blend into Anderson’s meticulously-crafted visual worlds. My favorite Anderson film has remained The Royal Tenenbaums, and it is rife with social uniform goodness.

The Tenenbaum family dynamic is laid out in a prologue detailing their lives 22 years prior to the main narrative, setting up the interests, personalities, and styles of mother Etheline (Angelica Huston), father Royal (Gene Hackman), oldest son Richie (Luke Wilson), adopted daughter Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow), younger son Chas (Ben Stiller), and young neighbor Eli (Owen Wilson). Though considered a “family of geniuses” at the time, the following years are marred by failure, betrayal, drugs, death, and regret. When the long-shunned Royal decides to come back into their lives by faking cancer, he unwittingly alters the relationships of everyone associated with his family. Tellingly, each adult character is introduced in a series of tableaux looking into the camera as a mirror and primping in some way. From the beginning, each individual’s personality and position is in a sense defined by their appearance, and specifically by the look they create for themselves to present to the world. Most of them maintain the same style over the course of 22 years, and for the few who change, the switch signals a major emotional shift.




Etheline is a steady, intelligent, and loving woman who dedicates herself to her children’s education, and later to the study of anthropology. Her look is thoughtful and no-nonsense, thanks to a range of color-coordinated dress suits, tinted glasses, and pulled-back curls. Her palette is soft, with pastel blues, pinks, and tans, all perfectly matching shirts, skirts, blazers, and coats. Her appearance is assured and confident, but warm, reflecting her kind, nurturing personality combined with a professional edge. Like his ex-wife, Royal oozes confidence in his appearance, but its effect is more slimy, and more of a facade. His grey, double-breasted pinstripe suite, paired with fine silk shirts and striped ties in playful pinks and purples, allows him to maintain his delusions of grandeur as he holds on to his once-impressive status as a top lawyer and model patriarch. Along with his wool winter coat, he dons an old-man cap and cane as affectations, symbols of seniority and life experience. His ego and charisma are all he has left, and he needs his look to match. His foil is Henry Sherman (Danny Glover), Etheline’s accountant and suitor, whose standard outfit is almost comical, clearly contrasting with Royal’s elegant attire. His bright blue suit, checkered shirts, and jaunty bow ties present an unintimidating, un-self-conscious man. To Royal, Henry is barely worth worrying about, but for Etheline, he is the kind of respectful, unassuming, good-natured man she could suddenly find herself falling for. He is in many ways Royal’s opposite, but shows himself his equal, and though his clothing is a little bit on the silly side, that bright blue of his suit clearly represents a bolder man than we at first realize, one who tries to do the right thing while fighting for the woman he loves and the family he’s ready to join.



Richie and Margot Tenenbaum do not change their look from childhood into adulthood. As a child, Richie is an amateur painter and talented tennis player, going pro as a teen but retiring early after suffering a nervous breakdown on the court. In the years that follow, he continues to present himself (and be viewed by others) primarily as an athlete, maintaining his Bjorn Borg-esque look right down to the long hair. He is most often shown in his striped polo tennis shirt, customized “Baumer” wristbands, striped sweatband, and aviator sunglasses, with a tan-colored suit jacket and slacks that somehow normalize the fact that he’s always wearing athletic accessories. Richie is the most well-adjusted of the Tenenbaum children, the most accepting of his father’s efforts to reconnect, and generally the most collected in his temperament. His lifelong love of his adopted sister Margot haunts him, but he rarely allows that to show, and so his appearance is, like Royal’s, a facade of stability. His outfit connects him to his past success as a well-known tennis player–even causing strangers to recognize him and request a photo or signature–but it also marks him as a man in stasis, literally wearing his arrested development on his sleeve. He has not changed his appearance because he cannot move on from Margot, or (to a lesser but still notable degree) from his failure in his career. He may physically travel around the world but he himself remains emotionally stuck. When he finally decides to make a change–not so much in clothing choice but in shaving his hair and beard–it is right before he attempts suicide, reflecting how closely connected his outward appearance is linked to his internal conflict.

The sullen and mysterious Margot is a promising playwright as a child, but has not written for several years, living a reserved life with her doting anthropologist husband, Raleigh (Bill Murray). The narrator notes that she “is known for her extreme secrecy,”  and her attire reflects that quality. She is typically depicted in a large, knee-length fur coat and brown loafers, with a barrette in her hair and dark, smoky eyeliner. Underneath her coat she wears an assortment of striped, form-fitting polo dresses. Like Richie, she too is stunted, though she doesn’t know how or why (she acknowledges only that she is “in a rut”), and her clothing reflects her apparent entrapment between childhood and adulthood. She dresses exactly as she did as a young girl right down to the childish barrette, but has lost the triumphs and confidence of that time. She attempts to make up for her own feeling of failure and creative stagnation by cultivating a mystique, wrapping herself figuratively in enigmas and secrets of her own making, and literally in an oversize fur coat. She clings to her status as an outsider (her father’s frequent references to her adoption reinforcing her “otherness”), intentionally setting herself apart and shielding herself from more open emotion or deeper connections. Her unconventional but hip outfit conveys an eccentric, controlled, closed-off person, which is exactly what she wants.



The two characters whose looks wildly change from their childhood selves are Chas and Eli, though their reasons differ. Chas is mourning the loss of his wife, grown paranoid for the safety of his two young sons and seeking solace in the house where he grew up. Throughout the film he primarily wears a bright red Adidas tracksuit with white stripes, with matching sets for his children (who also share his messy dark hair). The effect is primarily comical to viewers, this goofy-looking family that matches from head to toe, and it’s easy at times to forget the incredible pain they are all in. Chas has been a brilliant businessman his entire life, hard-working and capable, and yet we rarely see him in that capacity. Instead he is anxious, unsure, and irritable; one might deduce that his chosen outfit–simple, comfortable, generic–is such because he is unable to handle his usual day-to-day routine, his suits and ties and conference calls. He puts on clothes that suggest exercise and health, in a color that denotes confidence, because his own fear of death and especially the loss of his children is suddenly too much to bear. Like Margot, he shrouds himself through his clothing, and like her he seems to find difficulty in accepting gestures of love or care from others, instead closing himself off. I’ve always found Chas’s arc the most affecting, and his realistic grief juxtaposed with his silly appearance speaks to Anderson’s somewhat dark sense of humor and Hartley-esque approach to pathos.

Eli Cash was a chubby, awkward boy who lived with his grandmother and spent as much time as he could at the Tenenbaum house. As a child he is always shown in his maroon school uniform, with a bland look on his face and a bad haircut. As an adult, he has made himself over completely, gaining acclaim as a novelist in the Hemingway/London vein (manly, wildernessy), and so he dons a fringed leather jacket, cowboy hat, and various western-style shirts, with a Southern accent to match. He has lived his life in the shadow of the Tenenbaum family, wishing he could be a part of their wealth and genius, and indeed even as he eclipses their fame he feels the need for their acknowledgement, calling Margot frequently and sending Etheline his article clippings. He seems to have attained all he wanted, but only by creating an over-the-top persona to slide into, a well-spoken cowboy who glams up his professorial lifestyle with sex and drugs. Of course, like most of the characters in this movie, his appearance is something of a facade. He continues to feel inadequate, falling deeper into serious addiction, though he never sheds the image he’s made for himself, maintaining it even in rehab, so it seems to have worked for him.


Wes Anderson dresses his actors the same way he dresses his sets: meticulously, nostalgically, and with personality. He uses objects to suggest personal history, and clothing to evoke certain character traits. Actors are made up so that they fit snugly into his perfectly orchestrated worlds, visually suited to their vintage ephemera and monogrammed everything. There is a kind of stationary-ness to his settings, a sturdy there-ness that puts them squarely in his familiar aesthetic (and outside of the real world, where things are messy and always rearranging). The rooms are dressed so carefully it seems unlikely anything will change, and his characters are often the same. Their clothes are an extension of themselves, and their selves are generally fixed in place. Anderson’s world is comforting in its consistency, its reliability, and he gives the same quality to his characters, who maintain specific, intentional appearances that ensure their place within that world. And ultimately, I think the appearances of the Tenenbaums really do say it all.

Exhibitions: “Arlene Shechet: All at Once” at ICA Boston

shechet-IsandIsNot-2011Arlene Shechet: Is and Is Not, 2011 (detail). All photos by the author unless otherwise noted.

Within the realm of artistic genres, the area of sculpture has perhaps become the most elastic in definition. Installation is sculpture. Performance is sculpture. Assemblage is sculpture. For many the word still evokes the traditional figurative carvings of Michelangelo or the rounded bronze castings of Henry Moore, but ultimately the term is endlessly pliable. For New York-based artist Arlene Shechet, sculpture is about action as well as form, about painterly experimentation as well as material. Her abstract, textural work is on view now at the Institute of Contemporary Art in a comprehensive retrospective that has introduced me to her art for the first time.

Spread across three galleries, the exhibit’s aesthetic reflects Shechet’s own inclination for playful display tactics. Her more recent abstract sculptures are typically mounted on pedestals of her own making, rendered in wood or brick or plexiglass, and the show’s organizers extended this idea to the entire layout. The first room features a large multi-leveled shelf unit (made by the artist) at its center, with her early forays into Buddhist figures and pottery clustered throughout. The walls are lined with loose architectural drawings of stupas, inspired by her visit to Buddhist monuments in Indonesia. Western artists are drawn to Buddhism and Buddhist imagery for various reasons, sometimes appropriative or ethnocentric; Shechet’s primary interest is in the way Buddhist sculpture was used as a language, as well a way to communicate the concept of transience. The loss of a close friend prompted her to pay more attention to life’s preciousness, and the process of working with plaster allowed her to “maintain a consistent state of awareness in the studio” (Arlene Shechet, 13). The works here are quite varied, combining blue and white pottery, contemplative seated Buddhas, and goopy abstracted messes. Their arrangement forces the viewer to always be moving around the room, taking in first the whole and then, gradually, individual pieces.

shechet-buddharoomArlene Shechet: All At Once installation view at ICA/Boston.

shechet-buddhasArlene Shechet: East Buddha, 1999 (left) and Collective Head, 1996 (right).

shechet-Building-2003-2Arlene Shechet: Building, 2003.

shechet-Building-2003Arlene Shechet: Building, 2003.

shechet-InTheBalance2004Arlene Shechet: selections from In the Balance series, 2004-05.

The second gallery moves into the 21st century, with a deceptively simple sculptural installation titled “Building,” from 2002. A commissioned work for the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle, it was put together with students at the University of Washington, who threw different pottery shapes and made molds based on Shechet’s drawings. She stained the molds with black glazes, so that the resulting casts came out with dark exteriors that became progressively lighter as the molds were re-used. The final piece features a large grouping of these pottery forms, cut and stacked and placed at eye-level, resembling a miniature city that literalizes curator Jenelle Porter’s description of Shechet’s work as “equally sculpture and architecture” (Arlene Shechet, 11). The ashen coloring subtly hints to the artist’s experiences as a New Yorker after the 9/11 attacks, evoking imagery of fallen buildings, burnt-out ruins, and urban debris. Alongside Building is a small series of glass sculptures titled In the Balance. As the only offering in glass on view, they stick out as an elegant side-note, with shapes that recall the smaller pottery pieces in Building and a theme related to breath that carries over into future works. To me the appealing aspects of all the works in this section is how they reference traditional craft shapes, but remain completely non-functional.

shechet-ANightOut2011-MyBalzacArlene Shechet: A Night Out, 2011 (left) and My Balzac, 2010 (right).

shechet-LollandAirTime-2006Arlene Shechet: Loll, 2006-07 (left) and Air Time, 2007 (right).

shechet-NowPlaying2015-Tattletale2012Arlene Shechet: Now Playing, 2015 (left) and Tattletale, 2012 (right).

shechet-NoNoise2013-Stories2013Arlene Shechet: No Noise, 2013 (left) and Stories, 2013 (right).

shechet-NotToMention2013-NoMatterWhat2013Arlene Shechet: Not to Mention, 2013 (left – via CFile) and No Matter What, 2013 (right).

shechet-Absolutely2012-Away2012Arlene Shechet: Absolutely, 2014 (left) and Away, 2014 (right).

shechet-ParallelPlay-2012Arlene Shechet: selections from Parallel Play series, 2012-2014.

The meat of the exhibition is in the third gallery, a long stretch of freestanding sculpture that highlights Shechet’s interest in texture, form, and color. Several pieces are inspired by lungs and breath, relating to her father’s death from lung cancer, their lumpy grey shapes inflating and deflating, their random circular orifices painted blood orange. Others are comical, with droopy appendages and colorful splotches. Still others are architectural, or even monumental, with jutting windows and dark loops, leaning every which way like a surreal Tower of Pisa. Most are primarily made of ceramic, and all are placed atop stands of varying material and size, some matching and some contrasting their passengers, some including kiln bricks as a reference to the act of firing clay. The work is remarkable in its totally freeform look, so far from the seemingly meticulously-planned aspect of most carved and molded sculpture. In her process, Shechet drips and stacks, presses and pulls, attacks and retreats, leaving traces of her movements like the strokes of an action painting. Though abstract in both form and title, the sculptures evoke different emotional responses in each viewer, intimate in their tactility, strange and funny and unavoidable in their presence.

In a partially-enclosed wing off the main gallery are several large-scale wall paintings that tie in closely with the freestanding pieces nearby. Their blotchy application of color and thick, three-dimensional shapes reflect the forms found in her sculpture. In fact, the compositions are created by applying molds of different sections of the sculptures to create textured paper, spreading out and flattening her favorite visual motifs so they can be viewed in a new element. The process is detailed in this short Art 21 video, which also offers a glimpse of the pieces on view at the ICA.

shechet-raspberrytwistArlene Shechet: Raspberry Twist, 2012.

ASBreakingtheMold01Arlene Shechet: Dancing Girl with Two Right Feet, 2012. via Arlene Shechet

shechet-artwork-040-split-blockArlene Shechet: Split Block, 2013. via Art 21

The final space, a small enclosed room with black walls, is the most indicative of Shechet’s interest in display, functionally presenting the artist as curator. Here, works from her residency at the celebrated Meissen porcelain studio in Germany are arranged like so many knick-knacks on shelves of varying height and size. She mixes her own uncanny experiments in with actual historical ceramics, highlighting the kind of aesthetic that was treasured in the 18th century–most notably orientalist tropes and delicate courtly figurines. Shechet’s contributions are generally hybrid creations that melt or cut or combine these familiar elements into something new and strange. Disembodied legs pop out of rosebuds, abstract shapes crop up on porcelain plates, vases soften and tip over erratically. It’s an odd, funny little room that invites close looking (though, sadly, no photos) and adds an unexpected historicity to the exhibition as a whole, relating Shechet’s contemporary use of ceramic to its decorative and East Asian origins.

shechet-AndSoAndSoAndSoArlene Shechet: So and So and So and So and So and On and On, 2010.

In conversation with fellow artist Janine Antoni, Shechet says, “One of the reasons I’ve liked working with marginalized materials is that they have a kind of slackness. They give me more opportunity to say things in an unexpected way, or to point out the full range of life rather than a narrower range” (Arlene Shechet, 150). Though her approach to “pointing out the full range of life” is nonspecific, I do feel these works represent a whole person, a whole volume of emotions. They reveal the flaws, the humor, the tragedy, the playfulness, the bizarre, and beauty everyone experiences, though they may ultimately best represent the artist herself.


“Arlene Shechet.” Art21. http://www.art21.org/artists/arlene-shechet

Jenelle Porter, et al. Arlene Shechet. Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston and Prestel, 2015.