Wunderkammer update

Work-in-progress shots of my latest paper cutout animation project, entitled Wunderkammer.* Coming in late 2017/early 2018.

SYNOPSIS: Madelaine’s cabinet of curiosities contains wonders strange, frightening, and erotic.

*A wunderkammer, also known as a “cabinet of curiosities”, is a place in which a collection of curiosities and rarities is exhibited.

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Storyboard image from “Wunderkammer”

Wunderkammer: Cabinets of Curiosity.

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A wunderkammer, otherwise known as a cabinet of curiosity. This is an animated GIF testing out the opening motion of the doors to the cabinet in my film.

 

Hello, my darklings. Sorry for the prolonged absence from this blog, as I’ve begun working on my new animation project entitled Wunderkammer. This project sees the return of Madelaine, the mysterious Victorian lady from my previous short films La Petite Mort (2013) and An Unfortunate Incident Involving Her Hat (2012). As always, curious happenings befall Madelaine. In the latter film, Madelaine became the victim of a very bizarre wardrobe malfunction, and in the former, she engaged in a romantic — but ultimately tragic — tryst with an octopus. Similarly, in Wunderkammer her uncanny adventures continue.

For those not familiar with the term, a wunderkammer was a Renaissance-era predecessor of the modern museum collection. Below is a definition copied from the Tate Modern web site:

Wunderkammer or curiosity cabinets were collections of rare, valuable, historically important or unusual objects, which generally were compiled by a single person, normally a scholar or nobleman, for study and/or entertainment. […]Exotic natural objects, art, treasures and diverse items of clothing or tools from distant lands and cultures were all sought for the wunderkammer. Particularly highly prized were unusual and rare items which crossed or blurred the lines between animal, vegetable and mineral. Examples of these were corals and fossils and above all else objects such as narwhal tusks which were thought to be the horns of unicorns and were considered to be magical.

— excerpt from “History of the wunderkammern (cabinet of curiosities).”

I include here some pencil sketches of the various items and curios found inside the wunderkammer of my film (subject to change as the project evolves, of course).

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Three wet specimen jars containing (left to right) a jellyfish, octopus, and a snake. The octopus is a small nod to my previous film La Petite Mort. 

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Conjoined twins preserved within a glass specimen container (container not drawn yet).

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Pair of tsantsa, or shrunken human heads. Sure, this might be culturally insensitive, but tsantsa were wildly popular in the 19th century as items of “curiosity” in European cabinets.

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Taxidermy monkey with martini glass. Taxidermy of all kind was popular inside wunderkammer. Not entirely happy with this sketch, and I may revisit at a later date.

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What it looks like: a cloud with a single eye. This never existed inside any wunderkammer, but it does inside mine.

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The mysterious box. Believe it or not, the contents of this box will prove to be the most strange and curious item inside my wunderkammer. Stay tuned. 

Hallowe’en Night divination game.

This is a repost from OCTOBER 28, 2011.

 

Halloween is one of the oldest holidays still celebrated in modern times, and can be traced back to the Druids, a Celtic culture in Ireland, Britain and Northern Europe. Its roots lay in the feast of Samhain (pronounced SA-WIN), which was annually held on October 31st to honor the dead. Much like Christmas, the pagan traditions of Samhain were later co-opted by the Christian church and replaced by All Saints Day (Nov. 1) as a means to align the Christian feast with the already well-established pagan festival. According to Wikipedia, “The word Halloween is first attested in the 16th century and represents a Scottish variant of the fuller All-Hallows-Even (“evening”), that is, the night before All Hallows Day.” Hence, we have the modern day Hallowe’en.

In keeping with its pagan origins, a belief arose that during Halloween the barrier between the realms of the living and the dead are at their most permeable, allowing for dead spirits to enter our world. A corollary of this belief is the traditional Scottish practice of Halloween-night divination. Though little known these days, the practice of various forms of “divination games” during Halloween was wildly popular in the late 19th-century and early 20th-century, a popularity commemorated in the divination-themed Halloween greeting cards above. One of the most popular of these was a form of scrying or mirror divination, in which an unmarried woman was instructed to sit before a mirror in a darkened room on Halloween night. Purportedly, if she gazed long enough, she would see a vision of her future husband reflected in the mirror. If, however, she was to die unmarried, a skull would appear instead — which just seems incredibly creepy. A common thread exists between this Halloween practice and the Bloody Mary game, in which the participants dare each other to look into a mirror and repeat Mary’s name three times, thus possibly summoning the folkloric witch.

The Artist in Horror Cinema.

We all have an idea in our minds of what constitutes the “Artist”: a tormented, misunderstood outsider, compelled by an almost otherworldly drive to create. We recall images like those of Vincent van Gogh’s famous self-portrait with bandaged head, concealing the wound that resulted from severing his own left ear, or we envision the distorted figure of Edvard Munch’s magnum opus The Scream, it’s creator checking himself into a private sanitarium later in life after hearing voices. While these biographical details of Van Gogh and Munch are true and verifiable, this notion of the Artist as a mad, tormented genius is a cultural construction originating from the 19th-century Romantics, as described by scholar Pamela Fletcher in her Victorian Studies text Rebels and Martyrs: The Image of the Artist in the Nineteenth Century:

[Michael] Wilson’s title essay traces the myth of the artist as a unique genius, alienated from society both by his own commitment to the demands of his art and a philistine public’s inability to value or understand it. Wilson rightly notes that the idea of the artist as a melancholic genius dates back to the Renaissance, but he locates the full flowering of the myth in the Romantic era. — excerpt from “Rebels and Martyrs: The Image of the Artist in the Nineteenth Century”, by Pamela M. Fletcher.

The Romantic era (approx. 1800-1850) reconfigured the artist as a tragic hero who, in the best case scenario, is a darkly brooding and cynical Byronic hero or, in the worst case, is a half-lunatic hermit who lives on the very fringe of society. Though most-assuredly a myth, this notion of the artist as a crazed — and possibly even dangerous — outsider has persisted even into the modern era.

The genre of horror is fed by our psychological and cultural fears. One of our collective fears is our fear of the Other: those individuals who, whether through a transgression of gender, physical deformity, or mental illness, deviate from the “norm” in terms of their appearance and/or behaviour. (See my previous series of posts on Deviance, gender and the ‘aberrant female’ in horror, which addresses the topic of women as the Other). These types of individuals tend to make the majority anxious, and therefore they are ideal to occupy the role of the “monster” in horror fiction. Given the Romantic notion of the “mad artist”, it’s hardly surprising that artists have served in this role of the feared Other in horror cinema. Below are a few examples of horror films that have featured visual artists in such roles.

Film still from "Blind Beast" (1969

Film still from “Blind Beast” (1969, dir. Yasuzô Masumura).

1. Blind Beast (1969, dir. Yasuzô Masumura) is a masterpiece of ero guro nansensu from Japan that is based on a story by Edogawa Rampo. A blind sculptor kidnaps a beautiful young model and takes her back to his home to act as his model and muse. He and his mother live in a warehouse which he’s transformed into a surreal sculptural installation of giant body parts, dedicated mainly to the female form. At first, the model only wants to escape from this bizarre scene, but eventually she succumbs to his strange vision and even surpasses his obsession. In true ero guro style, they develop a curiously erotic, sadomasochistic relationship that eventually leads to the crazy, horrific and over-the-top violent finale. Below is the entire film posted on Youtube, though regrettably it lacks English subtitles. Worth watching, if only for its beautiful and bizarre visuals — such as the two protagonists cavorting atop a giant (foam rubber) sculpture of a reclining female nude.

2. As an artist myself, I can fully understand the urge to find the exactly correct hue for a project. On many occasions I’ve paid a princely sum for tubes of Cadmium Red paint because, well, no other pigment is as brilliantly, intensely red (the toxicity of the metal cadmium notwithstanding). Hershell Gordon Lewis, the notorious exploitation-film director who singlehandedly created the splatter-gore film, used this notion of the dangerously obsessive artist to splatter his signature gore in Color Me Blood Red (1965).

"Color Me Blood Red" (1965, dir. Hershell Gordon Lewis.

“Color Me Blood Red” (1965, dir. Hershell Gordon Lewis).

Artist Adam Sorge struggles to find critical and commercial success when he accidently discovers that blood smeared across his canvas provides his paintings with the vibrancy they previously lacked. This discovery provides the rationale for Sorge (and Lewis) to bloodily dispatch a couple of bikini-clad beauties in this lesser offering from Lewis’s “Blood Trilogy”. Low-budget and poorly acted (Lewis often relied on non-actors), what this film lacks in craft, it makes up for with its campy, rough-hewn B-movie charm. You can watch the entire, uncut film on Youtube. Considering that it was made in 1965, it truly is subversively gory.

3. Cauldron of Blood (1970) is a terrible film. That said, I kinda have a soft spot for it. Also known under the title Blind Man’s Bluff, it was cobbled together over a few years, repurposing footage from different films. One reason for this cinematic mess is the fact that its star Boris Karloff was in very poor health, and couldn’t appear in a number of scenes (he died in 1969, before its release). Thus, its creators were obliged to pad the film with previously shot footage. Karloff appears frail and sadly diminished — but even a diminished Karloff is still pretty good. Here’s the short synopsis from IMDB: “A blind sculptor works on his magnum opus unaware that the skeletons he has been using for armatures are the remains of the victims of his evil wife and that he is the next target”.

Again, the entire film is available on Youtube (one assumes distribution companies don’t care about these older films). My advice is to forward to the 1:27 mark and watch the final showdown between Karloff and his gloriously evil wife, where she meets her comeuppance in a vat of acid.

The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death

Dollhouse enthusiasts are frequently known for their slavish devotion to detail. Countless hours will be spent in replicating a miniature world, whether idealized or dystopian, in exacting detail. The nineteen dollhouse rooms created by Frances Glessner Lee, however, take this attention to detail to startling — and brilliantly macabre — heights.

Frances Glessner Lee was a Chicago heiress with a curious obsession. During the 1940’s, Lee was a volunteer police officer with a honorary captain’s rank, and she possessed a passion for forensic science. At her New Hampshire estate, she installed a workshop to fashion crime scene dioramas, which she dubbed her “Nutshells”. These dollhouse-sized rooms were designed as classroom tools to instruct detectives in crime scene investigation. Lee founded Harvard’s department of legal medicine, the first program in the nation for forensic pathology.

According to a New York Times article on Lee, the Nutshells now reside in the office of the Maryland state examiner in Baltimore, where they are still used in seminars. Each diorama is packed with small-scale clues such as blood-splatters, a pillowcase smeared with lipstick, and a bullet embedded in a wall.

Corinne May Botz published a book of photographs entitled The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, that beautifully capture the details of Lee’s crime scene “nutshells”. Below are some images from Botz’s book.

Lady Lazarus’s 2013 in review!

Was Jayne Mansfield a satanist? That, amongst other burning questions, is what drove the most traffic to my blog over 2013. View all the details in the 2013 annual report for this blog.

[For those of you not familiar with my blog, I don’t typically write on such heady topics as “was Jayne Mansfield a satanist?”. My blog features examples of my artwork from the past several years, as well as my musings about visual art and horror cinema, with a focus on art and film that evokes the bizarre, macabre and/or uncanny.]

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 47,000 times in 2013. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 17 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

Dolls House & Miniature Scene Magazine interview.

Somehow, I completely forgot to post the interview I had back in August 2013 with the UK-based magazine Dolls House & Miniature Scene. Here’s a scan of the layout and the article. The interview was focused on my earlier project, The Disobedient Dollhouse. Click on the images below to get a larger (and much more legible) article.

I found it amusing how the editor kept insisting on changing the title of my work to conform to the British usage of the term “dollshouse” with the plural, rather than my North American-derived term “dollhouse”. Whatever.

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Happy Hallowe’en from Lady Lazarus!

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Myself dressed as “Death the Bride”. Halloween 2013.

My Hallowe’en costume this year is channelling the melancholic romanticism of a tragic, Edgar Allan Poe heroine*. On October 31st, I shall fall into a despair that leads to madness, succumbing to a death-like trance. This will prompt my bereaved loved ones to prematurely bury me in the family crypt. Afterwards, my restless ghost shall arise for revenge, and chocolate.

Happy Halloween, everyone!

*my costume is also channelling the morbid romanticism of the Pre-Raphaelite painter Thomas Cooper Gotch — a morbidity best captured by his 1895 painting entitled (as you may have guessed)  Death the Bride.

"Death the Bride" by Thomas Cooper Gotch. 1895. Oil on canvas

“Death the Bride” by Thomas Cooper Gotch. 1895. Oil on canvas

The Life and Untimely Death of Ann Hibbins.

“Execution of Ann Hibbins on Boston Common” Sketch by F. T. Merril, 1886.

During times of conservatism and religious fundamentalism it can prove difficult, if not downright lethal, to be an independent and outspoken woman. The recent case of Malala Yousafzai — the teenage Afghan activist who was shot by the Taliban for her vocal condemnation of their refusal to allow Afghan girls to attend school — reminds us that this danger still looms in many parts of the contemporary world.

The modern-day plight of Afghan girls like Yousafzai, and their systematic oppression by the ultra-conversative Taliban, recalls an earlier time in history when fervent religiosity ran rampant: the Salem Witch Trials.

The Salem witch trials were a series of hearings and prosecutions of people accused of witchcraft in colonial Massachusetts, between February 1692 and May 1693. They later became a notorious example of mass hysteria in American history, and highlighted the very real danger of religious extremism. The overwhelming majority of the people prosecuted for witchcraft were women. These women tended to belong to the poor and working class, and thus were disadvantaged in terms of economics and social status. The one exception was the wealthy widow, Ann Hibbins.

Ann Hibbins was executed for witchcraft in Boston, Massachusetts, on June 19, 1656. Her execution was the third for witchcraft in Boston and actually predated the Salem Witch Trials by thirty-six years. Twice-widowed, Hibbins was an outspoken and financially-independent woman, all of which tended to antagonize the local religious authority:

In 1640, Ann Hibbins sued a group of carpenters, whom she had hired to work on her house, accusing them of overcharging her. She won the lawsuit, but her actions were viewed as “abrasive”, and so she became subjected to an ecclesiastical inquest. Refusing to apologize to the carpenters for her actions, Hibbins was admonished and excommunicated. The church also cited her for usurping her husband’s authority. Within months of her husband’s death, proceeding against her for witchcraft began. — from Wikipedia.

It’s interesting to note that none of the evidence used to convict Hibbins of witchcraft remains. One of her supporters, a minister named John Norton, commented privately to another clergy that, “…[Hibbins] was hanged for a witch only for having more wit than her neighbors.”

So, here’s what I’m suggesting, my fellow XX-chromosome owners. Rather than wait for the religious extremists to ’round us up, let’s go git ’em first. They’d never see us coming till it’s too late. Lemme go grab my broomstick and pointy black hat [cackle].