Wunderkammer: Cabinets of Curiosity.

stacked-cabinet

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).

octopus

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. 

conjoined-twins

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.

monkey

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.

eye-cloud

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

box

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. 

Someone asked me some questions about ero-guro, and here’s what I answered.

I recently received a message via my Facebook Page regarding some of the ero guro nansensu-themed posts on this blog. I felt that the questions raised were so pertinent to my ongoing discussion on the subject, that I should fashion a blog post around them. Many thanks to Christo KJ for the original message.

Q: Hi, I hope you don’t mind that I’m contacting you like this. I’ve been studying film and television science for the past five years here in Norway. I just read your posts about ero guro nansensu and I found it very interesting. But I do have some questions about the definition of what an ero guro film is.     

Both Italian Neorealism and German Expressionism have very specific rules for what type of movies that are and are not part those movements. Ero guro is of course not a film movement like Neorealism. But are there any similar rules when it comes to ero guro in film, which explains specifically what is and what is not ero guro?

A: That’s an excellent question. The short answer is: no, and yes.

No, in that ero guro nansensu emerged as a mass-media driven cultural phenomenon at a time when the film industry in Japan was still in its early years** and, as you so rightly pointed out, was not a film movement like German Expressionism — which, incidentally, emerged at roughly same time in Germany as ero guro flourished in Japan.

Ero Guro could be best described as a zeitgeist — or “spirit of the times” — that organically developed during the interwar years in Japan. It’s main devotees were the urban youth, artists, and other bohemians, although its influence was also felt outside of the cosmopolitan city centres. It was not a movement created by a group of artists, nor was it guided by a manifesto of any kind that outlined its common goals or philosophy.

Academics like Miriam Silverberg and Jim Reichert have proposed that ero guro formed a kind of collective reaction against the ultraconservative morality touted by the fascists who were rising to power in 1920s-30s Japan. This interpretation of cultural history does seem to carry credibility, and I wrote about this in my previous blog entry.

With all that said, there are some motifs and themes that I would identify as being strongly indictative of ero-guro. These are:

  • the circus, and the circus sideshow “freak”
  • the dangerous double, or doppelgänger
  • “something horrible hidden in plain view”
  • “deviant” sexualities: fetishes, paraphilias, shibari
  • grotesqueries such as malformed bodies, missing limbs, deformity
  • disguises and secret identities
  • a crime, especially a bizarre and excessively gruesome one
  • insanity, obsession
  • absurdity, nonsense, dark humour

Most of these motifs come directly from the writings of Edogawa Rampo, about whom I wrote in another blog entry. You simply cannot discuss ero-guro in any meaningful way without touching upon the work of Rampo.

Q: Are all pink films that contain torture or S&M ero guro?

A: I would argue no, though there does seem to be a lack of consensus on how best to apply the ero-guro label to films. In my opinion, the term ero-guro (sometimes shortened to simply guro) is thrown around too indiscriminately. Since Rampo and his literary contemporaries were so heavily influential in the shaping of ero-guro, I use their work as a gauge against which all work labeled ero-guro is measured. Whereas Teruo Ishii’s pinky violence film Horrors of Malformed Men is undoubtedly ero-guro — partly owing to the fact that it’s a very loose adaptation of at least five different Rampo stories — not all violent pinku-eiga can be categorized as ero-guro. In other words, even though sex, violence and gore are frequently elements found in ero-guro, their presence alone does not indicate a film that is ero-guro.

To confuse matters further, however, I recently stumbled upon this classification of ero-guro-nansensu in a book entitled Historical Dictionary of Japanese Cinema, written by Jasper Sharp:

“The term [ero-guro] resurfaced in the 1950s to describe the more macabre B-movie gangster, science fiction, and horror works by Shintoho, such as those directed by Ishii Teruo, as well as screen adaptations of writers like Rampo. From the 1980s onward, it has been most commonly used in connection with underground works featuring overt depictions of sex, violence, and grotesquerie…” — Sharp, pp. 60-61

Ultimately, it may come down to personal taste as to which version of ero-guro you prefer. I hold a greater affinity towards the artistry, complex plot twists and exaggerated theatricality of films such as Sion Sono’s Strange Circus (2005), versus the more straightforward softcore-meets-gore of Entrails of a Virgin (1986). Both films deliver on the sex, violence and gore, but Strange Circus does it with a lot more style and panache.

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“Strange Circus”, 2005, dir. Sion Sono.

Q: The Guinea Pig movies by Hideshi Hino have been labeled as ero guro (Directory of world cinema: Japan p.251). The two first movies in this series have little to no plot, it’s just about an hour of torture. So what is the difference between ero guro and Japanese torture porn?

A: I strongly disagree  with the categorization of The Guinea Pig films as ero-guro. I would simply label them Japanese torture porn. As you point out, there’s little or no plot. Ero-guro films not only have plot, but they often have very elaborate, convoluted plots.

Q: Would you consider the movie Grotesque by Koji Shiraishi as ero guro?

A: I’m aware of that film, but have yet to view it.

Q: Would you consider some of Takashi Miike’s movies as ero guro, for example Ichi the killer, Gozu, Visitor Q?

A: Takashi Miike has created a couple of films that I would identify as being ero-guro, but not amongst the films you mention. There’s an excellent pan-Asian compilation DVD called Three…Extremes that came out in 2004 which featured a short film by Miike called Box. A dream-like, atmospheric story that’s uncharacteristically restrained for Miike, Box involves the story of twin girls who work with their father in a magic act. Their trick is to fold themselves into impossibly small boxes. There’s the hint of incest (deviant sexuality), bodies that do not conform to convention (the girls are contortionists), murderous revenge and blurred boundaries between the dreaming and waking world. It’s by far the most ero-guro flavoured film that Miike has done to date. You can get a taste of it here.

box

Q: Are there any non-Japanese films that you would consider as ero guro, like for example Pasolini’s  Salo 120 days of Sodom or A Serbian film?

 I haven’t seen either of those films, so I can’t comment. I tried watching Salo once, and found it impossibly boring. I know enough about A Serbian Film to know that I need never watch it.“Newborn porn”? No thanks.

Some ero-guro films that I would recommend:

 

**Interestingly enough, Japan was one of the first countries to develop a film industry, beginning in the latter years of the 19th-century.

Deviant Desires: Erotic Grotesque Nonsense, Part V: “In the Realm of the Senses”

This is Part V of my ongoing series of posts relating to the Japanese cultural phenomenon called “ero-guro-nansensu”, or erotic-grotesque-nonsense. You can read all of the previous instalments in the Ero Guro Nansensu category of my blog. The previous post, which discussed Midori — The Girl in the Freak Show, can be found here.

Actors Tatsuya Fuji and Eiko Matsuda in Nagisa Oshima's controversial

Actors Tatsuya Fuji and Eiko Matsuda in Nagisa Oshima’s controversial “In the Realm of the Senses” (1976).

The next film I’d like to discuss in my ongoing series on ero-guro-nansensu is one of the most notorious Japanese films ever made,  In the Realm of the Senses (1976), directed by the “bad boy” of the Japanese New Wave, Nagisa Oshima.

“Japanese cinema’s preeminent taboo buster, Nagisa Oshima directed, between 1959 and 1999, more than twenty groundbreaking features. For Oshima, film was a form of activism, a way of shaking up the status quo. Uninterested in the traditional Japanese cinema of such popular filmmakers as Kurosawa and Ozu, Oshima focused not on classical themes of good and evil or domesticity but on outcasts, gangsters, murderers, rapists, sexual deviants, and the politically marginalized.”
— (Text excerpted from an essay written for the Criterion collection on Oshima)

This pedigree of Japanese cinema’s “bad boy” makes Oshima an excellent candidate to direct a film adaptation of the already lurid true story of the famous ero-guro era murderess Sada Abe. In 1936 Tokyo, Sada Abe worked as a maid in a restaurant owned by Kichizo Ishida with whom she became romantically involved. After a brief but intense sexual fling, Abe erotically asphyxiates Ishida, afterwards cutting off his penis and testicles and carrying them around with her in her handbag. Abe was eventually arrested and convicted of murder in the second degree and mutilation of a corpse. She was sentenced to six years in prison, and was released after five.

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Newspaper photo taken shortly after Abe’s arrest, at Takanawa Police Station, Tokyo on May 20, 1936.

Pre-WWII writings, such as the text The Psychological Diagnosis of Abe Sada (1937) depict Abe as an example of the dangers of unbridled female sexuality and as a threat to the patriarchal system. In the postwar era, however, she was treated as a critic of totalitarianism, and a symbol of freedom from oppressive political ideologies (from Wikipedia). And thus enters the director Nagisa Oshima. The story of Sada Abe, and the persona that developed around her as a “symbol of freedom from oppression” would, of course, speak to the political aims of Oshima. In The Realm of The Senses uses sex as a radical act against the oppression of personal liberty.

If we recall the fascist propaganda poster I included in my introductory post on ero-guro, we can observe that it clearly promoted a very conservative morality of procreative sex between married couples for the purpose of begetting a new generation of Japanese (all for the purpose of ‘nation-building’). The sex we see depicted between the two main characters in Oshima’s film, Kichi and Sada, is the opposite of that. Theirs is not socially sanctioned sex. They are not husband and wife, and Kichi is already married with children. Once their romantic fling begins, they leave the restaurant and hole up inside a nearby inn – thus removing themselves from society and their prescribed roles within in. Their self-imposed exile, and Kichizo’s eventual death, can be see as the ultimate “opt-out” from the ultranationalist agenda and to Imperial Japan.

sense_strangle

Why was In The Realm of The Senses so controversial when it was released in 1976? The film features scenes of unsimulated sex between the two main actors, which is quite daring for a filmmaker who’s known as an auteur, rather than a pornographer. In fact, Oshima was charged in his native county with obscenity, and had to go to court to defend his film (charges were subsequently dropped in 1982). Oshima used the language of pornography, but did not create a purely pornographic film. If the aim of pornography is to titillate for the purposes of arousal, then In The Realm of The Senses does not function as pornography. We, the audience, may watch Sada and Kichi have sex, but the camera never places us within the action. We watch at a certain remove. Additionally, the actors in the film are never objectified, reduced to mere performers of sex for our voyeuristic consumption. We empathize with them. Unlike the objectified and dehumanized porn actors, these actors seem very real and very human to us.
The sex between Sada and Kichi is also very visceral. There is no gloss of romanticism or soft-focus lens here – this is real sex that results in the release of bodily fluids, with the resultant wet spots on the futon and funky smells which permeate the inn room in which Kichi and Sada temporarily reside (and which is commented on by the maids who have to clean their room).

sense_smell
At the beginning of the clip below, we see Sada departing from her meeting with her former school principal, with whom she periodically has sex for money as a means of support for herself and Kichizo. The principal (rather ungallantly) points out that she “smells like a dead rat”, which we could read as either relating back to the state of complete physical abandon that Kichi and Sada have entered, or could be foreshadowing of Kichi’s death. Later, when Sada reunites with Kichi, she is visibly shaken by the fact that the maids have cleaned the room in their absence. The inn room had functioned as their oasis from the world, but now the outside world was creeping back in and imposing its order and control.

We see Kichi step out from a barber shop and into an empty street. A platoon of soldiers approaches and Kichi walks in opposition (in the opposite direction) to the soldiers. The next instant, a crowd of flag-waving townsfolk materialize. We can only read this scene as symbolic. Kichi is isolated, walking on a different side of the street from the rest of Japan. There is no place for him in Imperial Japan, and he knows it.

The erotic-asphyxiation that Sada and Kichi engage in originates from their mutually shared desire to explore extreme sensory experiences. Eventually, of course, this co-mingling of death with sex leads to Kichi’s wish to transcend this world.

Next in this series of posts, Yasuzô Masumura’s “Blind Beast.”

Deviant Desires: Erotic Grotesque Nonsense, part II. Edogawa Rampo.

This is Part II of my series of posts relating to the Japanese cultural phenomenon called “ero-guro-nansensu”, or erotic-grotesque-nonsense. Part I, which introduced and defined “ero-guro-nansensu” is found here.

Invariably, any examination of erotic grotesque nonsense will conjure up the name of the single most artistic contributor to that cultural phenomenon, and that name is Edogawa Rampo. In this post, I will introduce Rampo and briefly discuss his cultural legacy and creative output. Rampo serves as a common thread that links Japan of the 1920s-30s to the films I’ll be discussing in subsequent postings, as well as to the artwork of contemporary artists working with ero-guro style imagery. Of the five films I plan to discuss, three are adaptations of stories written by Rampo.

Edogawa Rampo was the pen name of Hirai Taro and the acknowledged grand master of Japan’s golden age of crime and mystery fiction. He is also a major writer in the tradition of Japanese Modernism, and exerts a massive influence on the popular and literary culture of today’s Japan. That his chosen pen name is derived from the Japanese pronunciation of Edgar Allan Poe is a pretty clear indication of his creative inspirations and early passions as a reader.

rampo_reader

The “Edogawa Rampo Reader”, first published in 2008.

Even though Rampo has remained a household name in Japan since the 1930s, translations of Rampo’s fiction were not available in the West until 1956, with the publication of Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination. This collection of nine short stories remained the only dedicated volume of Rampo available in English-language translation up until the early 21st-century (some short stories had been translated and published in other anthologies, but there hadn’t been a dedicated volume of Rampo available). In 2008, the Edogawa Rampo Reader was published, which contained short stories and some non-fiction prose that had hitherto been unavailable in translation.

While a university student, Rampo read detective stories by Poe, G.K. Chesterton, and Arthur Conan Doyle, which appealed to him precisely because of their use of careful plotting, logic and reasoning, and dark overtones. Many of Rampo’s stories feature a main protagonist in the character of Akechi Kogoro, a private detective very much in the vein of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes character. Like Holmes, Akechi is a brilliant but eccentric detective who consults with the police on especially difficult cases. He is a master of disguise and an expert at judo whose genius lets him solve seemingly impossible cases.

It is Rampo’s more bizarre, fantastic and darkly erotic works of fiction, however, that ultimately established him as the Godfather of Ero-Guro. Rampo’s stories were wildly popular during the turbulent interwar years in Japan, and it is their transgressive spirit that best captures the essence of ero-guro-nansensu.

“The Japanese writer Edogawa Rampo has been called the Father of Japanese Mystery Fiction. This statement, while not inaccurate, fails to adequately consider examples of his writing that border on the macabre or the fantastic. Many of his works tap into the elements of strangeness that Japan’s headlong rush into modernity after the Meiji Restoration had unleashed. Far more than conventional mysteries, these stories incorporate elements of the fantastic, the gothic, and the absurd, in ways that thrill and entertain, and also leave the reader unsettled, and they delve deeply into the fear of the unknown that all humans share.”

— (Quote taken from the foreword written by Patricia Welch in Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination.)

I’ve selected two of my favourite Rampo short stories to discuss, the first being The Caterpillar, and the second The Human Chair. These are two of his best known and most celebrated stories, and have been adapted in both film and manga form numerous times throughout the years. First published in 1934, The Caterpillar was the only of Rampo’s stories to have been banned by the prewar Japanese authorities for being ‘anti-nationalist’.

The Caterpillar (1934)


The Caterpillar is a short story about an army wife named Tokiko and her severely injured husband, Lieutenant Sunaga. A recent returnee from an unnamed war, Sunaga has unfortunately become a horribly disfigured quadruple amputee who is deaf, mute and dumb. He is, of course, completely dependent on his wife for all his physical needs, and he communicates these to Tokiko through a series of animalistic grunts and the use of his eyes. While Lieutenant Sunaga is literally trapped within the limbless stump of his body, Tokiko is also trapped in an endless cycle of care for her husband because, as she is continually reminded by those around her, it is her “wifely duty” to do so. As she is told by the retired major general in whose cottage the couple now reside, “The loyalty and meritorious services of Lieutenant Sunaga are of course the boast of our Army.”

Given his condition, Sunaga devolves into something less-than-human and, much like the caterpillar (whose form he now physically resembles), his entire existence focuses on food, and sex. With her new position of power in their relationship Tokiko, resentful of her endless round-the-clock care of her husband, begins to cruelly toy with Sunaga. In a fit of rage at her husband, Tokiko gouges out his eyes with her fingers, thus removing his only sensory connection to the world. The sightless Sunaga manages an insectile crawl out of the cottage and plummets down a well to his death. (I plan to go into greater depth on this story when I discuss the film “The Caterpillar” (2010) directed by Kōji  Wakamatsu, in a later posting.)

The Human Chair (1925)


The second Rampo short story I want to discuss is The Human Chair, which was originally published in 1925. The story involves a young woman writer named Yoshiko who receives a mysterious envelope in the mail. At first, she believes it to be a manuscript from an aspiring writer seeking her critique, but as she reads, she quickly realizes it is a rather long and confessional letter penned by an unnamed writer. The mysterious letter-writer, who describes himself as “ugly beyond description”, confesses to a series of increasingly bizarre and perverse crimes. He reveals that he is craftsman skilled in the art of chair-making, and that he had been commissioned by an upscale hotel to manufacture a large, custom chair for its lobby. Deciding that this commissioned chair is his masterpiece, and therefore reluctant to part with it, he opts to fashion a compartment in the inside back of the chair that would accommodate a human being (namely, him). He then accompanies the chair to the hotel lobby, where he hides inside of it during the day, sneaking out of it at night to steal valuable items from the hotel. The chair-maker soon realized, however, that he received a perverse, erotic thrill when female hotel guests sat in his chair — and thus, on top of him.

After months of this strange existence, the hotel came under new management and some of its contents, including the chair, were sold to private individuals. Coincidentally, Yoshiko’s husband had purchased an overstuffed chair a short while back at an auction, which his wife loves to sit in whilst she reads (so, you know where this is heading, right?). The letter-writer then goes on to describe the daily routine of Yoshiko, confessing that he had fallen in love with her. Horrified, Yoshiko jumps out of the chair and runs from the room. Within moments, she receives a second mystery missive – this time a telegram – stating that the confessional letter was, in fact, a work of fiction, and that the author hoped Yoshiko enjoyed the effectiveness of the story.

Toshio Saeki, being the ‘Godfather of Japanese Erotica”, adds a predictably erotic slant to his interpretation of Rampo’s

Toshio Saeki, being the ‘Godfather of Japanese Erotica”, adds a predictably erotic slant to his interpretation of Rampo’s “The Human Chair” story.

My next post in this series will discuss Teruo Ishii’s gloriously schlocky, psychedelic mashup of Rampo-with-butoh, Horrors of Malformed Men (1969).

Deviant Desires: Erotic Grotesque Nonsense. Part 1 (Introduction)

Hello, my darklings. It’s been an embarrassingly long time since I’ve composed a new post for this blog. My other projects have managed to keep me away — but I’m back. I’ve decided to rectify this prolonged blog-neglect by posting, over the course of several weeks, excerpts taken from the lecture I gave at the Black Museum in Toronto on the topic of “Erotic Grotesque Nonsense”, a cultural phenomenon that developed in 1920s-30s Japan. I hope you enjoy, and find the posts entertaining as well as informative.

Image by a contemporary ero guro-inspired Japanese artist, Suehiro Maruo.

Image by the contemporary ero guro-inspired Japanese artist, Suehiro Maruo.

Synopsis

The interwar years in Japan were a time of rapid modernization and social change. It was also a time of economic hardship and, as the fascists rose to power, increasingly oppressive politics. During these difficult times, a popular cultural phenomena flourished. Dubbed by the Japanese media as ero-guro-nansensu, or “erotic-grotesque-nonsense”, this movement rejected the narrow standards of conventional morality insisted upon by the fascists, and instead celebrated the deviant, the bizarre and the ridiculous.

In terms of timeline, we are focussing specifically on the years 1923 to the mid-1930’s. Ero guro developed and emerged as a mass-media driven cultural phenomenon shortly after the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, and faded out by the mid-1930’s due to Japan’s increasing militarism and invasion of China (and, subsequently, WWII).

Defining Ero-Guro-Nansensu

The clearest and most succinct definition I’ve come across for ero-guro is the one by offered by Jim Reichert, a professor of Modern Japanese Literature at Stanford University. Reichert describes ero-guro as:

“… a bourgeois cultural phenomenon that devoted itself to explorations of the deviant, the bizarre, and the ridiculous. […] [Such] works were produced and consumed at a historical moment when Japanese citizens were bombarded by propaganda urging them to devote themselves to such “productive” goals as nation building and mobilization. In this context, the sexually charged, unapologetically “bizarre” subject matter associated with erotic-grotesque cultural products is reconstituted as a transgressive gesture against state-endorsed notions of “constructive” morality, identity, and sexuality.”

Rather than simply a form of escapism, Reichert suggests that ero-guro may have formed (if indirectly) a radical resistance to the totalitarian political state.

Let’s break the phrase up into its three constituent elements:

  • Ero (“erotic”) representing the erotic, or the pornographic. Typical motifs include sexual obsession, fetishism, and other paraphilias. Can often be represented by cross-dressing and fluid gender identities.
  • Guro [hard ‘G’ GUH-ROE] (the “grotesque”). Often represented through physical deformity, also through mental instability, disguises, and the dangerous double or Dopplegänger. It is a common misconception that guro is synonymous with gore. While guro can often be gory, it is not a necessary component.
  • Nansensu (NAN-SAY-SUE] (“nonsense”)
    Representing fantasy, the supernatural, and the absurd. This is the element that can be often overlooked in ruminations on ero-guro — it’s darkly comedic underpinnings.

Ero guro nansensu is a wasei-eigo [ WAH-SAY AY-go ] phrase, meaning that the words are borrowed from English, made to confirm to Japanese and are given meaning as Japanese-derived English (this distinct from engrish). The phrase itself is an example of the Western-inspired modernism that came into vogue during the 1920s in Japan which, in turn, fed into the phenomenon of ero guro. By which I mean that ero guro was initially inspired by Western cultural products such as the gothic-mystery stories of Edgar Allan Poe, which was then absorbed and transformed by ero guro writers like Edogawa Rampo (whom we will discuss in a later post) into very Japanese cultural material.

I began my lecture with a clip of the opening scene from Sion Sono’s 2005 film Strange Circus. My rationale for this was that, in it’s mere two minutes of running time, this scene so perfectly and concisely encapsulates the main themes and motifs that typify ero-guro-nansensu, or “erotic grotesque nonsense”. The scene in question is not available freely online, but below is the trailer, which should at least give you the flavour of Sono’s film.

So, what are the “erotic grotesque” elements in this scene?:

    • An audience composed of ‘decadent’, cosmopolitan and stylishly-dressed youth (note the 1920’s style of clothing). These represent the original consumers of ero-guro. Note that Reichert’s definition of ero-guro indicates that this was a “…bourgeois cultural phenomenon”. This detail is key because, although ero-guro was disseminated widely through the use of print and other contemporaneous media, it remained a largely urban, middle-class phenomenon. The reason for this was simply that the more affluent Japanese citizens had the leisure time and finances to patronize the cafes, movie theatres, and dance revues that were the modern playground of ero-guro.

strange1

    • The representation of fluid gender identities and sexualities (which would have been labelled ‘deviant’ in the context of the 1920’s-1930’s). Our host, Black Shadow, would embody these blurred gender boundaries.


strange2

    • Heightened theatricality and performance (motif of the circus and the circus ‘freak’). It could be argued that ‘ero guro’ and the Gothic aesthetic are distant cousins to each other in terms of theatricality. Also, an element of camp can often be present.
    • Violence, either actual or suggested.
    • Underpinning of absurdity and humour. After all, this is erotic-grotesque-nonsense. All three of these elements are conjured in this last image, showing the moment when Black Shadow asks the audience if any of them would want to be guillotined.

strange3

Imperial Japan

During the age of Imperial Japan, a concern for “racial health” and for Japan’s ability to fight wars, expand its empire, and claim its position as a great world power motivated a new societal power over sex by the fascists.

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A propaganda poster circa 1930’s, urging Japanese women to remain in the home raising the next generation of healthy, productive Japanese citizens.

Public officials, schoolteachers, and sexologists worked together to classify individuals by sexuality and control behaviors that they marked as “deviant.” The cultural phenomenon of ero guro responded to and opposed these life-for-the-empire biopolitics of the fascists by imagining a possible alternative. Cultural critics such as Jeffrey Angles (in his essay “Seeking the Strange…”, published in Monumenta Nipponica), have interpreted the interwar fad for the erotic grotesque as “…reflecting people’s desire to escape the difficult economic circumstances and increasingly repressive political developments of the 1920s and 1930s for an alternative sphere of imaginative play.”

One of the chief sources I consulted for research on the erotic grotesque was Miriam Silverberg’s book entitled Erotic Grotesque Nonsense: The Mass Culture of Modern Japanese Times. This is a densely packed academic text that examines, in great detail, the emergence of the erotic grotesque as a cultural phenomenon. Silverberg offers four major factors that she asserts contributed to erotic-grotesque nonsense:

  • The changing roles of women.
  • Changing attitudes towards sexuality.
  • The emergence of new public spaces.
  • Mass culture & modern consumerism.

silverberg

Following an economic boom of WWI, Japan quickly fell into recession. This economic decline pressured women, who had hitherto remained in the household, to enter the work force. Women belonging to a higher economic/social status entered the “white-collar” work force as secretaries and other office workers. These women were dubbed moga, or ‘Modern Girl’, by the Japanese journalists of the day.

The Modern Girl often wore Western-style clothing contemporary to her time, with short bobbed hair and knee-length skirts. That said, the majority of Japanese still preferred to remain in tradition Japanese dress.

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With her newfound freedom and economic power, the Modern Girl went to the movies, smoked, drank and danced at the various jazz-infused dance halls that began to appear in the trendy Ginza district of 1920s Tokyo. She also, most shockingly, met up with men – unchaperoned — in public spaces. The Modern Girl is imagined to have had a succession of lovers prior to marriage (whether or not that was, in fact, the reality for most Japanese women at the time is another matter – but what is key is the idea of this was even entertained as a possibility).

Dance revues, jazz clubs, cafes and movie houses gave form to new a landscape of urban modernity. Working-class women found employment as café waitresses, while others worked as professional “taxi dancers” in the dance halls, where tickets for a 3-minute dance could be purchased.

ginza-taxi-dancers

Ian Buruma, a writer and academic working in the U.S. who focuses on the culture of Asia, described the social atmosphere of 1920’s Tokyo as “a skittish, sometimes nihilistic hedonism that brings Weimar Berlin to mind.” A tantalizing comparison can be made between interwar Japan and the short-lived Weimar Republic of Germany, with it’s famous brothels and cabarets of the prewar period. Similarly, Tokyo had the dance halls and cafes of the Ginza district, and its own decadent, jazz-listening pleasure seekers. It is within this atmosphere of newfound social freedom and modern pleasures that the “erotic grotesque” was born.

Next up, we’ll review the writings of Edogawa Rampo, the Godfather of Erotic Grotesque.

My Demon Lover: the mythology of the incubus.

“Inkubus” (photograph, 2005) by contemporary German visual artist Michael Hutter.

The incubus is a demon in male form — the female equivalent is called a succubus — who, according to different mythologies and legends throughout the world, lies upon women whilst they sleep in order to have sexual intercourse with them. In the Middle Ages, belief in demons who sexually preyed on humans assuaged a sleeping person’s shame and guilt over nocturnal emissions and other physical evidence of erotic dreams. Primarily, however, the incubus legend functioned as a convenient means to conceal incest and other types of sexual assault upon girls and women who had no unchaperoned access to men outside the home, but had nonetheless become inexplicably pregnant.

In contrast to the sleeping rape victims of medieval yore, the women that populate the photographic work of contemporary visual artist Michael Hutter are both wide awake and engaged in consensual coupling with their respective incubi. In the sepia-coloured photo-collage entitled Inkubus, a nude woman sporting a 1920’s flapper-style bob receives an amorous lick from the tiny demon lover perched on her shoulder. In The Alien Nurse, the erotic-grotesque combines with Victorian fetishism as a blindfolded “wet-nurse” offers up her breast to a curious intestinal/tentacled alien blob. In subsequent photo-collages, the wet-nurse discovers new and even more intimate uses for the alien tentacle, recalling shokushu goukan or ‘tentacle erotica’ of contemporary Japanese hentai.

“Die Alienamme (The alien nurse)”, photograph, 2006 by Michael Hutter.

The work of German artist Michael Hutter ranges from ink drawings on paper reminiscent of the Victorian kinkiness of Aubrey Beardsley’s Lysistrata, to the retro-inspired photo-collages you see here.  Visit his online gallery to see for yourself, though perhaps not whilst at the office.

A Diabolical Decadence: Charles Baudelaire, Félicien Rops and the “Flowers of Evil.”

Come on my heart, cruel and insensible soul,
My darling tiger, beast with indolent airs;
I want to plunge for hours my trembling fingers
In your thick and heavy mane;

In your petticoats filled with your perfume
To bury my aching head,
And breathe, like a faded flower,
The sweet taste of my dead love.

I want to sleep, to sleep and not to live,
In a sleep as soft as death,
I shall cover with remorseless kisses
Your body beautifully polished as copper.

To swallow my appeased sobbing
I need only the abyss of your bed;
A powerful oblivion lives on your lips,
And all Lethe flows in your kisses.

I shall obey, as though predestined,
My destiny, that is now my delight;
Submissive martyr, innocent damned one,
My ardor inflames my torture,

And I shall suck, to drown my bitterness
The nepenthe and the good hemlock,
On the lovely tips of those jutting breasts
Which have never imprisoned love.

— Geoffrey Wagner, Selected Poems of Charles Baudelaire (NY: Grove Press, 1974). English translation of the poem Le Léthé by Charles Baudelaire from Fleurs du mal (1857).

Mysterious occult rituals, orgiastic parties and experiments with hallucinatory drugs: sounds like one of the notorious “acid test” road trips by Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, right? While this does neatly summarize the wild merry-making of the Pranksters and the 1960’s hippie counterculture, what I’m describing above is instead the naughty behaviour of a much earlier group of non-conformists and bohemians: the Decadents of the late 19th-century.

Etching & aquatint by Félicien Rops (1896).

The Decadence Movement was a fin de siècle artistic and literary style of Western Europe, primarily France. Fin de siècle or “end of the century” refers to the latter two decades of the 19th-century that were characterized by boredom, cynicism, and pessimism as well as an anxiety over the change that is inevitable in the ending of a century. While the term “decadent” was originally applied as a pejorative by critics of the style, writers and artists such as Charles Baudelaire and Félicien Rops eagerly adopted this label as a further act of defiance against the restrictive social mores they perceived in contemporary European society. For the most part, the Decadents were influenced by the tradition of Gothic novels and by the poetry and fiction of Edgar Allan Poe, and were associated with (but distinct from) Symbolism. The progenitor of Decadence was Baudelaire, and his poetry collection Les Fleurs du mal (‘The Flowers of Evil’, 1857) is considered by literary historians as a seminal work of Decadent writing. Steeped in a fashionably brooding melancholia and an almost morbid eroticism, Baudelaire’s poetry was targeted by French censors for its bold lasciviousness:

 

The author and the publisher were prosecuted under the regime of the Second Empire as an outrage aux bonnes mœurs (trans. “an insult to public decency”). As a consequence of this prosecution, Baudelaire was fined 300 francs. Six poems from the work were suppressed and the ban on their publication was not lifted in France until 1949. These poems were “Lesbos”, “Femmes damnés (À la pâle clarté)” (or “Women Doomed (In the pale glimmer…)”), “Le Léthé” (or “Lethe”), “À celle qui est trop gaie” (or “To Her Who Is Too Gay”), “Les Bijoux” (or “The Jewels”), and ” Les “Métamorphoses du Vampire” (or “The Vampire’s Metamorphoses”). These were later published in Brussels in a small volume entitled Les Épaves (Jetsam). — from Wikipedia.

Lithograph known alternately as “Black Mass” or “Calvary”, by Félicien Rops.

The Belgian visual artist Félicien Rops met Baudelaire towards the end of the poet’s life, and this meeting had a great impact on the career of the young artist. An accomplished printmaker, Rops illustrated many literary works including Baudelaire’s Les Épaves, a selection of poems for which he created the frontispiece. Like the works of the authors whose poetry he illustrated, Rops work tends to mingle sex, death, and Satanic images. He held a lifelong fascination with the femme fatale, an image of womankind that served as a dark and sinister Muse to that generation of Decadent artists. Of his views of Woman, Félicien Rops wrote: “Therefore it is his era, the end of the 19th century, that he [the artist] expresses through his graphic work, structured mainly around the themes of love, suffering and death, with the central unifying theme of the woman, la femme fatale in the full meaning of the word. Through her he portrays his vision of his era. Woman is Satan’s accomplice, and becomes the supreme attraction which provokes the most extreme vices and torments in Man, a mere puppet.” (an English translation of a quote taken from the Museum of Félicien Rops web site.)

Counting myself amongst the legion of “Satan’s accomplices”, I can easily admire the lewd and grotesque aspects of Rops, even as he does occasionally verge on a kind of vulgar kitsch. The unabashed sexuality of Rops lends a quality of surprising modernity to the work and gives it a contemporary feel, even as it dates from well over 100 years ago.

Walerian Borowczyk’s “La bête” (‘The Beast’)

Horror at the discovery of the slaughtered lamb and bear-like Beast in the surrealistic dream sequence.

I wanted to revisit a film I’d mentioned in the previous post on Walerian Borowczyk. This blog entry introduced the work of Polish filmmaker Borowczyk and offered a brief analysis of his softcore films created in the mid-1970s. His most notorious and controversial film La bête (‘The Beast’, 1975) was released shortly after Contes immoraux (‘Immoral Tales’, 1974) and was, in fact, an expansion of a sequence originally shot for the earlier anthology. This sequence consisted of a rather cheeky retelling of the Beauty & The Beast fairytale as only Borowczyk’s ribald imagination could envision. An aristocratic woman in a powdered wig is roused from her harpsichord by the sudden disappearance of a lamb outside the window of her country manor. She ventures into the nearby forest in search of the lamb, only to discover its carcass being gnawed on by an enormous, bear-like creature. Presumably fearing for her life, the woman screams and runs through the forest in a frenzied manner that quite effectively removes all of her clothing save for her corset and stockings. In close pursuit, the Beast appears visibly aroused by the semi-nude woman, as evidenced by the absurdly large phallus it sports. The woman is eventually captured by the creature, who performs oral sex on her whilst she hangs from a tree branch in a futile attempt at escape. Her wild protestations soon vanish and she surrenders to the erotic attentions of the Beast in one of cinema’s most bizarre, and hilarious, sex scenes.

Sweet, sweet loving between Beauty and her Beast. Walt Disney, this ain’t.

If the text on the DVD package is accurate, La bête was banned for the past 25 years in the UK on the grounds of its depictions of bestiality. If true, this would strongly suggest that the British censors possessed neither imagination nor a sense of humour. The sex depicted in this sequence lacks any sense of realism and is clearly meant as a darkly comedic farce of the romantic relationship typically found in the traditional Beauty & the Beast fairytale. Borowczyk’s penchant for the grotesque also shapes the scene. A man in a bear suit touting an enormous prosthetic penis is grotesque, ridiculous and not-so-vaguely perverted, but it’s certainly not bestiality.

Now that La bête is available on DVD, my advice to the British censors is to slip a copy into the player, decant the wine, plant themselves on the couch and enjoy this sexy and thoroughly absurd film. Heck, I’m willing to bet that they were doing this in secret, all along.

Classical mythology revisited: the shrewd ecofeminism of Shary Boyle.

The last (I promise) of the grad school essays I shall inflict upon you. In this one, my task was to compare my work with that of another contemporary visual artist. I chose Shary Boyle. The astute among you will recognize a passage or two from my Master’s thesis in this essay. Hey, it’s not plagarism when you cannibalize your own writing.

Fig. 1. Shary Boyle, "Untitled", pencil and gouache on paper, size unknown, 2003.

Throughout history, visual artists have fleshed out mythological subjects and generated images based on traditional, time-honoured stories. Myths supply an accessible and universal narrative to which the artist can attach a personal story. Renowned scholar and mythologist Joseph Campbell describes one of the goals of myth as “…effecting a reconciliation of the individual consciousness with the universal will.” Similarly, in his essay “The Expressive Fallacy” Hal Foster cites Nietzsche’s discussion of an artist’s use of myth to express an interior world: “The whole notion of an ‘inner experience’ enters our consciousness only after it has found a language that the individual understands – i.e., a translation of a situation into a familiar situation…” The “language” to which Nietzsche refers can be interpreted as “mythology” which provides a universal narrative to which all cultures, no matter how disparate, have access. The “inner experience” may be read as the personal, psychological or emotional world that the artist seeks to materialize through the use of myth. In short, myths connect us to each other by anchoring the idiosyncrasy of the individual to a universally shared point of reference.

In my own art practice, I frequently make use of myths and archetypes as cultural ready-mades into which I insert my own personal history and meanings. Myths are reinterpreted in my work from a feminist perspective that considers gender representation in these mythological narratives. Another contemporary Canadian artist who employs a similar creative, feminist tactic is Shary Boyle. A commonality in our work is the use of female mythological subjects that evoke the traditional, allegorical link between women and nature. Rather than simply offer a critique of the feminized concept of nature, however, both Boyle and myself use motifs derived from nature in a subversive manner that transform our female subjects in strange, fantastic ways. The transformations and mutations that our mythological heroines experience provide the visible, external evidence of their inner psychological and emotional world.

In her work prior to 2008, Boyle’s use of fairytales and mythological subjects tended to be global rather than specific. Her phantasmagoric imagery suggested the realm of dreams and myths without representing a particular legend or cultural tradition. Her two pencil and gouache drawings that we shall examine, both dating from 2003 and simply called Untitled, are evidence of her generalized incorporation of myth. Both drawings involve remarkable incidents in which a single female figure, isolated on the white void of the paper, quietly experiences a magical transformation. In Untitled (fig. 1) we are confronted with a woman in a bright red dress sitting contentedly in the grass, hands resting peacefully in her lap. The drawing is linear and economical; the grass on which the woman sits is minimally drawn. Two long, yellow plant stalks topped with white blossoms grow outwards from the eye sockets of the woman, a strange phenomenon that has not managed to disturb her serenity. The very fact that the woman appears unconcerned by this fantastic event seems to suggest that this transformation is metaphoric as the flowers are a manifestation of an interior psychological state. Equally, the woman may have simply acquiesced to the inevitability of this strange transformation. The subject of Boyle’s second drawing Untitled (fig. 2), a prepubescent girl whose rigid stance and sideways glance suggests that she’s somewhat more alarmed by the tangled bush growing out from her mouth, nevertheless seems to accept the strangeness of this event as normative.

Fig. 2. Shary Boyle, "Untitled", pencil and gouache on paper, 30.5 cm x 30.5 cm, 2003.

In her essay entitled “Ornamental Impulse”, art writer Josée Drouin-Brisebois comments on Boyle’s surreal transformations as a manifestation of the emotional and psychological worlds of her subjects. “Boyle’s [figures]”, says Drouin-Brisebois, “express the inner life of the emotions materially.” Drouin-Brisebois cites the review of art critic Robin Laurence for Boyle’s paintings Companions (2004), wherein Laurence states: “Boyle’s portraits suggest that what looks outwardly freakish in others is the metaphorical equivalent of inward aspects of all our characteristics and circumstances.” Thus, the plant life that blooms from the bodily orifices of these female subjects is emblematic of their interior states, though what precisely those states would be remain vague and mysterious.

The mythology to which Boyle attaches her idiosyncratic narratives serves to anchor the work in tradition and provide the viewer with visual clues as to how one might interpret her dream-like imagery. For instance, the otherworldly flora of these drawings reference allegorical and mythological associations of women to nature. Rather than challenge the traditional dichotomy of women and nature, Boyle embraces it in a subversive manner. According to Drouin-Brisebois, Boyle’s women “become…nature in unsettling ways – verdancy out of control or a parasite that takes over the body…” Boyle acknowledges the allegorical tradition while at the same time engaging a sinister playfulness that alters it.

Fig. 3. Jennifer Linton, "An Abundant Supply of Milk", drypoint and etching, 38 cm x 30 cm, 2006.

Similar to Boyle, otherworldly flora plays a prominent role in my 2006 intaglio print entitled An Abundant Supply of Milk (fig. 3). Whereas Boyle rarely identifies her female subjects as aspects of herself, my work makes frequent use of self-portraiture and is characterized by an autobiographical content. This particular self-portrait shows myself standing in profile, naked save for a pair of underwear. With my hands I squeeze my breasts and produce an exaggeratedly large spray of breast milk. This cloud-like spray of breast milk, in turn, blossoms into a soggy mass of flowers. Like the drawings of Boyle discussed earlier, this print recognizes the mythic association between women and nature, and in particular the concept of a nurturing “mother nature”, while at the same time subverting it. The nourishing food that is breast milk has transformed into a bizarre floral mass that, rather than natural, appears inexorably alien. Created in the months that followed becoming a first-time mother, this image addressed my response to the strange transformations enacted upon my body as a result of pregnancy and childbirth. The milk-flowers that spring forth from my breasts represent an externalization of the estrangement I felt from my own body.

A second, earlier self-portrait speaks not to a feeling of estrangement but to the human impulse towards creation, both in art as well as in procreation. The coloured pencil drawing entitled Genesis (fig.4) illustrates the growth of a leafy, magenta and orange plant stalk out of my opened mouth. This fanciful stalk terminates in a perfectly round, ripe pomegranate fruit. Similar to the heroines of Boyle’s drawings, my visage appears untroubled by the unconventional growth of this fruit as if this were the result of a natural, internal process. In contrast to Boyle’s 2003 Untitled drawings, however, the magical vegetation of Genesis recalls a very specific mythological story while at the same time evoking the women-nature dichotomy. The appearance of the pomegranate in this drawing is highly significant as it is a direct quotation from an earlier body of work in which I assumed the role of Persephone, a tragic heroine from Greco-Roman mythology. This role-playing allowed for the insertion of personalized content within the larger context of a universal narrative. Or, as Nietzsche expressed, the myth of Persephone provided “…a translation of a situation into a familiar situation.” We will return to this discussion of Persephone after an introduction to Boyle’s latest works, one of which, coincidentally, deals directly with this same myth.

Fig. 4. Jennifer Linton, "Genesis", coloured pencil on Mylar, 38 cm x 28 cm, 2004.

As previously stated, Boyle’s work is frequently characterized by a global adoption of mythology, her imagery an amalgam of different mythic traditions synthesized with her own idiosyncratic symbolism. The recent unveiling of Boyle’s latest porcelain sculptures at the 2008 grand reopening of the Art Gallery of Ontario, however, provides an exciting and atypical exception to this aspect of her work. Boyle was commissioned by the AGO to create work that responded to the gallery’s permanent collection. She selected two 18th-century Italian bronze statuettes by Giovanni Battista Foggini with which to engage in a conversation across history. The subjects of Foggini’s sculptures are two commonly depicted Greco-Roman myths: Perseus slaying Medusa and The Rape of Proserpine. Boyle’s porcelains offer feminist reinterpretations of these myths while simultaneously maintaining her characteristic surreal imagery that hints at the internal, psychological world of her subjects.

Boyle’s response to Foggini’s The Rape of Proserpine re-imagines the Greco-Roman myth upon which it is based and addresses the violent and sexually problematic subject matter of the original Baroque bronze. Her delicate porcelain sculpture entitled The Rejection of Pluto (fig. 5) casts the titular deity as a hideously yawning monster and not the sinewy, handsome abductor of Foggini’s statuette. In her 2008 interview with art critic Sarah Milroy featured in The Globe and Mail, Boyle discussed the responsibility she felt as a feminist artist in rendering an alternate version of this classical myth: “I guess I just felt that this subject matter had to be engaged. I had been asked inside the museum, and I felt a kind of responsibility to interrupt some of those narratives, to propose some other kinds of stories.”

Proserpine is the Roman goddess of springtime, wife of Pluto and mythological equivalent of the Greek goddess Persephone. Her story is one of great emotional power: an innocent maiden abducted by the lustful god of the Underworld and forced to become his bride. In the Globe and Mail interview, Boyle related the version of this Greco-Roman myth that inspired her reinterpretation:

“…Pluto, the Lord of the Underworld, fell in love with Proserpine, the beautiful daughter of the harvest goddess. Lust incarnate, he emerges from Hades through a pond in the glade of the water nymph Cyane, wreaking havoc on this sacred sylvan spot and seizing Proserpine by force, making her his bride in Hell. Cyane, who protects the natural realms, weeps tears over this loss, so much so that her tears replenish the landscape Pluto has devastated.”

Fig. 5. Shary Boyle, "The Rejection of Pluto", mixed media porcelain sculpture, 2008.

The scene of Boyle’s The Rejection of Pluto is the idyllic glade of the water nymph Cyane, decorated with exotic flowers, seashells and fairytale toadstools. The monstrous head of Pluto emerges from the water, his cavernous mouth yawning open as if to swallow his intended victim. Bright red-orange light, suggestive of the flames of Hell, flickers inside the mouth and eyes of the hollow, chasmal head. The water that immediately surrounds Pluto’s head appears brown and putrid and the vegetation bleached white, all vitality having been drained out by its proximity to the god of the Underworld. The female characters of this story – the girl-child Proserpine, her mother Demeter, and the nymph Cyane – are all gathered in a group at the opposite end of the glade. The amphibious water nymph Cyane glowers fiercely at Pluto, defending Proserpine whom Boyle has cast as a small child wounded by mirrored shards. According to Boyle, these three female figures “represent emotional, mental and physical resistance under siege.”

The crucial role that nature plays in The Rejection of Pluto can be likened to that of Boyle’s 2003 Untitled drawings, although the correlation between women and nature in the sculpture have been further strengthened. The landscape of The Rejection of Pluto reflects the violation suffered by Proserpine through its transformation from lush verdancy to polluted wasteland. This transformation of the landscape symbolizes Proserpine’s psychological and emotional turmoil in much the same manner as the mirrored shards that have pierced her flesh represent her physical violation. Boyle’s shrewd interpretation of the Proserpine/Persephone myth emphasizes the allegorical link between women and nature in her analysis of the mistreatment of both women and nature in the world.

The tragic heroine Persephone has also been depicted as a prepubescent girl in my 2000 mixed-media drawing entitled The Bitter Seed. In this drawing, I combine an image of myself as a child with the myth of Persephone as a means to address the difficult territory of childhood sexual abuse. By adopting the role of the mythological heroine, I translate and universalize my personal experience. Through the use of this metaphor, I strive to make an emotional state palatable and thus more easily approachable by the viewer.

The Bitter Seed takes its name from the pomegranate seed that Persephone was forced to eat, thus sealing her fate as the goddess whose annual death and rebirth would usher in the changing seasons:

“Persephone was the daughter of Zeus and Demeter, the goddess of agriculture. Hades, the lord of the Underworld, surprised Persephone one day while she was picking flowers and carried her off to be his bride. Demeter, the distraught mother, threatens to destroy all mortal men by causing an endless drought unless her daughter is returned. Zeus, who is the king of the gods at Olympus, commands Hermes to fetch Persephone from the realm of Hades. The wise Hades chooses to obey the command of Zeus; however, before Persephone is returned, he tricks her into eating a seed from a pomegranate. This deception is later revealed when Demeter asks her daughter “…have you eaten any food while you were below? If you have not, even though you have been in the company of loathsome Hades, you will live with me and your father…but if you have…you will return again beneath the depths of the earth and live there a third of the year; the other two-thirds of the time you will spend with me…”

To the ancient Greeks, the myth of Demeter and Persephone served to explain the death and regeneration of plant life each year. The metaphoric link between women and nature is quite overt: Persephone personifies the cycle of the seasons through her annual sacrifice.

In The Bitter Seed, my childhood self stands thickly outlined in black against a brightly coloured background reminiscent of a stained-glass window. One of my hands holds aloft a pomegranate, above which hangs the phrase “dirty girl.” I stare quizzically at both the fruit and the phrase, my child mind unable to fully grasp their meaning. Like the pomegranate in the Persephone myth, the fruit I hold represents violation and entrapment. Similar to the girl-child Proserpine in Boyle’s sculpture, who displays her wounded arms for the consideration of the viewer, my child-self in The Bitter Seed holds the pomegranate up as a symbolic manifestation of inner “wounds”.

Fig. 6. Jennifer Linton, "St. Ursula and the Gorgon’s Head", coloured pencil and drawing ink on Mylar, 62 cm x 80 cm, 2002.

The victimization of the girl-child Persephone in The Bitter Seed is later redressed in my 2002 drawing St. Ursula and the Gorgon’s Head (fig. 6) in which I assumed the role of the Catholic Saint Ursula, the patron saint of schoolgirls. In a manner similar to The Bitter Seed, this drawing blended autobiographical elements with mythological role-playing in order to universalize personal experience. The heroine of St. Ursula and the Gorgon’s Head assimilates two divergent mythological traditions: the hagiography of the Catholic saint with the Greco-Roman myth of the Gorgon Medusa. More avenging angel than saint, St. Ursula is shown adorned with angel wings and holding aloft a sword and the severed head of Medusa. The mouth of the snake-haired Medusa gapes open in a silent scream while a magical bloom of red flowers bleed from the wound of the severed neck. In the background, graphic and highly stylized red flowers also appear to bleed. Much like the strange, sinister flowers of Boyle’s 2003 Untitled drawings, these violent blossoms subvert the traditional woman-nature dichotomy and the association of women with a passive and nurturing feminine principle.

Women are frequently cast as the prize at the end of the hero’s quest but are seldom depicted as the active, adventurous hero themselves in mythology. This gender-biased tradition was best summarized by Joseph Campbell in his 1982 interview with Rozanne Zucchet from his collected writings entitled “The Hero’s Journey”:

“I was teaching these courses on mythology and at the end of my last year there this woman comes in and sits down and says, ‘Well, Mr. Campbell, you’ve been talking about the hero. But what about the woman?’ I said, ‘The woman’s the mother of the hero; she’s the goal of the hero’s achieving; she’s the protectress of the hero; she is this, she is that. What more do you want?’ She said, ‘I want to be the hero!’ So I was glad that I was retiring that year and not going to teach any more [audience laughter].”

While Campbell’s anecdote evidently amused his audience, it also underscores the gender discrimination inherent in mythological models. The sword-wielding heroine of St. Ursula and the Gorgon’s Head constitutes my feminist response to Campbell and this gender-biased tradition. My heroine adopts the stance traditionally occupied by the male hero Perseus who, as the Greek myth tells us, beheaded the female monster Medusa. Additionally, the gender of Medusa in my drawing has been switched from female to male as the image of the severed gorgon’s head my heroine holds is, in fact, a direct visual quotation of a painting by Caravaggio where Medusa is uncharacteristically portrayed as male.

Fig. 7. Shary Boyle. "To Colonize the Moon", mixed media porcelain sculpture, size unknown, 2008.

The representation of gender also plays a crucial role in Boyle’s second porcelain sculpture commissioned by the Art Gallery of Ontario. Entitled To Colonize the Moon (fig. 7), this sculpture encapsulates her response to Foggini’s bronze statuette Perseus Slaying Medusa as well as to the traditional Greco-Roman myth that she “has interpreted in light of both her environmentalist and feminist ideas.” Boyle’s reinterpretation of the myth views Medusa as a “very misunderstood monster” who suffers a number of indignities and violations resulting from the capricious cruelty of the Olympian gods. The severed head of Medusa lies atop a funeral pyre comprised of dead bats and bees, the expression on her lifeless face one of sad resignation to her tragic fate. In stark contrast to the heroic romanticism of Foggini’s Perseus, Boyle’s version of the Greek hero is a lily-skinned, rosy-cheeked effeminate boy who sits in quiet repose while he wipes the blood from his sword. This traditionally triumphal moment has been undercut by the calmness of the scene and soft, unheroic body of Boyle’s Perseus. The violence of the story is not celebrated, but merely represented in an anticlimactic manner. The death of the monster Medusa and the death of Nature – embodied by the dead bats and bees – are seen as being synonymous. There is a mournful aspect to this sculpture, as Boyle challenges the viewer to consider the violence enacted both upon women as well as upon the natural world.

Contemporary feminist artists such as Shary Boyle and myself are mining the past, revisiting the universal narratives of mythology and, as Boyle succinctly stated, “propos[ing] some other kinds of stories.” Inspired by the second wave feminists, who coined the phrase the personal is political, we disrupt the problematic, gender-biased narratives of traditional myths by inserting our own personal, idiosyncratic content into the larger framework of these universal stories. This personalized content adopts the symbolic vocabulary of myth and, through creative tactics such as role-playing, re-imagines these stories from contemporary feminist perspectives. Mythological motifs traditionally associated with women – namely the allegorical link made between women and nature – is wielded as a deconstructive weapon that knowingly acknowledges this association while at the same time playfully subverting it. The female subjects that populate our work ache, bleed, bloom and otherwise manifest their interior worlds in a number of strange and wondrously magical ways.

Walerian Borowczyk’s “Contes immoraux”: The bloodthirsty Countess meets European softcore cinema.

A bevy of naked beauties in Walerian Borowczyk's "Contes immoraux" (1974).

Walerian Borowczyk (1923-2006) was a Polish filmmaker who was, in the early years of his career, the creator of astounding stop-motion animations. Nightmarish and surreal in nature, animated short films such as Renaissance (1963) and Jeux des anges (1964) brought Borowczyk critical acclaim in the rarefied world of avant-garde filmmaking. Commercial success, however, eluded him until his venture into live-action cinema with his infamous art-house-meets-softcore films of the 1970’s. A consummate provocateur, Borowczyk challenged his audience with Contes immoraux (‘Immoral Tales’, 1974) and La bête (‘The Beast’, 1975) — films which some critics derided as “contentless pornography” due to their wholesale preoccupation with nudity and sexuality. While the charge of “pornography” is not entirely unwarranted, I would maintain that Borowczyk’s meticulously-detailed set design, careful art direction and signature surreal style elevate films such as Contes immoraux from mere “sexploitation” to softcore cinema with considerable artistic merit.

Now, don’t get me wrong — from a straightforward “is this movie good or not?” perspective, Borowczyk’s Contes immoraux is not an especially good film. What dialogue there is — and there’s mercifully little — is completely inane. The action is glacially slow, due in part to a camera that lingers incessantly over the bushy nether regions of naked girls. It is ironic, then, that as a purely softcore film Contes immoraux also falters. By the standards of contemporary pornography, Borowczyk’s film is rather too tame to satisfy current erotic appetites. It’s all breasts, bums and bush, and precious little sex. Thus, we are left with a paradoxical film that is neither artful enough for the art-house, nor raunchy enough to function as pornography.

Film still from "Contes immoraux". Paloma Picasso stars as Erzsébet Báthory, the notorious 15th-century Hungarian countess who allegedly bathed in the blood of young women as a means to preserve her youthful appearance.

What the films of Borowczyk do possess, however, are stunning visuals that perfectly synthesize elements of the erotic with the grotesque. Given his early animations, which were bizarre and nightmarish, it is not at all surprising that Borowczyk would continue his exploration of the grotesque in later work like Contes immoraux and La bête. A primary example of this is the Erzsébet Báthory segment of Contes immoraux, the third and most accomplished segment of his four-part erotic anthology. Set in 1610, this segment stars Paloma Picasso (the daughter of Pablo) in the role of Countess Elizabeth Báthory, the notorious 15th-century Hungarian noblewoman legendary for her cruelty and sadism. Amongst her many reputed atrocities were the infamous ‘bloodbaths’, in which the Countess would soak in her victim’s blood in order to retain her youth and beauty. Borowczyk downplays the savagery of the Báthory legend, and instead offers up a positively demure Countess. The segment opens with the round-up of the nearby village girls by the Countess’s henchmen. The next several minutes are dedicated to extended scenes of the girls bathing and generally frolicking in the shower stalls of the Báthory castle. There’s virtually no dialogue, focusing all of our attention on the sumptuous colour palette and beautifully-composed camera shots. After the frivolity of the showers, the naked girls are lead en masse into a large bedchamber. Elizabeth Báthory reappears, wearing a gossamer white dressing-gown, adorned with lace and pearls. The crowd of girls approach the Countess and stroke her pearl-encrusted gown admiringly. Rapidly, however, the scene transforms from sultry to savage, as the girls begin to violently tear at the dress, ripping it to shreds. They fight amongst each other over the pearls that fall, and the once sexy scene of nubile young girls turns into a bloody, animal rampage.

The 'bloodbath' of the Countess.

The scene quickly cuts to a close-up of the bloodbath of the Countess. The white limbs of Paloma Picasso fill the screen as she luxuriates in her bath, twisting back and forth in the frothy red. The heightened aestheticism, with the rich, vibrant red blood against white skin, cleverly undercuts the grotesque/horror aspects of the ‘bloodbath’ and the mass-murder that occurred (off-screen) in the previous scene.

The films of Walerian Borowczyk are not widely available, but cinephiles and film geeks can likely find these in the better “alternative” video stores or at midnight screenings in rep cinemas.