Forgetting to Remember: Klahr’s Comic Book as Madeleine

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Installation view, 66, Anthony Reynolds Gallery, 2013. Copyright the artist, courtesy Anthony Reynolds Gallery, London

This essay by Tom Gunning, commissioned by Vdrome, coincides with the exhibition Sixty Six by the acclaimed American filmmaker Lewis Klahr, currently on view at Anthony Reynolds Gallery and open to the public until the 22nd February 2014. The text is republished here with kind permission of the author.

Lewis Klahr has been making films since 1977. His work has been screened extensively in the United States, Europe and Asia, including The Museum of Modern Art, New York, the Whitney Biennial, the New York Film Festival, the Toronto International Film Festival, the Hong Kong International Film Festival, the London Film Festival and the L.A. County Museum of the Arts. Klahr was awarded the Wexner Center for the Arts Media Arts Residency Award (2010) and the 2013 Stan Brakhage Vision Award, presented by the Denver Film Festival. 

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Installation view, 66, Anthony Reynolds Gallery, 2013. Copyright the artist, courtesy Anthony Reynolds Gallery, London

Men live with their eyes closed on the edge of magical precipices. They innocently handle dark symbols; their unknowing lips repeat terrible incantations, formulae dangerous as pistols. The sight of a bourgeois family drinking its morning café au lait, oblivious to the unknowable which peeks through the red and white squares of the tablecloth is enough to make you shudder. – Louis Aragon, The Paris Peasant

According to a myth Plato recounts, the river Lethe marks the divide between death and rebirth, the source of the waters of oblivion that souls must drink in order to start life anew, forget their past and gain a new destiny.  But Plato claimed philosophy allowed one to remember what one had forgotten, recalling the true forms of things glimpsed before descent into the darkness of the world and the body.

Many commentators on the films of Lewis Klahr have noted their invocation of memory. Klahr collages together bits and pieces pulled from the detritus of our omnipresent image culture. His films catch a thread of something familiar just on the edge of fading into forgetfulness. He rescues a “forgotten future” from the dumps of mass-production, recalling childhood expectations that have proved elusive. We have already discarded these images torn from comic strips, old school textbooks, take-out menus, magazine advertisements — so why do they haunt us?  Klahr’s films generate a blend of melancholy and desire from this interplay of grasping and losing, remembering and forgetting.  We must balance these demands while watching his films or we risk losing their deepest lessons. Our shared desire to grasp and retain images from childhood can make his images appear mawkishly nostalgic or sentimental.  But on the other hand, recognizing the inadequacy of these childish dreams, their flimsy kitschy nature, can make his film seems sarcastically camp, condescendingly dismissive of the popular culture in which they sometimes seem to drown. Moments of both nostalgia and satire exist in Klahr’s films, but we need to grasp how they confront and transform each other.

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Installation view, 66, Anthony Reynolds Gallery, 2013. Copyright the artist, courtesy Anthony Reynolds Gallery, London

Klahr’s films tell stories uniquely. Many of his film resemble the fever dream of a child who has binged on sci-fi comics and TV detective shows. The icons of these pulp genres merge in a crazy-quilt style, as if shaken out of their logic of dramatic consequence by a traffic collision or a drug haze.   Their surface appears like a jigsaw puzzle, transformation and metamorphosis dominating over action. We follow a road trip through a dreamscape, tracing a trajectory befogged by memory and hallucination, where nothing remains consistent. But a thread of action tugs us along, just as it pulls these cutout characters through tableaux of desire and situations of peril. None of Klahr’s films display this narrative pull more strongly than Lethe, where the transforming and dissolving bodies of its protagonists develop an almost-readable plot of genetic manipulations, hypodermic injections and erotic projections. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde meets Kiss Me Deadly meets Vertigo. As these jerky animated figures slip through their paper world, they move themselves — and us — in unexpected ways. With them, we traverse an environment that ranges from the cosmic to the microscopic, across the flat surfaces of numeric tables and charts into the hard-edged precision of modernist structures of glass and steel.  Enlarged Ben-Day dots transform clichéd faces into freckled masks of unexplained anguish, enacting scenarios borrowed from comic strips and television shows that somehow hint at deeper losses underlying their mass-produced plots.

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Installation views, 66, Anthony Reynolds Gallery, 2013. Copyright the artist, courtesy Anthony Reynolds Gallery, London

Klahr’s vehicles carry us through the rational gridded spaces of the modern environment, interrupted by lush promises of consumer-goods fulfillment and romantic denouements. But his mobile windshields reveal highways intersecting with patterns of remembrance that promises some way out, some place of exit. If only we could remember what it was we desired, what we believed we were promised, perhaps the exit ramp would loom before us and we could finally cross over the traffic interchange. Klahr’s lush, and sensual images ultimately expose their fragility and illusory nature. This is a world that could be crushed by the random clench of a child’s hand. And yet as silly as it may seem, as futile and even deceptive as its seductions may show themselves to be, these tales of desire and defeat hold some remnant of a hope of something else, a promise posed between oblivion and recall. Tragically funny — like a nursery rhythm or our memory of a first love.

– Tom Gunning

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Installation view, 66, Anthony Reynolds Gallery, 2013. Copyright the artist, courtesy Anthony Reynolds Gallery, London