One of the most celebrated directors in American independent cinema, John Waters (featured in our August 2010 issue) is at his vibrant best when flaunting Hollywood’s rules or reveling in bad taste. The director of Pink Flamingos (1972) and Pecker (1998) brings the same wit and audacity to the art gallery. Perched upon his Bad Director’s Chair, Waters has cast his eye over some unlikely corners of the film business, transforming his observations of all the glamour and heartbreak of Hollywood into photographic essays and narrative sculptures that are both ridiculously honest and brutally humorous. Waters becomes the self-appointed press agent for his newly conceived “little movies” who would surely be fired the first day of a shoot by the furious producers.
Waters began making his photo-based work in 1992 by watching movies, using his insider knowledge to stay alert to those telltale moments and details that everyone else overlooks, not least the movie’s director. He snaps a single frame from a film, often from a TV, and recombines these images into a storyboard-like sequence, thus re-directing some of his favorite films through playful acts of appropriation. Cut off from their source, the stills take on a range of new meanings, and the strip sets off a loose, irresolvable set of associations or narratives. Product Placement (2009) features iconic film stills re-photographed and altered to show famous movie stars promoting banal consumer items as if they were magic talismans essential to the story. There’s no room for reverence here: Waters makes Aschenbach, the lovesick composer from Visconti’s Death in Venice (1971), grasp a jar of pasta sauce instead of reaching out for imperishable beauty. Rear Projection (2009) treats a series of actors’ bottoms as if they were cinema screens, or places anonymous backsides in preposterous cameos, looming absurdly in the background. Even the finale of a film is altered forever: after given a new life by Waters, the words “The End” will never mean quite the same thing again.
The same mischievous spirit goes into one-liners such as Epic (2003), where Waters takes the title treatment of 70s disaster movie The Poseidon Adventure and turns it upside down, like the doomed cruise ship that is the movie’s namesake. With an insider’s wink, Waters collapses one of Hollywood’s most beloved disaster movies into a single image. Neurotic (2009) shows four flash cards in a single frame. Are the little title treatments from a documentary about psychiatry? Or are they being shown to a live TV audience, instructing them how to feel about a scene? “Sorrow”, “Anxiety”, “Suffering” and “Disappointment” appear simultaneously as if a sudden reflection of the viewer’s state of mind. But who is being mistreated here, the feelings of the audience or all of show business itself?
Waters brings a darker mood to his sculptures. In Playdate (2006) Michael Jackson, all dressed up in cuddly pink pyjamas, lifts his hand up to a diminutive but fully bearded Charles Manson. “Two famous media villains,” says Waters about his work, “Charles Manson and Michael Jackson, reborn as perfect babies – could they have saved each other if they had met on a playdate before their lives went wrong?” In Bad Director’s Chair (2006), a typical canvas chair demanded by Hollywood auteurs is labeled with words that seem to reflect the deepest doubts of any filmmaker. “Unprepared”, “Hack”, “No Shot List”, among other disasters, all appear printed on the wood or canvas, as if the chair itself was the embodiment of an on-set nightmare.
Also part of the exhibition, three of the artist’s earliest films, Hag in a Black Leather Jacket (1964), Roman Candles (1966) and Eat Your Makeup (1968), will play in loops in specially designed ‘peep’ rooms.