Museum Tinguely

Bruce Conner

Light out of Darkness

05 May - 28 Nov 2021

Bruce Conner, CROSSROADS, 1976 (Filmstill) 35mm, b/w, sound, 37 min. Original Music by Patrick Gleeson and Terry Riley Restoration by UCLA Film & Television Archive Courtesy Kohn Gallery and Conner Family Trust © Conner Family Trust
Bruce Conner, MEA CULPA, 1981 (Filmstill) 16mm, b/w, sound, 5 min. Music: David Byrne and Brian Eno, ‘Mea Culpa’ from My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (1981) Courtesy Kohn Gallery and Conner Family Trust © Conner Family Trust
Installation view in the exhibition «Bruce Conner. Light out of Darkness» © 2021, Museum Tinguely; photo: Matthias Willi
Bruce Conner, CROSSROADS, 1976 Installation view in the exhibition «Bruce Conner. Light out of Darkness » © 2021, Museum Tinguely; photo: Matthias Willi
Bruce Conner, CROSSROADS, 1976 (Filmstill) 35mm, b/w, sound, 37 min. Original Music by Patrick Gleeson and Terry Riley Restoration by UCLA Film & Television Archive Courtesy Kohn Gallery and Conner Family Trust © Conner Family Trust
Bruce Conner, CROSSROADS, 1976 (Filmstill) 35mm, b/w, sound, 37 min. Original Music by Patrick Gleeson and Terry Riley Restoration by UCLA Film & Television Archive Courtesy Kohn Gallery and Conner Family Trust © Conner Family Trust
Bruce Conner, CROSSROADS, 1976 (Filmstill) 35mm, b/w, sound, 37 min. Original Music by Patrick Gleeson and Terry Riley Restoration by UCLA Film & Television Archive Courtesy Kohn Gallery and Conner Family Trust © Conner Family Trust
Bruce Conner, A MOVIE, 1958 Installation view in the exhibition «Bruce Conner. Light out of Darkness » © 2021, Museum Tinguely; photo: Matthias Willi
Bruce Conner, A MOVIE, 1958 (Filmstill) 16mm, b/w, sound, 12 min. Music: ‘The Pines of the Villa Borghese’, ‘Pines Near a Catacomb’ and ‘The Pines of the Appian Way’, movements from Pines of Rome (Pini di Roma) (1923–24), composed by Ottorino Respighi, performed by the NBC Symphony, conducted by Arturo Toscanini Courtesy Kohn Gallery and Conner Family Trust © Bruce Conner, A MOVIE, 1958 (Filmstill) 16mm, b/w, sound, 12 min. Music: ‘The Pines of the Villa
Bruce Conner, A MOVIE, 1958 (Filmstill) 16mm, b/w, sound, 12 min. Music: ‘The Pines of the Villa Borghese’, ‘Pines Near a Catacomb’ and ‘The Pines of the Appian Way’, movements from Pines of Rome (Pini di Roma) (1923–24), composed by Ottorino Respighi, performed by the NBC Symphony, conducted by Arturo Toscanini Courtesy Kohn Gallery and Conner Family Trust ©
Conner Family Trust
Bruce Conner (1933–2008) is legendary as much for his critical view of the art world as for his reputation as the father of the video clip. He is one of the outstanding artists of the twentieth century and has even been hailed as an ‘artist’s artist’. The exhibition «Bruce Conner. Light out of Darkness» at Museum Tinguely presents Conner’s experimental films with a representative selection of nine works and will be on view from 5 May to 28 November 2021. Among these is CROSSROADS (1976), a film that assembles footage of the first U.S. underwater atom bomb tests at Bikini Atoll in 1946 into a 36-minute study on the horror and sublimity of this apocalyptic event. His work in various media is radical and wide-ranging, at once hauntingly beautiful and horrifyingly bleak; it is political, subversive, and powered by a sensual immediacy that gets under the skin. Many of his early collages, assemblages and installations are made of low-quality, ephemeral materials such as nylon, wax or worn textiles and hence are too fragile to be exhibited except on very rare occasions. Conner’s anarchic stance was defined by his caustic irony, boundless dedication, and insistence on keeping as far away as possible from the art market.

The exhibition Light out of Darkness references a solo exhibition project of the same name for the University Art Museum at Berkeley, California, in the 1980s. By no means the least of the reasons why it never actually took place was Conner’s refusal to compromise in his dealings with institutions, whose rules for artists he would not accept. The title «Light out of Darkness» emphasizes the experimental character of Conner’s filmic output, which in his early works, especially, resembles a brilliant probing of human perception. The symbolic dualism of light and darkness stands for the artist’s propensity to think in opposites and metaphors and for his mysticism.

MEA CULPA

MEA CULPA is a tour de force of sampling, in which Conner recycles the animated graphics of historical physics teaching films. Thus there is a basso continuo of diagrams of electrical current and visualizations of thermodynamic effects over which Conner illustrates the pulsating rhythm of the music with black and white polarities, movements that procreate still more movement in the form of colliding dots and corpuses, and stroboscopic optical assaults. The initiative for the collaboration came from David Byrne, who after first encountering Conner’s films as a student became a loyal fan. For their experimental collaboration on the album My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, Byrne and Brian Eno worked exclusively with found voice samples.

Although copyright reasons prevented Conner’s films from being played on MTV, the film techniques he employed – the jump cut, flash frame, flickering, reverse editing, fast cutting, double and multiple exposures and the use of found footage – all had a formative influence not just on the experimental film-making of his age, but also on the pioneering phase of the MTV music video.

CROSSROADS

‘Operation Crossroads’ was the name used by the U.S. Army for a series of nuclear tests conducted at Bikini Atoll in the Pacific in the summer of 1946. Conner managed to obtain footage of the second bomb that had hitherto been kept under lock and key in the National Archives. The objective of the ‘Baker’ test was to study the impact of a submarine explosion on ships in the immediate vicinity. Most of these were seized Japanese warships, which the testers strategically positioned inside a given radius. To record the moment of detonation from every possible angle, the U.S. Army deployed hundreds of cameras – some of them high-speed cameras – on land, on sea, and in the air.

The visual record of ‘Baker’, however, is more than just a picture of a nuclear Armageddon. It is also a visualisation of the hitherto unseen, highly aesthetic phenomena of elemental physical force: the fearful symmetry of the mushroom cloud with its cap of water vapour and debris sucked up into the stratosphere; the water column whose clearly delimited cylindrical shaft turns ragged with feathery fallout at the edges; and the horizontal and vertical rings of kinetic energy spreading eccentrically at sonic or supersonic speeds. By repeating these images and lining them up – without further processing – in ever new sequences, Conner creates a work of high drama that elicits sublimity and visual exuberance. What he also finds in them are the mass-distributed, but unparalleled iconic images that continue to define our image of the atom bomb to this day. For the first part of CROSSROADS Conner had Patrick Gleeson create an atmospheric, synthesized soundtrack that underscores the strong, unmediated presence of the images, while the hypnotic, electronic sound of the second part is the work of the composer Terry Riley.

A MOVIE

Conner’s first film, A MOVIE (1958), which he produced on a budget of just three dollars, is a collage of found footage gleaned from newsreels, B movies and graphic animation. The result is a radically experimental film in which he deconstructs and reconstructs film-making and story-telling techniques, while at the same time using the effects of overstimulation, fade-ins, cross-fading and afterimage effects to probe the limits of retinal perception. A MOVIE links together a surplus of dramatic climaxes to form a new, open-ended sequence of actions, and with it a meta-film that lends itself to multiple readings. The countdown, here interrupted by the parasitic interjection of a near-naked woman peeling off her pantyhose, becomes an integral part of the action. The repetition of the title ‘A MOVIE’ is just as insistent as the fade-in of ‘THE END’ and the name of the author ‘BRUCE CONNER’.

Scenes of hot pursuit with cowboys and covered wagons from the Wild West are cut together with elephants, steam engines and automobiles to set in motion a furious race that segues into scenes of crashes and disaster. A submarine captain peers into his periscope and on spotting a pin-up girl fires a torpedo that ignites an atomic bomb. The detonation in turn sets off a tsunami that capsizes ships and knocks water-skiers off their skis. Conner’s game is at once funny and tragic. It shows how drastically content is shaped by choreographed media images of it and exposes the powerful impact of music on our perception of it – as when the image of a slain soldier is underpinned by the heroic fortissimo of Ottorino Respighi’s Pini di Roma.

For the first time ever, A MOVIE will be screened as a rear projection inside a 3 x 3 m cube to maximize its presence just as Conner wished, but which for financial reasons was not possible at the time. As a loop it has neither beginning nor end. The artist’s original concept entailed constantly changing acoustic interventions that would have allowed the work to be experienced anew over and over again. It is indeed typical of Conner’s works that they warrant a second or third viewing and reward revisiting.
 

Tags: Bruce Conner