2017, HD video, 13 minutes
In Slow Graffiti, Jørgen Leth’s renowned 1967 film The Perfect Human is re-enacted scene by scene. Yet Leth’s human couple is replaced by Da Corte’s impersonation of Boris Karloff. Both playing himself and Frankenstein, Karloff’s reenactments transpose Leth’s sleek humanistic account into a reflection on the complex imaginary of monstrosity, both bitter and comical, sincere and staged.
Elvia Wilk: Slow Graffiti is based shot-by-shot on the 1967 black-and-white film Perfect Human by Jørgen Leth. When did you first come across Leth’s film, and why did you choose it as raw material for a remake?
Alex Da Corte: I came across it in the early 2000s when a friend said I might like it. I remember I was coming to terms with my own sexuality and defining what L-O-V-E was to me, and this film struck a chord. I had recently decided I would most likely leave animation for printmaking or graphic design or something more avant-garde like ‘fine arts’ and this film seemed to be a little bit of all of those things. I fetishized the flatness and the alt-reality that Leth presented in the character’s lives, and I wanted what appeared to be a better life (hetero-normative, white, wealthy good dancers?) than the one I was living. I thought that since the film was shot in the same year that my parents graduated high school it offered an accurate portrait of their times—but it’s very, very unlikely that they would have somehow found themselves in a place where this would have been screened. If they had seen this in the theater, would it have changed the way they raised me? Would I be the perfect human? What is the perfect human?
Nearly twenty years on and fifty years after the film’s making, I found myself watching an interview from 1963 with Boris Karloff, who famously played Frankenstein’s monster in three films from the 1930s, and thinking of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. He lovingly describes the relationship he developed with that character: “the monster turned out to be the best friend I had ever had, changing the course of my life.” I wondered why that kind of relationship with another or oneself, be it unprecedented or fetishistic or monstrous, was not also considered “perfect,” for it seemed to be perfect for Mr. Karloff. For me, it was a beautifully strange description of Karloff’s life that I wanted to spend more time with.
EW: Leth’s original work is a deadpan, pared-down portrait of a man and a woman presented as the models for physical and social “perfection.” In your version, both figures are collapsed into a Halloween/Hollywood Frankenstein character, who performs both their parts, in various degrees of stage-makeup readiness. Does the Frankenstein conglomeration reflect the fragmented, artificial, even monstrous nature of identity construction, gendered or otherwise? Is the monster meant to be a de-gendered or un-gendered figure?
ADC: Much of my work in the past few years has been dedicated to better understanding dementia, or reimagining how to live alongside a deteriorating brain and become one with it. When I initially began thinking of Slow Graffiti, I was thinking of the relationship between my grandmother and my mother. I was envisioning how one’s role, one’s perception of oneself may change in time through force of will or force of nature, and that the slippage, or mutability of our identities is something we will forever dance with. We dance, or rather perform for cameras, all of the time, through the telephone or CCTV, our life is a stage, and our movement through it is at times costumed, a charade, a masquerade. The outward performance of self affects the inside, the inside shines outward, and change happens over and over again. How is it that Boris Karloff found love and true friendship in a grotesque “monster” that he himself portrays on camera? If we could step outside of ourselves and live in a mirrored world, somewhere beyond the screen, how would we behave and what identity would we construct? What would become our “perfect”? Does dementia allow for this kind of slippage—a way out of a life, a construct that we have no hand in, or a new opportunity to see oneself in a different light, with fresh eyes?
EW: Much of Slow Graffiti’s voice-over narration, which is also based on the narration of the original film, reflects on isolation, loneliness, and social alienation. For instance: “A man can boast of little happiness that does not enjoy the blessing of a friend, the intimate sympathy of a fellow mind, a dance partner.” In combination with this language, your Frankenstein comes across as melancholy—but his sadness is comical or even camp because of his ridiculous costume. What’s the relationship between horror, sadness, and humor in this work?
ADC: I distinctly remember watching Ethel Merman slipping on a banana peel at the end of It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) when I was a child, and loving it. There is a little bit of that in this movie—maybe when the “monster” flips the rubber banana into the air, or awkwardly falls on a collection of brooms? Is that melodrama or actual tragedy? Is that Saint Sebastian?
For me, Claus Nissen was brilliant as the male character in Leth’s The Perfect Human, mostly due to his dancing and snapping—he’s sort of bouncy cartoon bubble of a person doing things for the camera with the freedom one has when no one is watching. But being watched can be horrifying. In my version, this alien being, this “monster” character, smokes and smokes and sprays and smokes and self-destructs—with the liberty and ease one has as a cool emo teen who smokes because it’s like Dylan in the movies—and dances without care because what is dancing or danger or embarrassment anyway. This recalls the kind of horror and humor of being alive and performing these rituals we have become so accustomed to. I am just a monster who was born of the hands of a deranged narcissist scientist. What cares should I have and what freedom has been afforded to me as an actor, as a monster?
EW: At the end of the video the monster makes a mess of and then eats a meal of highly processed foods: a sub sandwich, pringles, orange soda. The meal is pretty abject compared to what the characters in Leth’s film eat: “lovely boiled salmon with boiled potatoes and sauce hollandaise.” This juxtaposition made me realize how much Leth’s film is also about class. What’s the relationship between class and perfection in his film, and in yours?
ADC: I think of the line from Sam McKinniss’ script for the film, when he references F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night (1934): “He was so terrible that he was no longer terrible, only dehumanized.” What is terrible, anyway? Does terrible taste reveal what is hiding beneath one’s mask, or layer more prosthetics on top of the carefully constructed identity that allows you into the right party or the best restaurant? Do these performances of self, change your rung on the ladder- and do they make you less terrible?
In a series of videos I made from 2011-2013 based on Arthur Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell, I found myself making tableaus constructed of IKEA shelving (still in shrink-wrapped plastic) set atop two metal sawhorses. I would place a large glass and metal IKEA picture frame on the sawhorses, creating a mise-en-scène reminiscent of Marisol Escobar’s Dinner Date (1963). I imagined that the nameless character in the films (maybe Rimbaud, maybe Paul Verlaine, maybe myself) would interact with the small sculptures I created from assorted thrift store goods and foodstuffs, as if they were in some not-to-distant future, but far enough into the future that the function of said thrift store goods were unknown. For me this would be “hell,” or as I liked to think of it as “he’ll”—a place where potential threat is the standard, chaos is inevitable.
I returned to this idea in Slow Graffiti. I took the name from Belle and Sebastian’s song from the This is Just a Modern Rock Song EP, which I found when I was living in NY in the late 1990s. Its’ allusion to Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, which is largely a story of class and the masks one wears to maintain whatever power or lack of power that comes with said class. I interpreted Slow Graffiti as a reference to the proof of time that appears slowly, in the form of wrinkles crawling across your face—the way graffiti in the city happens in the night when no one is watching. How do wrinkles, or the slow softness of time, take shape and have power? There is potential in the invisible—be it “low class” or “bad taste” or the marginalized people of the world. The invisible will come to have power.
Unused, dead and broken body parts are given life through Dr. Frankenstein’s science; how can we give new life to that which society has deemed DOA? Slow Graffiti is an exercise, for the monster and the actor, to find value, and love in these unloved spaces.
EW: “Slow Graffiti” was originally shown as part of an installation by the same name at Secession in Vienna in 2017. The room was carpeted and full of brightly colored columns, LED lights, and objects like umbrellas, its plasticky color scheme resembling that of the video. Did you mean the exhibition to function as an extension of the video headspace? What did viewers experience?
ADC: On the heels of a very devastating US election in 2016, and the seemingly meteoric rise of the hot, bold, and brackish voice of Power, I pondered what it meant to work with hot, bold, and brackish colors. It was a time when I wanted to remember my community, my network, the circle of people that made my life’s patchwork quilt and grab hold of that community because there would be power, soft power. My grandmother was a quilter and I saw her wield that kind of soft power, slowly and quietly stitching together pieces of humble fabrics that have warmed my entire family for the last fifty years. I wanted to stop, to hide away from the rage in the world and be folded into the soft and slow quilt that was my grandmother’s brain; it was a time I wanted to lay flat on the floor and find “power” in what was for her terrifying, devastating, and imminent. I proposed making an invisible city, a laboratory, for my grandmother, made of remnant carpets salvaged from a store in North Philadelphia, paper building structures, and many Boschian inhabitants: characters we had met before but would now meet again, anew. I was looking at Carol Itter’s Raw Egg performance (1974), where she lays flat under a clear vinyl egg costume, and thought of the old commercial from 1987 that said: “This is your brain. …this is your brain on drugs,” showing a cracked egg in a frying pan as an example of how drugs deteriorate the human brain. But not all broken eggs are bad, right? What about that old idiom about breaking eggs to make omelets? Where is the power in the soft and broken things? I imagined that my grandmother, who was once the strong spine of my family tree, was now entering her pasta phase. Sunday dinners were always for spaghetti and red sauce at her house. Spaghetti has that kind of soft power I was looking for in the laboratory for the invisible mind. It is strong and sturdy in the box, but only ripe and ready when it’s soft and wiggly on the plate.
The neon gray laboratory, the set which housed Slow Graffiti was filled with all types of soft and wiggly things, propositions for alchemical experiments, maybe propositions for a cure or a better way of seeing the familiar, new propositions for perfect or whatever other fucking stupid ideas we have been conditioned to accept as “normal,” “good,” and “right.” There is no great Truth. Things fall apart.
But to answer your question, Slow Graffiti, the video, played on and off, intermittently, on a screen framed in a pale gray Viennese theater curtain, as Dev Hyne’s sparse piano score accompanied visitors through the velvet-clad and carpeted cityscape.
Courtesy of the artist; Karma, NY; and Sadie Coles HQ, London