QUAY BROTHERS On Deciphering the Pharmacist’s Prescription for Lip-Reading Puppets

THE MUSEUM OF MODERN ART | AUGUST 12, 2012 – JANUARY 7, 2013

We have purposefully not participated in the seminar of Mr. Durgnat’s concerning the discussion of this film …. Our interpretation is entirely subjective and largely undecipherable in so much as it has made some things clearer to us, or as it may be, other things only too unclear. In view of what is most deficient: an interpretation that would congeal all that runs around weakly on top. What is committed to paper is our own private discussion of the film given a surface on which to lie. We hold virtually to no continuity at all as the individual paragraphs have been developed separately.

—Introduction to a college paper
the Twins wrote on director
Walerian Borowczyk’s
“Goto, l’île d’Amour” (1968)

Tailor’s Shop, decor for the film Street of Crocodiles. 1986. Wood, glass, plaster, and fabric, 35 7/16 × 26 × 30 5/16”. Photo: Robert Barker, Cornell University.

As identical twins, the Quays do not traffic in the kind of boundaries that we singulars do. Theirs is the world of the Twins—not of one individual’s subjectivity or the other’s (although clearly each completes singular activities in production). It is a world without edges: “entirely subjective and largely undecipherable,” yet never impressionistic nonsense. A whole universe, worlds within worlds, as demonstrated by the active “eye” of their cinematic virtuosity, which constantly whips and trembles in quick swipes from place to place within the same shot. (One sees this technique in their early travelogues also on display.) Or it follows the interiority of point-of-view editing (and modulations of focus) through an unbodied consciousness that seethes from the objects and cinematic spaces themselves.

 Known best for their eye-swallowing animation films, whether working in two dimensions (book covers) or three (set designs for theater and dance) the Quays animate atmospheres and subjectivities as phenomenological wonders, returning “animation” to its roots as life force rather than technique. They do not represent or record but are, in the words of Edwin Carels in the exhibition catalogue, “cinematographic craftsmen .… manipulating every aspect of cinema’s language frame by frame.” As contemporary auteurs, the Quays rank among great influences such as Andrei Tarkovsky and Luis Buñuel—which makes the specifics of this current presentation of their films at MoMA bizarre, even shameful.

Here the museum should have taken cues from its own superior exhibition of William Kentridge’s similarly multimedial oeuvre, in which animation in particular was treated with respect, as a singular object rather than a series of endless taxonomatized loops stuffed sequentially into a cramped corridor in crowded yet open rooms. Laid out in the galleries almost like the midway of an amusement park, the Quay Brothers’ films come off not as works of art, but rather as cinematic attractions in a fun-house cacophony of sound soup. This effect overwhelms, so much so that while watching “In Absentia” (2000)—a film made to align precisely with Karlheinz Stockhausen’s score—the friend who had accompanied me couldn’t distinguish Stockhausen’s music from the legendary Leszek Jankowski score for “Street of Crocodiles” (1986),on view a few steps away.  Sound and score are supremely important to the Twins; in fact music informs everything they do, as one can see in their films for the BFI London Film Festival and their dance films. Yet the installation at MoMA undermines this crucial aspect of their work.

Nonetheless, this is a once-in-a-lifetime show not to be missed. You pull open the door to the entrance and transmogrify from mundane human into what can only be called the condition of Quay. The wall before you heaves and breathes with mesmerizing portions of their films, projected at an angle with a small sculptural prop that looks like it may be from Institute Benjamenta (1995). To the right are live birch tree stumps and tethered couplings of branches standing on end, all of which frames a sublime blown-up wall photo of the Twins—as babies, sitting outside on a cloth and watching their mother (whom they resemble quite eerily) doing yard work.

From here one encounters everything from two tiny landscapes painted by “SQ” and “TQ” at age 9, to the above-quoted college paper, book jacket covers, design, and poster art displaying the Brothers’ Eastern European influences, and a group of astonishing pencil drawings including “Kafka’s Dream” (1970). It is a revelation to see the Quay Brothers’ work as illustrators, much as it is to see their covers for books by Céline, Italo Calvino, and Anthony Burgess. Also on display are their slyly subversive commercials for Coca-Cola, Rice Krispies, Roundup, Comme des Garçons, and others, as well as an early film, In the Mists (1969), featuring the teenaged twins roller skating and bounding about a series of desolate American nonspaces (such as an abandoned tennis court) with paper masks attached to their faces. Completing the show is “Dormitorium,” a series of breathtaking “wunderkammer”-esque vitrines of animated film-sets, as elegant and compelling as finely crafted Fabergé eggs.

The exhibition leaves one looking through a thick set of lenses (anamorphic and all) to appreciate work both familiar and, until now, entirely unknown. The Quays say that a great deal of the material in the exhibition at MoMA has never or rarely been seen. But there is one more hidden bit of “collaboration” to experience in order to resist, as they put it, “an interpretation that would congeal all that runs around weakly on top.” You’ll find it on the cocktail menu at the Modern restaurant:

Collaborative inspiration: A Crushed Nun

Absinthe and Strega-macerated blueberries, sparkling rosé and Angostura’s bitters.

An homage to Jean-Jacques Lequeu, whose frame of mind may provide reference and skew one’s morals in considering the work of the Brothers Quay.



11 West 53rd St. // NY, NY

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Thyrza Nichols Goodeve