Alex McQuilkin: Joan of Arc
October 18 - November 24, 2007
It would seem a safe bet to dismiss Alex McQuilkin’s Joan of Arc out of hand. Regarded in passing, the 27-year-old artist’s short video, a mirrored homage to Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 masterwork, La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc, appears to mark a disappointing backslide into the stewpot of cultural cannibalism. Take an icon, do something to it, do something else to it. The telltale symptom of a too-early success running out of gas in the fast lane.
This assessment, corrosive as it is, doesn’t even take into account the sheer magnificence of the film that McQuilkin has spliced, scrambled and paired with color footage of her own face staring silently into the camera. The cut-granite purity of Dreyer’s images and the spiritual obsession incarnated by Maria Falconetti in the role of Jeanne should by all rights overwhelm whatever context they’re boxed into.
That McQuilkin’s project manages to avoid these pitfalls is an accomplishment in itself; that it fails to strike a single false note, and is in fact quite moving, is another story altogether. It speaks not only to McQuilkin’s skill in manipulating expectations as deftly as she manages the mediated image, but also to the brutal, self-effacing honesty of this consistently underestimated artist.
In the two other McQuilkin videos I’ve seen, Fucked (1999) and Test Run (2004), the self-destructive behavior she casually acts out is laced with a sweetness and vulnerability that transforms its passive aggression into a kind of screwball black comedy. Joan of Arc doesn’t share their sly sense of humor, but its poignancy is at full throttle. McQuilkin’s work has been cited as emblematic of the morbid narcissism of her generation, and again, on the face of it, her attraction to St. Joan seems to be more of the same: an intractable teenager (Joan was 19 when she was executed on May 30, 1431) destroyed by her refusal to accommodate a compromised and corrupt world, otherwise known as adulthood.
Yet McQuilkin stops short of identifying with Joan, whose persona, in the artist’s mind, has been completely fused with the actress who plays her. In McQuilkin’s monotonic, half-distracted voiceover, punctuated by self-deprecating asides and touches of the absurd (“there aren’t any photos of [Joan] but she was real”), she admits to not really knowing when or why she felt compelled to do a movie about the teenage martyr. She states only that “at some point I had the image of Maria Falconetti in my head and I couldn’t get it out—she was so beautiful, with her head shaved, burning at the cross…” And then with an embarrassed laugh, McQuilkin corrects herself, “…it wasn’t even a cross—it was a pole.”
Leaving aside for a moment the (presumably subconscious) Christian worldview divulged by McQuilkin’s use of the word “even”—that no matter how horribly Joan suffered at the stake, it could never match what Jesus endured on the cross—this easily glossed-over passage also reveals the forthrightness with which she has undertaken her project. In our age of digital-everything, why leave a stupid mistake like that in? An artist possessing an aesthetic as riveted in blunt self-exposure as McQuilkin’s wouldn’t think to ask such a question, let alone answer it.
Set against a particularly ethereal and haunting section of Richard Einhorn’s oratorio Voices of Light (which is included on the Criterion Collection DVD of the Dreyer film as an optional soundtrack), McQuilkin’s mix of old and new footage into a two-channel projection is skillful and sensitive, with an acutely honed rhythm of contrapuntal movements, blackouts and cuts. Throughout, the artist sits in front of the camera chopping off her hair, first with a scissor and then an electric trimmer, until it’s as close to the skull as Falconetti’s when she’s tied to the stake. Once McQuilkin has finished cutting, the wall behind her subtly lightens from pearl gray to eggshell white, and she changes out of a gray tee shirt, with the letters “O.K.” emblazoned on the front, into a white top reminiscent of the sackcloth that Joan wears to her death. The sequences jump back and forth in time, with the length of both women’s hair in constant flux. The movie ends with McQuilkin settling down to begin cutting her below-the-shoulder, dark blond tresses in the left channel while a close-up of her shaven head stares directly at the viewer on the right. This sounds all very French-film-literate, and it is. But to watch McQuilkin finish off her buzz-cut as a straw broom from the 1928 movie sweeps Joan’s hair off the stone floor is to have the rug pulled out from under you by its emotional immediacy and ineffable sadness. For all of its heady conceptual underpinnings, an effect this strong can only be worked out in the gut.
A quote from McQuilkin in the gallery’s press release nails the premise of the show with striking precision. She defines it as “the circularity of trying to inhabit yourself by copying/imitating someone else who seems to fully inhabit herself, and in this process negating yourself.” McQuilkin’s poses mimic Falconetti’s, but she’s not preening or vamping. Nor does she make any attempt to express emotion. She simply stares, either off to the side or into the lens, as she leans her head back or lolls it to the side. If anything, she resembles a preschooler imitating the actions of her parents without the knowledge or experience to grasp what those gestures mean.
And so it is with martyrdom. Joan believed so viscerally that she had been graced by the divine that to renounce her visions would have repudiated her very existence. She had no alternative but to die—in inconceivable agony but with unshakeable moral grandeur. This theme could not be timelier, as suicide bombers wreak havoc from the Persian Gulf to the Indian subcontinent. And yet Dreyer’s depiction of Joan’s hideous death—violence so graphic it feels beyond the pale even today—prefigured images now long burned into our collective memory: the shorn-headed victims and crematoria of Auschwitz and Dachau; the Buddhist monks setting themselves ablaze and crumbling into ashes in Saigon’s city squares. The historical and political implications of Joan’s story are not lost on McQuilkin, who ends her halting voiceover with “She’s the only saint to ever have been… she’s the only person ever to be tried by the Church and then canonized as a saint by that same Church later on. I guess she was useful both times for different things.”
Even so, her poker face and uncomprehending eyes tell us that the concept of martyrdom—of wielding a faith so strong that survival runs a distant second—seems as alien to McQuilkin as dancing on the dust of Mars. The powerful sense of loss expressed in Joan of Arc goes to the heart of McQuilkin’s tragedy, and our own. Joan’s physical death is a metaphor of the spiritual fire that consumed her, body and soul, and that inevitably rendered living in a depraved and hostile world intolerable. But we live in a society where purity of conviction is corrupted by self-consciousness and irony, where the idea of the sacred is polluted by superstition and tawdriness, and where attempts to transcend unbridled self-interest are met with cynicism and distrust. By making this video, McQuilkin is mourning the reality that she’ll never burn with the same fire as Joan—or for that matter, as Falconetti in her seamless embodiment of the saint’s faith and terror.
In Christianity’s belief system prior to the Reformation, the will of God was determined exclusively through the hierarchy of the Church. Heresy was such a big deal not simply for its espousal of “grave error.” Unlike today, when every hack politician and sleazy TV preacher lays claim to a daily chat with the Almighty, to declare a personal relationship with God, as Joan did with her visions, threatened the foundations of a deeply entrenched power structure. McQuilkin’s apparent slip, confusing “cross” with “pole,” restates the parallel between Joan and Jesus—who were both put to death for blasphemy—that Dreyer evoked by titling his film The Passion of Joan of Arc and focusing entirely on her trial, mockery and execution. Like Jesus, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Oscar Romero and the Burmese monks beaten bloody a few short weeks ago, Joan’s allegiance to truth brought every kind of holy hell upon her head. Perhaps McQuilkin’s empathy with Joan is something more than merely “copying/imitating someone else who seems to fully inhabit herself.” Perhaps she is asking how she would measure up when put to the test.