T.J. Wilcox’s aerie 16 stories above the pavement on East 17th Street in what seems, when you’re there, like the middle of Manhattan is an essentially vacant, glass rectangle surrounded by a round roof, or perhaps it’s a terrace, which provides a three-dimensional view of New York. It’s just high enough to create the impression one can see into the tops of the buildings all around and imagine the stories they contain evolving within. Being there makes me feel surrounded by a metropolis of stories packaged like presents, ready to be unwrapped. Now, imagine all this as a circular, reversible dioramic landscape of classic skyscrapers changing hues as they move from dawn through dusk to dawn again, and you have a good beginning image of Wilcox’s installation at the Whitney Museum. I’m charmed that I can sit through the entire film cycle of day passing into night and then morning without feeling out of pulse with time. Like a childhood memory it’s a uniquely personal experience. And I arrive to meet Wilcox equipped with the self-created idea that if in Proust the rediscovery of memory means creating a foundation for the future, for Wilcox who likes to realign the ‘story’ within history, a narrated past is an exploration of being aware.
Tall, casual, and very good looking in a not-intimidating sort of way (it’s American good looks with blue eyes and regular features mixed with an ounce of ineffability), Wilcox re-confirms that much of his affinity for film comes from his loving memories of homemade movies of his family during his childhood, and old films in general. His films are silent. And the subtitles, as he explains, are difficult to write, and almost a form of haiku. He is not referring to the assonance associated with the Japanese form, but rather the direct mirroring of the word and the image. In response to my comment about the ‘naturalness’ of sitting through the day to night sequence in his dioramic film at the Whitney, he implies that in recent decades, our time frame has sped up. For him a long movie used to be 13 minutes. Now it’s three. He builds his films to fit into the atmosphere of the average gallery, which, adverse to Zen-like contemplation, demands what instantly will capture the eye.
As a young artist living in L.A., after all a “company town,” he was interested in the idea that films can be a personal sense of fantasy made manifest, liberalized. He says the premise of film is that it gives eternal life; we believe that “things live on in film.” His earliest heroines used their own bodies and imaginations as the tools and medium of their practice. Correspondingly, Wilcox used whatever was available to create. His first films were shot on a Super Eight. Then to get the effects he wanted he had to make a digital negative. He also used cell phone cameras. The current Whitney project uses the latest technology, GoPro cameras developed by a surfer in California so he could put his film on the end of his surfboard and record the visual crash of the waves. For Wilcox all of the things that could have been considered by the mainstream film industry to be shortcomings, like the lack of a budget and crew, merely created a different set of criteria.
The Whitney diorama is layered with five short films on the Empire State Building, 9/11 as described by the janitor of his building who witnessed the tragedy from Wilcox's terrace, Andy Warhol and the Pope, the famous ’70s fashion artist Antonio, and Gloria Vanderbilt, looking more glamorous than I have ever seen her, simian eyed and dripping exotic jewels.
We talk about the self-creation of film stars and women as his subjects. The film on Marlene Dietrich’s funeral is a primary example. He wanted a real star but he couldn’t have one. And then, there hidden in plain sight was Marlene: the perfect androgynous, ambiguous, sexually charged self-construction. It wasn’t Marlene it was MARLENE. And the funeral which was her fantasy, poetry, panoply was created for that real and invented persona MARLYN star, the product of film. She loved to recount her imaginary funeral in her tuxedo, leaning, one arm akimbo on the fireplace. The fabulous funeral never happened. It wasn’t meant to. In the end Marlene the person was buried next to her mother at the cemetery near her home in Berlin.
Wilcox’s work is filled with half-truths and new versions of these notorious females, who filled their lives with half-truths themselves. One example: the Comtesse de Castiglione, an Italian spy, Napoleon III’s mistress, the most beautiful and detested woman in Europe of her time, who photographed herself obsessively at the end of her life to preserve the last painful rays of her fading charm. Another: the Marchesa Casati, photographed famously by Adolph de Meyer, who walked the streets of Venice with a pair of cheetahs on a leash, and who was notorious for giving dinner parties with urns filled with the ashes of her dead lovers. Finally there is Marie Antoinette who spent her entire adult life in the fairy tale world of Versailles and never saw the sea. Wilcox thinks, metaphorically, these women made their own movies.
The carriage Marie Antoinette created for her and Louis XVI’s escape was the icon of an icon outfitted with wardrobes, several sets of Sèvres china, gold cutlery, and all the other necessities of luxury that were inseparable from the pomp of their stations. It was so heavy that the passengers had to slowly get off the carriage to lessen the weight before it reached the bottom of a hill. Little wonder, given the beauty of the trappings, the royal couple was identified before the border was reached. Wilcox transforms the capture into a triumph of art over inevitable tragedy.
“Magic!” says Wilcox. “You know early films were often made by magicians. They were part of the magical acts at the carnivals.” Without a doubt, Wilcox is a conjurer of the recreation of time.
ContributorMichele Gerber Klein