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Philip Haas: Butchers, Dragons, Gods & Skeletons

Re-creation of the painting by Annibale Carracci, from the film installation...The Butcher’s Shop

Philip Haas, an American filmmaker best known for his feature Angels and Insects, was commissioned by the Kimbell Art Museum to create something novel: five film installations for the museum “inspired by works in the collection”. Titled Butchers, Dragons, Gods & Skeletons, it was introduced as a summer show—a good time for a museum to experiment, let loose, flirt with new or even casual audiences without the pressure of blockbuster programming—and it comes to a close this weekend.

Mandolin player and living statue, from the...film installation Apollo and the Continents

I love the initiative, and I can only suspect that the staff at the Kimbell must have been thrilled to work with a living artist. What was most successful about the installation, which is dotted throughout the museum in spaces created for or dedicated to its viewing (including a startlingly campy giant papier mache skull that you walk into to watch a multi-channel projection centered on James Ensor’s creation of Skeletons Warming Themselves), is likely not the films’ ability to cultivate art appreciation in an audience. In fact, I’d hazard to write that (and this comes from my experience running a gallery as well) when you pit large, moving, bright video or film against static artwork in the same area, the static stuff loses the contest. Granted, the Kimbell isolates the films, but as you walk from vignette to vignette throughout the galleries, like a moth you’re no longer so interested in the stillness of the Caravaggio and Goya. You just want to get to the next big, beautiful movie. I do anyway. But I’m a film fanatic.

With that out there, I think the project is a fascinating experiment, in a sense that one can’t categorize it. It’s not really art—if we’re not meant to let commercial filmmakers make art or let narrative film be art—it’s not purely education, given its not-so-dependent relationship with the artworks that inspired it all, yet you can’t say it’s just entertainment. I like the murkiness of this, this lack of definition—a lot in fact—though some people won’t, particularly if they have to know exactly why something deserves to exist.

The young James Ensor at Mardi Gras, from the film installation...Skeletons Warming Themselves

But how can the naysayers overlook how sumptuous and carnal these films are? They stand alone as achievements. Walking into the immersive Apollo and the Continents, I was seduced by the multi-channel piece, projected on all four walls and the ceiling of a room architecturally tweaked to perfectly match the framing of the film and awash in gorgeous bodies and faces. The camera pans over an endless sea of golden, reclining gods and goddesses, animals and angels. Some of the actors are oddly familiar and all of them are amazing to behold. This is based on the sketch for a ceiling fresco by Tiepolo and part of the action includes a restaging of the artist getting young, extremely good-looking models to pose for him. Haas’ production is rich and enveloping and he has a real gift for casting faces—everyone in all of these films looks incredible—old, young, exotic, intimate. When I left that room, I actually forgot to turn and look at the sketch that inspired it. See how that works? Or doesn’t?

Taming scene, from the...film installation Arhat Taming the Dragon

The action of most of these films unspools at a leisurely pace and you can get carried away with them whether they’re telling a story or not. They can even be a tad uncomfortable, in the same way I get the willies when watching anything by Peter Greenaway—you never know when something dire is about to happen. Haas has employed that tension in most of these vignettes, and it keeps viewers on their toes. And these are clearly adult films (maybe we should say “grown up” films)—there is copious nudity (full-frontal!), and more than a few scares and freak-outs; I’m grateful to the museum for not pandering to the puritanical, child-centric streak that runs through this region and infects our institutions.

Other parts of the installation are based on the imagery on an ancient Greek vase (The Death of Pentheus, complete with severed head), a Buddhist scroll (Arhat Taming the Dragon, projected in a vertical “shrine”, like the action in the scroll itself) and Carracci’s The Butcher Shop, in which the act of butchering a carcass and creating a painting are oddly and yet winningly merged—deep red blood and thickened paint, cleaver and palette knife. The Ensor installation is the most psychologically convoluted and dense, and I wonder if my own investment in the idea of Ensor the artist plays against my experience of Haas the filmmaker; perhaps I respond better to the other films in the exhibition because I have less expectation for what they might accomplish.

But I would sincerely like to find out how this installation might travel—how it can be used elsewhere, recontextualized—and I’d love to see more museums take these type of risks. Not every risk need be as expensive (and expansive) as this one, and let’s please avoid the word “edutainment”, but Haas’ and the Kimbells’ grand experiment made for a terrifically lively summer day at the museum.

Philip Haas:
Butchers, Dragons, Gods & Skeletons
July 18 – October 25, 2009
Kimbell Art Museum
Fort Worth

Christina Rees was an editor at The Met and D Magazine, a full-time art and music critic at the Dallas Observer, and has covered art and music for the Village Voice and other publications. She was until recently the owner and director of Road Agent gallery in Dallas. Christina Rees is now the Curator of Fort Worth Contemporary Arts, TCU.


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