There are few figures in the art world more enigmatic or more paradoxical than Kenneth Anger. Whilst he is regularly championed by high-profile figures such as Martin Scorsese for his “poetic” filmmaking and the influence of his work pervades contemporary culture: it can be traced within music videos and the aesthetic of David Lynch, Anger himself has, for the most part remained on the fringes of artistic production. Unlike Lynch, for example, Anger has largely shunned the commercial for the avant-garde, the Hollywood payday for his often beautiful, just as often deeply unsettling film.
At the same time, however, Anger has at least embraced an idea of Hollywood rather than mainstream film itself; his two volumes of Hollywood Babylon have established him, somewhat bizarrely, as an authority on the sordid underbelly of its golden age. A third volume, dealing with salacious contemporary gossip is, according to Anger too controversial to release in litigious times. Whilst Anger’s work has been anthologised by the BFI and he has exhibited at the Centre Pompidou, he has never fully embraced canonical canonisation spending his time playing sporadic gigs with his noise music project and being focus of a substantial amount of celebrity myth-making himself – inspired by the self-proclaimed “Great Beast” Aleister Crowley and a frequenter of Satanic circles with a reported penchant for placing curses on those who have fallen out of his favour.
Perhaps surprisingly, or maybe inevitably given the all-recuperating nature of the contemporary spectacle, Kenneth Anger has recently interested the fashion world: he directed a short film/advert for Italian fashion brand Missoni in 2010 and has recently fallen under the patronage of French fashion designer and aspirant cultural polymath Agnès B, collaborating on t-shirt designs and exhibiting at her Parisian galérie du jour with this present show.
This show showcases both extremes of Anger’s aesthetic. Much of the show is given over to artefacts from his vast private collection of the relics of a lost Hollywood: film-posters and faded black-and-white photographs and newspaper clippings of forgotten matinée idols, all bathed in the neon glow of a light sculpture which bears the “Hollywood Babylon” slogan and immediately greets the gallery-goer. This pole of Anger’s art is supported by his short Puce Moment (1949), itself an homage to what the filmmaker has described as the “goddesses of the silent screen”.
For me, however, whilst the mythology surrounding figures such as Bette Davis, Errol Flynn and Billie Dove is clearly important for Anger’s aesthetic, it is the darker, more dangerous elements of his work that represents the true interest in Anger’s work – the gay Anger explored in the blackly humorous eroticism of Scorpio Rising (1964) and the satanic Anger in the sinister bad acid trip of Invocation of My Demon Brother (1969) (with a Moog soundtrack by Mick Jagger and cameo performances by Anton Szandor La Vey and pre-Manson murder Bobby Beausoleil, and the complex cosmic mythology of Lucifer Rising (1981) (staring a wasted-looking Marianne Faithfull). The true Anger is the dangerous one.
Thankfully, visitors to this show get a chance to glimpse this Anger with a loop of 1954’s Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome, inspired by Crowley’s poetry and starring erotic diarist AnaÏs Nin, through a series of bizarrely colourful and poetic juxtapositions, which acts as a ritual, both for the onscreen character and, one suspects, which has the power to contaminate the viewer.
Whilst commercial partnerships with sponsors such as Agnès B clearly provide both exposure and a platform for the artist’s work, Anger doesn’t, or perhaps, shouldn’t sit comfortably within the context of the fashion world. At its best, is work is complex ans has the power to be deeply emotionally affective for the viewer – precisely capacities the fashion world doesn’t have. Hopefully this isn’t the sign of things to come. By his very nature, Anger’s work resembles that of French writer, mystic and pornographer Georges Bataille: it resists mainstream recuperation and any attempt to sanitise and whitewash it risks reforming it beyond recognition. Whilst we can appreciate that Agnès B has given us the opportunity to reconnect with Anger’s work, he is too interesting, and too important, to be confined to the catwalk.
The Kenneth Anger collection at the galérie du jour, 44 rue quincampoix, Paris, runs until November 3, 2012