Fillip 5 — Spring 2007

Having Hired a Design Team, the Bad Slept Well
Liz Bruchet

The Bad Sleep Well (2003), an installation by Mexican-born, Amsterdam-based artist Carlos Amorales, was the principal work in a small, self-titled solo exhibition recently shown at Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires (MALBA). Amorales’ work pestered me: I felt I’d been seduced by its graphic confidence and haunting soundtrack. It was as if the artist had been trying to recreate the seediness of fear without its ugly connotations. Viewing it seemed all too pleasurable.

The work comprised a sequence of pseudo-gothic digital drawings projected onto three large screens in a darkened room and was accompanied by an ominous electronic soundtrack akin to a subdued version of John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) score. The images, depicting skulls, planes, crows, and hybrid monkey-men, were pulled and adapted from the artist’s “liquid archive”—a thematic collection of newspaper clippings, personal photographs, posters, and advertisements gathered in his native Mexico City. Using a vector-based design process, Amorales condensed the photo-based images into a series of silhouettes using a vivid palette of red, black, blue, and yellow, resulting in a seductive aesthetic that lies somewhere between the smooth graphic designs of Saul Bass and an illustrated Wallpaper magazine spread circa 2001.

The Bad Sleep Well marks a shift away from Amorales’ earlier performance works that took the tradition of lucha libre—a form of freestyle wrestling popular in Mexico—as its point of departure. For his series Los Amorales (2001), the artist created a wrestling persona in his own likeness who, in keeping with the rituals of lucha libre, donned a stylized mask, hosted symposia, and staged wrestling matches against an alter ego in various international museums.1 These events fell within the trajectory of avant-garde performance: they highlighted a regional phenomenon, disrupted the conventional terms of engagement, and stirred up cultural clichés using a documentary methodology, intervention techniques, and political and social subject matters that have come to characterize much of the Mexican art produced in the 1990s and early 2000s. As Amorales and others have since noted, such strategies resulted in overused formulas which ultimately reiterate existing stereotypes, in this instance, the contemporary Latin American artist as “unpolished political activist, provocateur, naughty child ...a postmodern Che Guevara that travels in planes every three days to subvert his favorite museum.”2

Amorales’ recent use of multi-media techniques and sparse but sophisticated visuals can be understood as a conscious move away from the well-worn expectation that Latin American art is best produced and understood as an explicit political statement. While some of the same themes are at work (such as the local versus global, the heroic and exotic, and notions of narrative and mythmaking), the artist’s carefully considered use of media in The Bad Sleep Well results in a circular play of these dialectics that undermines any prescribed response.

The title of the work is borrowed from the English translation of Akira Kurosawa’s 1960 Warui yatsu hodo yoku nemuru (The Bad Sleep Well). The film follows a wealthy family’s decline in the face of a corporate corruption scandal in post-war Japan, pointing to the (ironic) potency of moral ambivalence in the dichotomy of good and evil. This uncertainty propels Amorales’ investigation: “More than the fantasy of fables, I am interested in the one related to the carnivalesque, the one that is liberating at the unconscious level, which is confrontational because it does not give moral solutions, but simply in its beauty and its ugliness becomes part of our existence, and frightens us as much as it gives us pleasure.”3

It is here that the artist’s collaboration with graphic designers, animators, and musicians comes into play to illustrate the paradoxical insistence and vulnerability of any absolutes.4 While some advertising tactics have over time favoured more subliminal techniques, the basic function of graphic design is to ensure legibility of a given visual message through calculated layering of design principles. Yet, the terms of engagement with graphic expressions are forever reliant on this circuit of beauty, ugliness, fear, and pleasure—those elements of enticement and intrigue. Amorales appropriates illustrative and narrative techniques meant to elicit such emotional responses in order to elaborate on the moral dichotomies and often-unacknowledged expectations that are bound to our reading of any given visual display.

Having implemented the elements of seduction, the artist generalized his visual language, removing the specificities of the hand-made and the hand-held in order to highlight the process of visual codification. So while the drawings can be initially read as depictions of real terror—of political and social violence, the disappeared and the displaced (e.g., blood splatters or spray paint, gasmasks, a silhouette of a man on his hands and knees)—they also represent the shared psychological terrain of any capital city, of any person. The once weighty images of Mexico City, with its chaotic extremes, fissures, and stereotypes, have been reduced to an iconographic series empty parking lots, invasive black birds and spiders, abandoned buildings, and masked men.

This strategy can also be understood as a response to the expectation that work by a Mexican-born artist must in some way address the difficult urban reality of his nation in a manner that reflects the gritty edges of its exported cultural identity. The aesthetic of The Bad Sleep Well is the result of an extensive examination of the global development of image-making. The technologically complex and labour-intensive processes of appropriation, assembly, collage, animation, and collaboration invert the associations of roughness and technological immaturity often associated with cultural production from the developing world.5

The succession of projected drawings simulates a slight movement, and while promotional material associated with this exhibition describes the work as “animation,” a more accurate description would define the effect as halfway between still and animated image. On the one hand, the unity and clarity of his graphic design proposes a fixed and delineated visual language. (Unlike raster images, vector-based images can be scaled indefinitely without degradation.) Yet, in using his personal “liquid archive” as source material, Amorales reinstates the idea of image-making as a fluid process: a moving document subject to the fluctuations, ripples, and distortions of the media machine, governments, personal histories, and more implicitly, our collective desire for pleasure, resolution, and instruction.

This ambiguous positioning creates a sense of anticipation, while simultaneously slowing down the process of reading to allow for a rereading. The steady electronic pulse of the soundtrack is appropriately foreboding. But this sense of pending menace is interrupted by a chime, suggesting a moment of magic or transformation, as if, ta-da!, everything has come together. And what at once seemed simply ominous becomes slightly delicious.

Perhaps then my original distrust was well placed after all. Amorales has entered the treacherous territory of prettiness, clean lines, and enchanting clichés. However, underneath the appearance of order and familiarity, a kind of chaos persists, hovering at the intersection of instinct and calculation. The Bad Sleep Well triggered in me an unexpected, more expansive investigation of contemporary imaging and its place between pattern making and chaos, morality and pleasure.

  1. Gils Stork, ed., Carlos Amorales: Los Amorales (Amsterdam: Artimo Foundation, 2001).
  2. From an interview between Carlos Amorales and Curator Inés Katzenstein, published in conjunction with the exhibition Carlos Amorales, Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires, October 13 to November 27, 2006. I am grateful to Cecilia Pereyra and Sebastián Touza for kindly correcting my well-intended translation of Katzenstein’s interview with the artist.
  3. Ibid.
  4. In addition to working with a graphic designer and composer during the production of The Bad Sleep Well, Amorales has recently developed an animation studio, and co-created Ricos, a record label and cultural production house through which he collaboratively produces seminars, concerts, art installations, and publications. Amorales has said that these projects provide a kind of parallel to the world of art providing the distance necessary for analysis.
  5. The dusty filter used to represent the Mexican landscape of Steven Soderbergh’s 2000 film Traffic stands out as a poignant example.
About the Author

Liz Bruchet is a curator, writer, and arts administrator based in Vancouver. She is currently developing a series of projects that explore the capacity of objects to carry vulnerability.

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