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The human body has always fascinated David Cronenberg, the Canadian filmmaker who's the inspiration and catalyst for "Spectacular Optical," a group exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami. For Cronenberg the body is an alarmingly precarious, unstable thing, something not so much revolting as in revolt, often in a bizarre marriage of flesh and technology.
A woman's repressed rage, for instance, manifests itself as horrific little creatures erupting from her body (The Brood). A high-rise falls prey to a parasitic organism that's both venereal disease and aphrodisiac (They Came From Within, a.k.a. Shivers). While experimenting with teleportation, a scientist inadvertently splices his genes with those of an insect (The Fly). A drug-addled writer hallucinates a creature that's part beetle, part typewriter, and part anus (Naked Lunch). Car-crash survivors develop a compulsion in which sex is associated with twisted wreckage (Crash).
Of the 29 artists who contributed to "Spectacular Optical" -- the name of the eyewear shop in Videodrome -- Cronenberg is represented by only two works, his early short films Stereo and Crimes of the Future, which play back to back on a continuous video loop. But his influence, his artistic sensibility, is fairly pervasive. Dozens of pieces of memorabilia from his movies are on display: storyboards, props, on-the-set photographs, posters, and other promotional materials. Although these pieces are interesting, especially for Cronenberg cultists, classifying most of them as art objects is a stretch.
The exceptions are seven cast-steel pieces displayed in a glass-topped case and ominously labeled Instruments For Mutant Women. (They were designed by Peter Grundy and Alicia Keywan, then fabricated by David Dyder.) Even removed from their cinematic context, as a set of antique gynecological tools purchased by one of the deranged twin doctors in Dead Ringers, they're jarringly sinister. Their gleaming surfaces appear utterly alien, until you begin to notice how much they draw on insect physiology. Then, as you imagine them being used in a medical procedure, they seem more like devices that have been imported straight from Hell.
This is not surprising, given that Cronenberg remade the minor '50s sci-fi classic The Fly as a brutally graphic -- and disturbingly romantic -- horror movie. A life-size head of the creature is on display, realistically fashioned from foam rubber, plastic paint, and bristles, by Chris Walas Inc. (Walas and a partner won Oscars for their special-effects makeup on the project.) A miniature version of the monstrous puppet Walas created for the film is also on display, as is his small but striking sculpture featuring a scaffold and a hanged man with a Mugwamp (a creature from Naked Lunch) on his back.
Those pieces not explicitly linked to Cronenberg are a mixed bag. Some display a clear affinity for the filmmaker's aesthetic, while others seem unconnected. For instance, it's hard to detect common ground at all between Cronenberg's work and Lygia Clark's small, untitled aluminum sculpture, with its hinged pieces and minimalist starkness. And, despite the chilly beauty of Jeremy Blake's two large c-prints, The Cold Room and Fireside Plush, I'm at a loss to see how these abstract digital doodlings are in any way related to the director.
Other pieces share the atmosphere of Cronenberg's work. An untitled plastic-and-steel sculpture by Charles Long starts with the basic form of a molded plastic chair, then introduces a mutation in the form of an odd protuberance that seems to be a sort of crenelated gland. Julian LaVerdiere's Hourglass, a nine-foot-tall "liquid nitrogen fountain" with tubes leading to a couple of large industrial canisters, could easily be a leftover piece of equipment from Jeff Goldblum's mad-scientist laboratory in The Fly. Then there's Shellburne Thurber's "Motel Room" series, a set of five 30-by-40-inch ektacolor prints of anonymous, empty interiors, which have the same garishness of some of Cronenberg's early low-budget features.
Oddly enough, the pieces that share Cronenberg's taste for gore have far less visceral power than the filmmaker's work. Bryan Crockett's Extended Fall-out (Necrophilia series), a mixed-media construction made of epoxy, resin, and latex balloons, looks like a mass of disembodied innards, but the glossy artificiality of the piece blunts its impact. (Even working on shoestring budgets, Cronenberg always managed to come up with convincing special effects.) The same is true of a pair of untitled oils by Alex Ross that portray clumps of green matter covered with stomalike openings. And a trio of Jason Fox acrylics, two of figures that seem to have had their skin stripped away, have a comic-book quality.
The pieces that most effectively mesh with Cronenberg's dark vision tend to be ambitious installations. Laura Parnes' video installation No Is Yes is a sort of self-contained minitheater. A neon sign hangs at the entrance to a dimly lit room, where you'll find a futon, a rabbit-fur coat, photographs (including one of William S. Burroughs, author of Naked Lunch) mounted on one wall, and the words "JUST DO IT" stenciled on the same wall in red letters. On another wall is projected the title video, a blackly comic exercise in postmodern nihilism.
Bonnie Collura's Decoy Set (From Green to Red), a sculptural installation made of foam, plaster, and gauze, appears to be, like so much of Cronenberg's work, in the middle of some mysterious transformation. An olive green, deerlike animal stands near a pair of bright red columns that resemble tree stumps, one with a black rod extending from it. The rest of the piece includes a green monolith with black objects sticking out from both sides, a pair of fruitlike orbs, and a tan shoe sticking out of the base. The piece is a total enigma, which is its appeal.
By far the most unsettling installation, the one definitely not for the squeamish, is Lutz Bacher's Huge Uterus, which occupies a corner of one of the galleries. A VCR and a tape deck are mounted on the walls of the corner, while on the floor nearby, lying on its back, is a large video monitor flanked by a pair of small speakers. Now for the clincher: The piece runs a continuous six-hour video loop of surgery to remove noncancerous tumors from the artist's uterus, with the surgeon's eerily calm voice describing the procedure as he cuts and pokes. Entertaining? No. Morbidly fascinating? Yes. Which is how a lot of people characterize the cinema of David Cronenberg.
The piece is complemented by the nearby Embryo by Alexis Rickman, a wall-mounted slab of something called envirotex in which a pair of surgical tongs, a hypodermic needle, a stainless steel tray, and a plastic medical tube are embedded, along with an embryo that looks part human, part animal.
But for me the work that most succinctly translates Cronenberg's preoccupation with the organic and the mechanical into an alternative format is video artist Tony Oursler's Kill or Be.... The setup is minimal: a small video projector linked to a VCR and mounted on one tripod and, a few feet away, another tripod with a plaster cast of a human face mounted on it. The impact, however, is substantial, because Oursler projects live-action footage of a quite animated talking head onto the plaster face. (We hear the artist's unnerving voice, too.)
A lingering question, of course, is whether an exhibition of this sort is really necessary. Shouldn't Cronenberg's films stand on their own, without further amplification from other artists? And shouldn't the works of those other artists also stand on their own? A possible answer is that, in both cases, they already do. But for Cronenberg enthusiasts -- and I'm resolutely one of them -- a better answer is that all of these works resonate off one another, giving us a show that's greater than any of its parts.
"Spectacular Optical" is on display through November 29 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, 770 NE 125th St., North Miami, 305-893-6211.