Kiss the beast and make it cry

Linda Carroli on Brisbane’s new cinematheque

King Kong (1933), image courtesy of <BR />Michael Callaghan/Effie Holdings”></p>
<p class=King Kong (1933), image courtesy of
Michael Callaghan/Effie Holdings

Due for completion in November 2006 under the umbrella of the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane’s Australian Cinémathèque promises to present and interpret film as an integral part of contemporary visual culture. Queensland Art Gallery boasts that QGMA will be the first Australian art museum to include purpose-built facilities dedicated to film and the moving image. For QAG’s Head of Cinema, Kathryn Weir, the co-location of art and moving image will result in more frequent explorations of the “lines of influence in visual culture” as well as “profiling influences in cultural production across media.”

While the bricks and mortar are still in progress, the Cinémathèque is already introducing film and video programs into the QAG. Curated by Weir and National Gallery of Victoria’s senior curator of international art, Dr Ted Gott, its launch event is Kiss of the Beast: Gorillas, Wild Beasts and Monsters in Art and Film, an integrated film and exhibition program. Speaking at the launch, QAG Director, Doug Hall, said the new facility aims to “create a cinema literate Brisbane.” Future projects will include involvement in the 2006 Asia Pacific Triennial featuring a Jackie Chan showcase and Andy Warhol’s moving image works as part of a survey exhibition in 2007. Given the emphasis of high profile internationally oriented screenings, the positioning of Australian screen work warrants some discussion. Even more pressing is the status of new media art and experimental practices which remain absent from or under-represented in our national collections.

While Kiss of the Beast’s film program comprises cult monster and ‘mad science’ movies, the exhibition component focuses on representations of the gorilla, which according to Weir occupies a privileged position in humanity’s relationship with nature. It’s privilege, however, is double-edged, as the ape has also come to signify humanity’s lesser drives and desires and Kiss of the Beast explores our perplexing relationship with animals. Featuring not only classic genre films, Kiss of the Beast also includes an array of science imagery, rare scientific literature and science fiction, natural science illustrations, photographs, racialised cartoons, fairytale representations, posters, 19th century and contemporary artworks including Evolution (in order of appearance) by Ricky Swallow and Lisa Roet’s Skull series. The realistic sculptural works of these artists appear as 3-dimensional representations of the Thomas Huxley diagram of skeletons depicting the evolutionary transition from apes to human. Roet’s life-size white bronze primate skulls heavily contrast with Swallow’s miniature cast resin series that culminates in a Terminator-esque cybernetic cranium, thus plotting a trajectory from ape to Arnie!

Speculation, anxiety and outrage about evolutionary science, coloured with colonialism and racism, forms the critical and historical framework for Kiss of the Beast. The centrepiece of the exhibition is Emmanuel Frémiet’s 1887 bronze, Gorilla carrying off a woman, which references an earlier 1859 work, Gorilla carrying off Negress. There is marked similarity between this image and that of Fay Wray languishing in the grasp of mighty Kong; as in many monster films, women are carried in the arms of monsters and this is made explicit in a wall of like imagery sourced from various movies. The images are iconic, symbolic of the bridal threshold, with fragile and sensual beauties helpless in the brutal clutches of presumably malignant beasts. Now an endangered species, the gorilla was only ‘discovered’ in Africa by Europeans in 1847 and museums, as modern institutions that aligned science and spectacle, purchased slaughtered apes to have them stuffed for exhibition. It’s now common knowledge that a minute percentile of DNA differentiates humans and chimpanzees—the beast so feared is perhaps the beast within. Edgar Rice Burroughs’ wild man, Tarzan, was one literary experiment that interrogated the diminished distinction between primate and human. However, even with many literary precedents since classicism (and perhaps pre-Christian animism), it’s predominantly in screen culture and cinema that the beauty and the beast theme has been extrapolated at length.

The exhibition and film program culminates with the 1933 film King Kong and while this provides an historical context that maps the gorilla’s shift from object of scientific knowledge to mass cultural phenomenon, important contemporary explorations are peripheral. At the forum Hollywood Goes Wild, featuring Adrian Martin and Barbara Creed, who is currently writing The Darwinian Screen: The Evolution of Film Theory—these contemporary questions received an airing. With recent advocacy of ‘intelligent design’, contention about evolution continues to burn among religious and science groups. Theorists, such as Elizabeth Grosz and Donna Haraway, have also prominently reconsidered evolutionary debates. Haraway’s strategy is one of ‘counter-myth building’ and her primatology has examined the work of research scientists Jane Goodall and Dianne Fossey who both lived with and observed the apes. There is an urgent message of conservation and understanding—grounded in science—in the documentary and feature film representations of women’s encounters with apes. These contradict the 1932 documentary Congorilla by Martin and Osa Johnson in which, like the 19th century expeditionary adventure stories before them, apes are mindless and savage.

In the films that comprise the Kiss of the Beast program, the beasts and the threat they pose are inevitably destroyed and the Kong that presided over the city atop a skyscraper is also the Kong that lies dead in the street below. The beast, like humanity’s relationship to it, is constantly under negotiation. Now our attention turns to the Peter Jackson remake of King Kong (www.kongisking.net[lc1]). We might, as Creed argues, see via the capacity of film to provide a “zoo-centric perspective”, a film that “allows the beast to talk in its own voice.” According to Martin, we can expect to see “a serious, tragic and in-love Kong, a symbol of wilderness, nature and ecological battle.” Such a shift presents a moment’s pause to rethink the mythic othering of the beast in this time of more pressing biodiversity imperatives arising from environmental awareness.

Kiss of the Beast: Gorillas, Wild Beasts and Monsters in Art and Film, curators Kathryn Weir, Ted Gott; exhibition, Queensland Art Gallery, until Jan 22, 2006; From King Kong to Bride of the Monster, film program, South Bank Cinemas, Brisbane, November; ACMI, Melbourne, Dec 9-18, www.kissofthebeast.com

RealTime issue #70 Dec-Jan 2005 pg. 22

© Linda Carroli; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 December 2005