Sex and Death and Marco Brambilla

Published September 7, 2014

In New York, many of the rich, famous, and fashionable have at some point hitched a ride on the now-infamous elevators to The Top of the Standard, the rooftop club that hosts some of the most exclusive parties in an already exclusive city. What makes this abnormally notorious elevator even more memorable are two screens, on the left and the right, displaying artist Marco Brambilla’s Civilization, a psychedelic journey through Earth, heaven, and hell rendered with clips and imagery from over 400 Hollywood films packed into a three minute loop.

Over the last decade, the Milan-born, New York-based Brambilla has made his name as a fine artist through such brief and intricate video collages. He has garnered commissions from Ferrari, Hugo Boss, and Kanye West (who, if you were wondering, did discover Brambilla’s work thanks to The Standard’s elevator). Civilization, along with Creation and Evolution, is part of the artist’s recent Megaplex trilogy, which explores Hollywood as an enrapturing and pervasive cultural spectacle. Creation was momentarily the talk of the art world in 2012 when it was screened in 3-D in downtown Manhattan’s St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral. As a whole, Megaplex also acknowledges Brambilla’s history with mass-marketed feature films, most notably with his direction of Demolition Man (1993) starring Sylvester Stallone and Sandra Bullock. Though his videos now are computer-generated, he still draws on filmmaking fundamentals like camera panning and editing techniques. The pace of videos possesses a hypnotic rhythm determined by the score, which has been everything from West’s “Power” to Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring.”  

For Hugo Boss’s show this New York Fashion Week, Brambilla created an enchanted-forest fairytale starring model Suvi Koponen, and set to Tchaikovsky’s “The Sleeping Beauty” waltz. This is his second video for the brand after Anthropocene at Time Warner Center last fall. Following a piece from Inez and Vinoodh, it’s also the second video in creative director Jason Wu’s brainchild THISISBOSS, a campaign which will invite artists from different disciplines to devise videos for Hugo Boss’s shows.

Brambilla’s friend Marina AmbramoviÄ? called him from Upstate New York to chat about his past, present, future and why there isn’t (more) sex in his videos.

MARINA ABRAMOVIÄ?: Marco, I’ve always been curious. At the beginning of your biography you had incredible success with Demolition Man (1993), in Hollywood. Then you left all that money, success and glamour of Hollywood and to become a video artist. That was a pretty dramatic change. How did this happen?

MARCO BRAMBILLA: I felt, in Hollywood, it’s very collaborative. It’s becoming more marketing-driven. It is hard to make something personal that you feel strongly about. I found it wasn’t satisfying to me any longer. I had been making experimental films when I was very young before I went to Hollywood and I found a way back into that through fine art practice. I found my way back into doing something which was much more personal, much more conceptual, and perhaps a little bit less mainstream, more esoteric. It felt very organic when I came back to New York in 1988. I had learned a great deal from working in Hollywood and bringing that kind of language to a different medium is much more personal and relevant I think.

ABRAMOVIÄ?: So many people would be attached to the money, the success, the glamour of the whole thing because it was extremely successful. That you could have this ability to make more movies like this and then to say no to this—it’s a strong personal reason which I admire. This is not a question, it’s my observation. So, the work you’re doing, Creation, Civilization, Evolution. They’re not long films—they’re a few minutes, maximum. Then you loop them. The moment you loop them, you create this endless feeling of time. They have this hypnotic quality. That timelessness, I wanted to know your thoughts on. Because, to me, it’s connected with my own work, in performance, that there’s no beginning and no end. It’s things that are continuously happening.

BRAMBILLA: The durational aspect of video art is very different from photography or sculpture. The idea of looping things interferes with that a little bit. It eliminates that finite viewing period which I think is not so expressive sometimes. It also suits the subject matter because the subject matter for all three pieces in the Megaplex series is about this circle of life. The loop seemed to be a natural way to tell that story. Of course in Christian Marclay’s The Clock, which is the probably the most kind of iconic video piece of the last five years, he tracks real time. It’s a 24-hour cycle. We eliminate the duration as a constraints of the film. I think a loop seems like a natural progression for the concept itself. Also, idea of the spectacle, because those pieces are really about a spectacle of Hollywood, going back and kind of mining the imagery from Hollywood and reprocessing it as this kind of hyper-spectacle, which is even more saturated and more dense. Maybe you don’t see everything the first time, and the second time you see more elements, so the loop allows people to be kind of overwhelmed. But also there’s an accessibility the second time around, which you don’t notice the first time around.

ABRAMOVIÄ?: With Civilization [when it showed at St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral in Manhattan], I found it fascinating how the public was positioned in this whole thing. Everybody was given 3D glasses and they’re sitting there in the church. So the context has this relation to the architecture of the church. Then you see this video installation running and running and running continuously, and everybody’s sitting motionless. Once I stepped up in the church and looked back at the public, and the piece and the public, the public complete the piece.

BRAMBILLA: They were part of the installation in a way. The New Museum was doing a show called Idea City. They approached me to show it in a church. As soon as they said that, I thought I should’ve thought of it sooner because there’s so many Baroque elements in the piece itself. Connecting it to the environment to the church and then the audience participation, from the 3-D glasses, and in that context it really works.

ABRAMOVIÄ?: Because they all become uniform. They all become part of the same almost cult scene. Then another question, the music. The music really complements the work. How did you choose the music? How did you decide which music would go where?

BRAMBILLA: Well, the music comes first usually for me. I used [Sergei] Prokofiev and [Igor] Stravinsky because those were composers that influenced Hollywood composers in the kind of prime days of Hollywood when Bernard Herrmann was composing for Hitchcock. So I thought going back to the source material which would be somewhat familiar so when people hear the soundtrack, it’s a familiar sound. But it’s also processed and sampled in a way that’s slightly unusual. For the Hugo Boss film, it also starts with music. I used Tchaikovsky’s “The Sleeping Beauty” and I thought the waltz from that piece had this rhythmic, circular quality; it suggested this circular movement. That’s where the idea for the camera movement and the acceleration of the piece really came from, from the waltz in “Sleeping Beauty.”

ABRAMOVIÄ?: You know, there is an incredible history in the carpets. Navajo Indian, Hopi Indian, Afghani, Turkish, and Iranian carpets. The carpet is not just the kind of carpet that people put there to walk on. They’re actually telling stories. There’s so many carpets and so many ancient rituals engraved in the carpets and you could actually read them. To me, I always compare your work to a kind of carpet. It synthesizes the entire knowledge of the film industry completely. It’s like you’re making carpets. You’re making completely 21st-century carpets.

BRAMBILLA: It’s all associative storytelling in a way. The technology and the format is so different. That the idea of telling a narrative purely through association and through some kind of superimposed chronology—

ABRAMOVIÄ?: It’s kind of an encyclopedia of our knowledge on the film, of image. That’s why it’s so intense. I think this is why you can spend as much time looking at them and you always see new things. How many movies do you use to make one?

BRAMBILLA: The first was about 300, the last one was about 500. The camera movement is timed in such a way that it’s slightly too much to see the first time.

ABRAMOVIÄ?: This is why there is this possibility of going over and over and always seeing something else. This is why the knowledge that you have about film completes the work. And still, it’s not enough knowledge because somebody else has different emotions about certain movies. So each person comes out with this experience.

BRAMBILLA: It’s very personal. I think at a certain point it becomes stream of consciousness. So at a certain point you just draw on your own, personal memory of films. You think of a scene or you think of a character and it may not be anything like what you saw. I may think of something I saw when I was 15, watching an old Fellini film and I think of this image being the perfect image to express this moment or this particular piece of the puzzle as I’m putting it together. Then you go back and you look at it, and I’ll realize it doesn’t exactly look like what I remember, so my memory is clouded by what I’m working on. It does become very stream of consciousness. You’re literally just looking through hundreds of films and finding the moments that seem to connect in away that’s emotional and tell a story that’s consistent.

ABRAMOVIÄ?: This is when you know you are really using an enormous amount of new material to create this 21st-century film carpet. But then you use a completely different approach. I saw Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising [which, among other things, follows a gang of motorcyclists]. Then a few years ago I saw the video you made for Ferrari. I love it so much. Because it’s a completely different approach. Kenneth Anger describes the outside, the body of the motorcycle. Whereas you went into the soul of the motor. You never see the product, you never see the Ferrari. But you see the the power, you see the engine, you see the spirit itself. You never show the car; you show the power.

BRAMBILLA: I think as soon as you show the product, whatever it may be, it grounds everything.

ABRAMOVIÄ?: That’s why I think it has this special quality—it’s about the soul of the motor. So, you’ve worked with Ferrari, you work with Hugo Boss, you work with these different brands. You know, I always have refuted criticism that artists are not supposed to [work with brands]. I’m so fed up with this. What is your opinion? What are your reasons for doing it?

BRAMBILLA: I feel exactly the same way. Being able to make work—if it’s on your terms, and it’s a good fit with the people who are supporting it—can be a very interesting exercise. When it doesn’t work is when an artist just connects with a brand, and they try to take advantage of each other. If it’s an honest piece about something, then it can yield interesting results. The piece you made for Adidas, which was a re-performance of something you had done in the ’70s [Work Relation], which is consistent with the spirit of the World Cup, had no compromise at all. It wasn’t a compromise because it was sponsored or paid for by a brand—it was simply your work staged in a way that had some impact, and had some kind of relevance in the time that it was shown. When I’m approached by brands I use the same kind of philosophy—I don’t really get into a project unless I feel I can make something that will be honest for me.

ABRAMOVIÄ?: This is why for me it’s completely justified. Tell me a little bit about the ideas behind the Hugo Boss project.

BRAMBILLA: They approached me to make a second in a series of films where they have people form different disciplines making a film that will run in conjunction with a new collection. The first film was made by fashion photographers, Inez and Vinoodh. The third film could be made by a film director, the fourth film, maybe an architect. That’s Jason Wu’s idea. His concept is to tap into people from different disciplines, and they contribute a work commissioned by Hugo Boss. It’s an expression by someone who does something which could contribute to them promoting their new collections. When Jason first talked to me about the project I thought there was such a great freedom to do something interesting, and something very theatrical. I had had Tchaikovsky’s “Sleeping Beauty” in my head, for quite some time. I’ve always wanted to do something with that musical piece and this seemed like the perfect opportunity.

ABRAMOVIÄ?: I wanted to know your opinion: What’s the difference between being American and and doing what you’re doing, and being in Europe? In relation to acceptance of your work.

BRAMBILLA: I think in terms of fine art there’s virtually no difference. In terms of some of this work which crosses over a little bit, where you’re being asked to make something which is commissioned or paid for by a brand, I think in Europe it’s not quite as accepted as it is in America. I think in America there’s this free flow between fashion, art, architecture, music and design. In Europe it’s more segregated between those different disciplines I think.

ABRAMOVIÄ?: I think totally the same. Because you’re so condemned if you just even think of that, mixing fashion, mixing design, architecture, art.

BRAMBILLA: I had a museum curator from Bonniers Konsthall in Stockholm. One of them was staying at the Standard Hotel. They saw Civilization in the elevator of the Standard Hotel, because the owner of the hotel had bought the piece and installed it there. They were considering canceling the show as a result of seeing the piece in a hotel. They didn’t cancel the show, but there was the impulse.

ABRAMOVIÄ?: Where do you see your work going?

BRAMBILLA: The Megaplex series was specifically a comment on filmmaking. It closed a loop for me about my own background as a Hollywood filmmaker. I was able to comment on that and possibly express a certain kind of irony about the film business, and what’s been going on since I left Hollywood. Moving forward, I’ve always been interested with the idea of technology and the way technology affects our ability to communicate—our ability to have a rewarding experience with technology versus a kind of dehumanizing experience with technology. So, the next series of works deal with the idea of physical exploration and virtual exploration, meaning the idea of physically traveling someplace or experiencing someplace firsthand, physically versus—which is what a lot of young people do now—the experience is mitigated through technology and through social media. Being able to experience things without actually physically going anywhere. So the first subject is NASA. The heyday of the American space program was in the late ’60s with the Apollo program. The new piece I’m making now, I’m shooting at Cape Canaveral at NASA’s John F. Kennedy Space Center. It deals with this moment in time, where, perhaps if we staged Apollo 18 now, the space mission would exist partially in the virtual world, and partially in the physical world. It’s kind of this transition from the physical to the virtual. I think we’re the first generation to witness this arc. Using the space program as a vehicle to tell that story seems very interesting to me, and visually it’s interesting to me.

ABRAMOVIÄ?: So, what haven’t we covered…

BRAMBILLA: Is there anything else? How was your holiday?

ABRAMOVIÄ?: Why is there no sex in your installations or in your movies ever?

BRAMBILLA: There is sex! Are you kidding? The first time we met, Marina, was through Neville Wakefield’s project [Destricted, (2006/2010)]

ABRAMOVIÄ?: Oh my god! This I forget. That’s true.

BRAMBILLA: Videos about porn movies. Your piece was called what…?

ABRAMOVIÄ?: Balkan Erotic Epic. What was yours?

BRAMBILLA: My was called Hoist, Sync. Larry Clark made one, Sam Taylor-Wood made one.

ABRAMOVIÄ?: Matthew Barney, too.

BRAMBILLA: That’s actually how we met, remember? At Yvonne Force [Villareal]’s house.

ABRAMOVIÄ?: That’s true, that’s true. Oh god, I remember. But there was so much sex there, that you don’t need to make more. I completely forgot. So anyway. Do you think we need more?

BRAMBILLA: I think we ended on a very good note—I think ending it on the way we met, and the sexual nature of the work is probably the best thing to do [both laugh].

ABRAMOVIÄ?: And in the future I want to work with Marco, but I don’t know if it’s too much to talk about this at this moment, yet.

BRAMBILLA: We’re going to collaborate on a another project together, coming up.

ABRAMOVIÄ?: We only know the title: Seven Deaths.

BRAMBILLA: So death and sex, this is perfect.

ABRAMOVIÄ?: Yes, it can’t be more tragic than this.

BRAMBILLA: Absolutely.

ABRAMOVIÄ?: Have a good time in Paris. I’m going to swim in the river right now. This is all I do.