It was the artist Doug Aitken who first introduced me to Alejandro Jodorowsky. While we were together installing an exhibition in Berlin in the late ’90s, Aitken sat me down and screened El Topo (1970) and The Holy Mountain (1973) back-to-back. I was immediately blown away by the sweeping breadth of these two masterpieces and the Chilean director’s staggering use of imagery, color, Surrealist visions, and brilliant reconfigurations of old Hollywood tropes. For me, they seemed essential touchstones of contemporary art. The worlds that Jodorowsky manages to create are so provocative, so transgressive, and so hallucinatory, that they share some of the impact of magical realist masters like Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But ultimately, the cinematic explorations are purely his own.
Throughout his career, Jodorowsky has built his own iconography and even his own time-space dimen- sion. It is not surprising to discover that he got his start in the art of mime and theater. Nor is it hard to believe that Jodorowsky is an expert practitioner of tarot. In fact, he never travels anywhere without his personal deck and can often be found in a cafe in Paris, where he lives, doing readings for strangers. His interest in mystical divination is particularly evident in The Holy Mountain, which revolves around a set of characters from different astrological signs who learn to shed their capitalist tendencies and find their pure, higher selves—an odyssey which ends on a mountaintop with the camera zooming out to reveal the film crew, as if to suggest that the insistence on truth must apply even to the director himself.
Jodorowsky’s work has influenced a number of art- ists throughout the years, including John Lennon and Yoko Ono, who caught a screening of El Topo in New York in the ’70s and became early champions. In 2011, I contacted Jodorowsky, who turned 83 in February, and invited him to present a large-scale installation of The Holy Mountain at MoMA PS1. This past summer we exhibited storyboards, notes, and tarot cards, with the film monumentally installed, playing on continuous repeat. Then in October, Jodor- owsky and his wife, Pascale Montandon, arrived in New York as our guests and we screened The Holy Mountain at MoMA. By pure coincidence, the night turned out to be Halloween, which seemed fitting, and allowed me to come in costume to present the master. This conversation took place the next day, All Saints Day, or Day of the Dead, as we sat together inside MoMA to discuss his groundbreaking career.
KLAUS BIESENBACH: When we did the installation of The Holy Mountain at MoMA PS1 and last night’s screening at MoMA, I was continually intrigued by how the film comes across today. It feels like it’s about the Arab Spring. It also feels like it’s about what’s happening today in Venezuela and Mexico. It seems to be about all of the pressing topical questions of today. And then I had to remind myself that it’s a film from 1973. So is it a movie about today? Or is it a movie about the ’70s?
ALEJANDRO JODOROWSKY: It’s not a movie about the ’70s. I was acting like a prophet when I made the picture because I could see where the world was going. But I wasn’t only criticizing. If you criticize something, you analyze it and that is all. I also wanted to see where we could go in terms of truth and a new way of life. So it isn’t only negative. There’s also a proposition in this picture, and it’s still how I feel today—search in the tarot and alchemy and the Kabbalah and ideograms, and then forget all that and go to the world in order to find a collective consciousness, which is what we need today.
BIESENBACH: In Holy Mountain, there is an interesting relationship with the camera. There is a scene where one character says about a piece of art, “It is only made for the camera.” And, of course, at the end of the film, the camera pulls back to reveal that everyone is on a film set. I want to know about your relationship with the camera. Today, everyone has a camera and uploads pictures and views their reality through a camera. But in 1973, that panning shot was a very different message. What has changed?
JODOROWSKY: I think in life there are very few creators. There are a million imitators, but what is a per- son who imitates? It’s just a superficial reproduction of things. I am seeing today a multiplication of superficial work. Photos, photos, photos, myself, myself, myself . . . but a lack of humanity now. You have all the communication, but what will you say? I have Twitter, but I never say what I do or what I eat. I am transpersonal. I think art needs to be transpersonal. It needs to break from our individual limits. It needs to go inside our common, collective humanity. I think we are in big danger with the destruction of the planet and the destruction of society. We are in MoMA right now, which is paradise. We are with the spirits of art. But outside, you have reality, which is very dangerous. It’s in pain. Nobody’s happy. Not just economically, but also emotionally and creatively. They have lost the meaning of politics, of religion, of health. Today, medicine is an industry. Everything’s industrial. But I say the night makes the day. After a night, it is the day, and not the reversal. Not after the day is the night. It is a positive message. Everything that happens in your life is for the good. I don’t believe in political revolution. I believe in poetical revolution. That’s what I believe. So where do we put the power? In the consciousness. Everything we do should be to open the mind of a person.
BIESENBACH: So do you consider Holy Mountain a political movie?
JODOROWSKY: It’s not political.
BIESENBACH: Is it more ethical?
JODOROWSKY: It’s everything. Like, you have a cake. In this cake you have politics, you have religion, you have philosophy, you have poetry, you have pornography . . . You have everything. And then for me, art is a totality. It’s not a piece of any one thing. It’s the whole cake.
BIESENBACH: Holy Mountain is full of incredibly refined images. How did you choose the colors in the images?
JODOROWSKY: Ah, that is important. I am com- pletely visual. For me, the picture is a visual action. And the movement of the camera also has a meaning—a moral meaning. And every color has a moral meaning, a philosophical meaning. I do not pick color based on my pleasure. I’m not a painter who just paints as he likes.
BIESENBACH: What is the meaning of red? There’s a very strong red in your work.
JODOROWSKY: Blood. You’re a red person, because blood is going in all your body. Blood is life inside you. Outside of you is death.
BIESENBACH: What does blue mean? When the disciples walk up the mountain they are all in blue.
JODOROWSKY: Because blue is a receptive color. It is the blue of the sky. When I am meditating, my mind is blue and the ideas are like clouds. But blue rests. Blue is the eternal reception of the human being.
BIESENBACH: Over the last 40 years, you have inspired so many artists. You anticipated many artists’ works, many contemporary art images. Who inspired you?
JODOROWSKY: God. The thing we cannot describe. For me, god is not a person. It is an energy that moves the universe. And the energy moves me because I am part of the universe, and then I go inside myself and I call that interior god. And this gives me what I am doing. That is really, really the truth. Every day, I live in a library full of books. If you came to my house you would see this. It’s also full of movies. I see one or two movies every day. I believe that art is a continuation. When you look at a Cezanne landscape, you can see that abstraction is on its way. Of course his- tory has to allow that to happen. Honestly, my favor- ite painter is my wife, Pascale. In her paintings, she eliminates every affect, every lie. Everything is pure. What is the search of the artist? To get to the reality of the art he is practicing. I make films. What do I take out? I will take out the story. All the pictures are the same, with the same three parts. First part: The hero doesn’t want to fight, they convince him to fight. Second part: a big crisis. They kill his woman or something, and then he goes to fight. The second part is very long, all the adventure against the enemies. Third part: the critical moment when he’s almost dead, and there is a big fight like Superman with kryptonite, and suddenly he finds the elixir of life and goes back to his family. That is most pictures. I want to take all of that out. The camera is my slave. Young people today, all they know is movies. They don’t know life. But for me the camera is my slave. I am president. The camera is there to serve me, not for me to serve the camera.
BIESENBACH: In Holy Mountain, when the actors speak, are they even saying their own lines?
JODOROWSKY: No. I changed the voices.
BIESENBACH: So basically, the actors are—
JODOROWSKY: Not actors. I put the words into their mouths later.
BIESENBACH: So basically, it’s a silent movie.
JODOROWSKY: Yes, well, the movie is silent, but there is sound. And for me, music is an ornament.
BIESENBACH: I also did not realize there are no shadows in the film.
JODOROWSKY: No shadow. That is a big point for me. I wanted to break the Surrealist limits and put the mystery in full light. I take out the shadow and the night. There is no night. I don’t need it. The pres- ent is continual. It’s only one time, and we deal in the present, in the light.
BIESENBACH: If you had to explain to somebody who just fell from the sky what your film El Topo is about, what would you say?
JODOROWSKY: [laughs] Listen, I have tarot cards here, always with me. Why do I love the tarot cards? Because you take any card—like the Emperor or the Magi—and what it means, what he’s doing, changes every day. You are changing and the interpretation is changing. As for El Topo, I don’t know what it is because every time I see it, it’s a different picture. For me, that is the meaning of art. It’s a projection of you. The public all day says, “Look at me, look at me.” But art isn’t calling to you, “Come to me.” You go and seek it out. The holy monk is the same way. “Come to me” and “discover me” are very different things.
BIESENBACH: When I look at Holy Mountain, I look at it as a visual-arts person. But I see the images in terms of composition and color and tension, the same way I see a collection of paintings or photographs. When we had the screening of the film, one of my colleagues said, “Will Alejandro Jodorowsky sit through the movie?” Apparently many directors do not sit through screenings of their own film because they’ve seen it so many times. After the screening, Yoko Ono came up to me and said, “Thank you so much for screening the movie. I saw it in 1973 and today it was completely different. Alejandro was way in front of his time. He was way too early.” I agree that you are way ahead of your time. Here is my question: When you go to a bakery, what a baker makes is bread. What a cook makes is a meal. What are you? What is your product?
JODOROWSKY: I am creator of consciousness. That is my product.
BIESENBACH: Is your product film? Is it tarot cards?
JODOROWSKY: My soul. I am the product. BIESENBACH: What is next? What are your upcom- ing projects? Do you have plans to make another movie?
JODOROWSKY: Yes, The Dance of Reality, about my life when I was a child, my magic life. Every movie for me is a new adventure. I will do that. I regret to say that I am preparing myself to die. Because we are mortal. We have to die. I will die happy. But what is it to die happy? How?
BIESENBACH: Do you have an idea of how to die happy?
JODOROWSKY: Yes, I have an idea. You need to live, do what I’m doing, become transparent, lift the ego, the soul, and be full of love. If you hate life, you will die very bad. I will die with the enormous love of life. And life and humanity are the universe.
BIESENBACH: That is so beautiful. [Jodorowsky laughs] I have to tell that to many artists who are depressed. You were born in the 1920s, in Chile, correct?
BIESENBACH: And if I had visited you in 1949, would you have been a mime or a dancer at that point?
JODOROWSKY: Well, in the ’40s, Chile was split between Allies and Nazis—fifty-fifty—like a football game. I could be sitting with one poet who was Jewish and another poet who was a Nazi.
BIESENBACH: And in the 1950s you were still in Chile?
JODOROWSKY: No, in ’53 I left for Paris. I wanted to know Andre Breton because of surrealism and Marcel [Marceau] because I wanted to be a mime. Marcel was a genius mime, but not so intelligent. Myself, I was not so good a mime, but I was very intelligent. I say to him, “You are making an imitation of Charlie Chaplin. Why don’t you make a metaphysical pantomime?” And then I composed The Mask Maker and The Cage [two mime routines] for him. I was a writer for him. But I did what I wanted. I also studied philosophy at the Sorbonne. Then I saw Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and I wanted to do theater. I went with Marceau to Mexico to give some lessons and there was a big audience. Always when I speak, I have a public. I don’t know why. I started a school of theater in Mexico. I directed over 100 theater plays there. I was preparing myself to make pictures. I was using theater to build up my own world. And then I also needed to know how to make costumes, decor, music, script— everything. I made 100 theater plays in order to arrive at my own message.
BIESENBACH: When you screened El Topo as a mid- night movie in the United States in the ’70s, John Lennon and Yoko Ono came to see it and their support really helped draw interest to the film—and to you. Already you were a guru, a rebel, a pop star . . .
JODOROWSKY: I was an artist.
BIESENBACH: You were an artist.
JODOROWSKY: I didn’t smoke marijuana. When I first came in to the Elgin Theatre in New York where El Topo was playing, there was a big cloud of marijuana smoke. The public gave me marijuana cigarettes, I think because this was the thing to do. It was a revolution. But, no, I was not a guru. I was an artist. I studied Zen Buddhism with Ejo Takata, a Japanese monk living in Mexico. He was in the United States but escaped to Mexico because he found the U.S. to be too rich. He was a poor person, and a very honest person, in Mexico. I worked with him for five years, and that experience gave me the idea to make El Topo—to make a story of a bandit who is not the same by the end of the picture. Think of Hamlet. Very few people change. I’ve known thousands of people and very few change for the better by the time they are old. They remain the same their whole life.
BIESENBACH: After you produced El Topo and The Holy Mountain, were you still the same or did you change?
JODOROWSKY: Everything I am doing, I am chang- ing. I am writing metaphysical poetry now, and the point is to find my voice. The problem is to find your own voice in art. Who are you? You come to the table with the giants—the big Kafka, the big Dostoyevsky, the big Proust—and you bring with you a pencil to face these enormous monsters. Then you need to kill those monsters, to cut their heads off in order to be you—even if you admire them. I need to find what I myself need to say. That is the artist’s obsession. What is my voice? You have only one voice.
BIESENBACH: Who are the new artists that you fol- low? I know that you like Erykah Badu very much.
JODOROWSKY: She likes me. It’s different. Do you know how I know her? It came from this poster she did where she’s dressed like the black girl in The Holy Mountain. She asked me for permission to do that. “Do it!” I said. Then she came to Paris to give a con- cert and invited me. During the concert, she stopped and said, “I admire only two great artists: Michael Jackson and Jodorowsky.” I was happy. And then I read the tarot, I know she’s a wonderful person. Marilyn Manson also contacted me about directing him in a film. And Peter Gabriel also contacted me. And, of course, there was John Lennon. I didn’t know him. He loved my picture. I don’t know why rock musicians search me out . . . I touch something in them and they see an authenticity.
Klaus Biesenbach is the Director of Moma PS1 and the Museum of Modern Art’s Chief Curator at Large.