Last Updated: 06.46 PM, Aug 04, 2022
Viggo Mortensen in a hoodie has been my Kryptonite ever since his first appearance in The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) and if it hadn’t been for the character poster of Crimes of the Future (2022) — which had (you guessed it) Mortensen in a hoodie — I doubt I would have chosen to watch director David Cronenberg’s latest stab at body horror. A genre that focuses on mutilating the body is not my idea of fun, but there I was, settling in to watch Cronenberg’s futuristic thriller about an artist whose body is sprouting new organs, which he surgically removes in front of a live audience. From the summary of the film I knew this: There would be bulbous things, there would be blood, there would be naked people; and there would be me, squeezing my eyes shut at regular intervals. Such is the lure of Mortensen’s exquisite bone structure.
Except Crimes of the Future didn’t feel like a spectacle of grotesque physicality. When you’ve seen what performance artists like ORLAN, Stelarc and Gina Pane have done in the past, Cronenberg’s vision of the future feels mild in comparison. His imagination, cameras, production design and computer-generated imagery (CGI) come together to create stunning scenarios that, for all their beauty, are far less disturbing than the reality of performance art.
Shot in a Greece where instead of Hellenic ruins, we see the crumbling remains of our current civilisation, Crimes of the Future explores a dystopia in which human bodies are evolving at a terrifying pace. Most people no longer feel physical pain and some like artist Saul Tenser (Mortensen) have bodies that keep sprouting new organs. Saul’s artistic practice involves getting his new organs tattooed and then removing them in a surgery performed before an audience. The surgery is done by his artistic partner, Caprice (Léa Seydoux). “We’re creating art out of anarchy,” she says of their performances. “He takes the rebellion of his body, shapes it and… creates art out of it,” says another character about Saul.
Cronenberg’s live surgery has all the sensuality of an opera. The audience sits in the shadows and all the light is on Caprice in a wine-red evening gown as she circles a naked Saul, slicing up his pale-as-marble naked body to reveal and remove his potentially monstrous growths. Maybe if I hadn’t seen the videos of “The Reincarnation of Saint-Orlan”, Saul and Caprice’s performance would have felt more shocking.
Between 1990 and 1995, the French artist ORLAN had plastic surgeons perform nine operations to alter her face and body in a way that incorporated features from some of Western art’s most celebrated beauties. She wanted the mouth from François Boucher’s Europa, Mona Lisa’s protruding brow, the chin from Botticelli’s Venus, the nose from Jean-Léon Gérôme’s Psyche and the eyes from Diana as painted by the Fontainebleau School. ORLAN later added two “bumps” to her forehead — similar to what Caprice gets done in Crimes of the Future — which many have referred to as ORLAN’s devil horns. The entire project attacked conventional beauty, pushing it to realms of absurdity, while claiming for ORLAN, as a woman and an artist, the power to reinvent herself.
The operation theatre became ORLAN’s studio and she made video recordings of the procedures. A few were broadcast live to museum audiences. Sometimes the surgical team dressed up in gowns designed by the likes of Paco Rabanne and Issey Miyake. During the surgeries, ORLAN, immune to pain thanks to local anaesthesia, answered phone calls or read from literary texts while the surgeons sculpted her body and her face.
Aside from the video recordings, there were photographs that documented ORLAN’s recovery and transformation. One shows her sitting at the window of an apartment in Manhattan. There are bright red bruises around her eyes and lips, a macabre parody of make-up. Behind her are the Twin Towers. At the time when the photograph was taken, the urban architecture signified permanence and solidity that contrasted with the malleability of ORLAN’s body. Some years later, after those landmark buildings fell during the 9/11 attacks, it would be ORLAN who would become the symbol of permanence. Nothing Caprice does to Saul compares to ORLAN’s surgical performances either in terms of gore or poignance.
Cronenberg hasn’t mentioned ORLAN while talking about Crimes of the Future, but in one interview, he described Seydoux’s Caprice as a “Gina Pane-like artist of the near future”. Back in 1974, Pane kept slicing her eyelids and stomach in ways that they dripped blood, for her performance “Action Psyché”. Just writing that sentence has made my stomach churn and I doubt I’d be able to bring myself to witness such a show. On the other hand, Caprice’s surgeries and her modified face made far less an impact. Pane wrote that her objective was to “reach an anaesthetized society” and that phrase brings to mind a community of people who don’t feel discomfort, much like Saul’s audience in Crimes of the Future. While the artist literally digs deep into himself to examine how the world is changing, the audience remains at a comfortable distance, finding pleasure in their unease because at least they’re feeling something.
The most physically gruesome scene in Crimes of the Future is a performance by an artist named Klinek who has his eyes and mouth sewed shut, and ears have been stitched onto different parts of his body. He’s unnerving partly because of the violence that he’s inflicted upon himself but also because his body now looks unnatural. Yet far more disturbing is Australian artist Stelarc’s “Ear on Arm”, which is exactly what the title suggests — “A left ear on a left arm. An ear that not only hears but also transmits. A facial feature has been replicated, relocated and will now be rewired for alternate capabilities.” In Cronenberg’s film, a character dismisses Klinek’s performance by pointing out that “1,000 ears is not good design”. Is Stelarc’s “Ear on Arm”, which has taken over a decade to produce because of medical and bureaucratic challenges, good design if the ear is functional? Is it good design because it has the potential to do more than the natural ear? Is a replica ear made using “living cells” unnatural or natural? Is the replica ear a work of art or is it just creepy? Or maybe it’s a work of art because it’s that creepy.
As far as horror goes, the performance artists of the past beat Crimes of the Future for gore, violence and eeriness. If Cronenberg’s intention was to shock, then he’s failed, but his film is hauntingly beautiful as an exploration of art and artists’ roles in society. The only way life can survive on the decaying, toxic earth of Crimes of the Future is by becoming what many consider monstrous — a child nibbles delightedly on a plastic bin; a woman disfigures her face and feels euphoric; a father preserves the corpse of his son, hoping for a spectacle rather than a miracle. It falls upon the artist to be the bridge between the unfamiliarity of the monstrous and everyday reality. Through their lives and their practice, artists “map the chaos”, to quote Caprice, and help define what is normal and what needs to change. Despite its flaws, Crimes of the Future is memorable and moving. Although Cronenberg’s imagined art pales next to the visceral intensity of existing works of performance art, the film is perhaps more hopeful, ending as it does with a close-up of Saul’s ageing face looking beatific and at peace. Add a hoodie, and it would be perfection.
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