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This article was written on 06 Oct 2012, and is filled under Reviews.

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QUAY BROTHERS: Creepy Career retrospective at MoMA

On Deciphering the Pharmacist’s Prescription for Lip-Reading Puppets

August 12, 2012–January 7, 2013

The Quay Brothers retrospective at MoMA (on view until January 7th, 2013) creates a dark eerie space within the institution, revealing the artistic duos quirky worlds of weirdness they have created. Timothy and Stephen Quay are identical twin brothers who have built their own artistic empire stemming from their endless experimental endeavours. The brothers are well-known throughout Europe, but unbelievably their MoMA retrospective marks only the second time they have had a show of their own in NYC. The first being a 2010 exhibition of miniature stage sets (known as Decors) used in their animations on display at Parsons the New School of Design.

The Quay Brothers on the set of Street of Crocodiles.1986. Image Courtesy of the Quay Brothers.

The Quay Brothers on the set of Street of Crocodiles.1986. Image Courtesy of the Quay Brothers.

The twins, born in Norristown, PA in 1947, are known most of all for their fantastical stop-motion films.  After studying illustration at the Philadelphia College of Art, and working in the field post-graduation, the brothers relocated to London to study at the Royal College of Art. It was here in 1970 that they created their very first films as students. Since that time, the brothers have worked side-by-side in their London studio, Atelier Koninck, for the past 30 years, producing over 45 moving image works, including two live-action feature films: Institute Benjamenta, or This Dream People Call Human Life (1995) and The Piano Tuner Of Earthquakes (2005).

Quay Brothers, The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes. 2005. Germany/UK/France. Image Courtesy of the Quay Brothers.

Quay Brothers, The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes. 2005. Germany/UK/France. Image Courtesy of the Quay Brothers.

The extensive exhibition at MoMA showcases the brothers diverse ingenuity; creepy hand crafted puppets made from doll parts and organic and inorganic materials, stop-motion films and film sets, music videos, posters, book covers and commercial designs all on display.  Between cases of nightmarish dolls (often missing parts of their heads), oddball puppets peering out at viewers, and miniaturized spooky sets are alcoves containing small theaters. Video screens and projections in the alcoves show over seven hours of their moving images.

Quay Brothers, In Absentia, 2000, UK. Image courtesy of Zeitgeist Films.

Quay Brothers, In Absentia, 2000, UK. Image courtesy of Zeitgeist Films.

One of the first films on loop as you enter the exhibition, “In Absentia,” remains deeply burned within my mind. The film is a heartbreaking, alarmingly frightful portrait of a woman in an asylum, surrounded by animated objects.  A foggy gray mist blankets the scenes, adding to the dramatic sense of confusion and anxiety. In the piece, the woman writes continuously repetitive letters to her husband, containing the same obsessive, urgent plea “sweetheart, come.” The short is based on the real story of schizophrenic artist, Emma Hauck, who had to be institutionalized due to her illness, and in actuality did write these letters over and over again, none of which were ever sent. An electronic score from iconoclast German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen pulses in the background of the scenes. The film is extremely striking, and the still images remain strongly present after viewing.

The Quay Brothers work is psychologically challenging, at times repulsively disturbing and certainly emotionally intense while managing to also somehow maintain an intriguingly beautiful albeit melancholic aesthetic. A sense of gloomy foreboding darkness and alienation permeates everything they create, quite literally in the case of their black on black illustrations, book cover and set designs. Victorian, Gothic, Surrealist and German Expressionist elements are present in their work, as well as elements of graphic surrealism inspired by numerous Polish posters (on display in the exhibit).

Quay Brothers, Kafka’s The Dream, 1970, Pencil on paper, 19.1 x 19.1 cm. Image courtesy of the Quay Brothers.

Quay Brothers, Kafka’s The Dream, 1970, Pencil on paper, 19.1 x 19.1 cm. Image courtesy of the Quay Brothers.

Literary influences are also strongly present and often the subject of their artistic affections and tributes. Authors Franz Kafka, Bruno Schulz, Felisberto Hernández and Robert Walse influence and are referred to within their work, to cite a few.

Czech animator Jan Švankmajer heavily influences their animation. In fact, they named one of their films The Cabinet of Jan Švankmajer.  Also greatly influential are Polish animators Walerian Borowczyk and Jan Lenica, puppeteers Wladyslaw Starewicz and Richard Teschner and composers Leoš Janáček, Zdeněk Liška and Leszek Jankowski (who has created many original scores for their work). During a panel discussion the brothers said the greatest influence on their work so far has been Walerian Borowczyk, who creates both animation shorts and live-action features.

Quay Brothers, Tailor's Shop: decor for the film Street of Crocodiles.1986. Image Courtesy of the Quay Brothers.

Quay Brothers, Tailor’s Shop: decor for the film Street of Crocodiles.1986. Image Courtesy of the Quay Brothers.

In addition to the exhibition, there is also a coinciding twice monthly film series in MoMA’s Celeste Bartos Theater that showcases the complete history of the brothers shorts (including never before seen earlier films), commercials, in addition to screenings of their two feature films, Institute Benjamenta, or This Dream People Call Human Life and The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes (a dark tribute to their love of opera and the work of Uruguayan writer Felisberto
Hernández (1902–1964).

During October, MoMA will be presenting two special programs featuring the Quay Brothers’ commercial work, music videos, and museum documentaries. Please check MoMA’s website to stay updated on film screenings and special events related to the Quay Brothers exhibition. http://www.moma.org/visit/calendar/exhibitions/1240
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Lily Koto Olive is a New York-based artist, writer and musician. She began to write critically about art in 2010 while attending the New York Academy of Art for her MFA in Painting. She has exhibited her paintings at the Dumbo Arts Center in Brooklyn, NY, HERE Arts Center, Sloan Fine Arts and ISE Cultural Foundation in NYC and Marketplace Gallery in Albany, NY. Lily is also a contributing writer for The Brooklyn Rail.
http://www.lilykoto.com

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