Loukia Alavanou – Chop Chop
Iconic images from childhood cartoons and film occupy a particular place: as shared and repeated, they are anonymous products, yet at the same time nothing can be more personal, as they mark moments from our early lives, lending a form to aspects of our histories that may be too difficult to remember. Emerging sexualities, rivalries, broken romances and violence, after all, are the latent texts of childhood cinema. And these are the building blocks of Loukia Alavanou’s work.
Alavanou’s practice involves visual and acoustic collage. She takes elements from usually well-known movies, together with static images from personal and social sources, and subjects them to a dramatic choreography. Often emerging from an intense black background, the images move with a startling vitality and colour, and as we watch them we experience an unsettling reversal: charm becomes terror, hope becomes despair and clarity becomes confusion.
Acoustically, there is a parallel process: the continuity of sound becomes discontinuity, and the beauty of a perfectly pitched human voice becomes stark and tragic. Sound cuts, divides and invades. Strange intrusions punctuate both the visual and acoustic threads, indexing a reality much closer to ourselves than what the products of popular culture apparently convey. Alavanou uses the very material designed to protect us from what is most real as a means to articulate and perhaps transmit it.
These aspects of her project are brought together beautifully in a work like ‘Cactus’ (2004), which edits and transforms Marilyn Monroe’s rendition of the song ‘My heart belongs to daddy’ from the 1960 film ‘Let’s Make Love’. The image is cropped and close, and a part of it is always obscured by a dark shadow, that of a cactus plant placed between screen and projector. Viewers of the installation not only see the dark smudge on the image, but also the dancing play of light cast by the projection on the cactus itself.
As we listen to this very familiar song, our perception changes. The cropping of the image deprives us of the other imaginary supports of the film: we no longer see her interlocuter Yves Montand or the rest of her body or surroundings: just the massive face which is never entirely visible or isolated within a boundary. It continually seems to exceed the visual frame, and we cannot gain the distance necessary to separate from it and so contain it visually. This pruning has a particular effect not simply on the coordinates of the image but on the voice itself: no longer the vehicle of a light, frivolous sentiment, it becomes desperate, tortured, unbearable. The words now tell a story of impossible love. The levity of Hollywood romance becomes horror.
This reversal is both enabled and embodied by the cactus itself: a brute, foreign presence in the image, it incarnates this horror at the heart of the song. As the face moves in animation, the cactus stays immobile, dumb and inert. Its very ineffability – why a cactus? – and its intrusiveness – it blocks our view – bring out the dimension of something beyond symbolisation, something beyond the image and beyond sound itself. It is this impossible point that Loukia Alavanou’s work approaches from so many different angles. And as it does so, our experience of the human voice changes: it becomes an abyss.
The same decomposition is played out in the later work ‘Wishing Well’ (2005). Here again we hear a song from a Disney film – ‘Snow White’ – expressing hope and promise. ‘I’m wishing’, she sings, ‘for the one I love to find me today’. As the singing head is isolated from its visual context, losing its body and surroundings, the experience becomes more sinister. In the blackness around her we see skulls and dancing skeletons which at times encircle her. The well itself is viewed from the inside, so it is as if we are at the bottom of a hole looking up. The pigeons nestling on the edge of the well now look like the teeth of a voracious mouth and the sound of their fluttering wings disrupts the continuity of the voice with bursts of an almost mechanical machine-like noise.
Where in ‘Cactus’, the lyric ‘My heart belongs to daddy’ becomes tragic, so do the words of Snow White’s song. As Alavanou edits the sequence, they repeat again and again, bringing out their hopeless aspiration. We not only hear the message of the song now as desperate, but the voice itself becomes fragile, wavering, a border between life and death. Just as the cactus cast its intrusive shadow in the earlier work, here the song is broken by the sounds of the birds, a stain in the carefree abandon of the tune and in the human voice itself.
In both of these works, the lyrics of the song evoke a desire: that for the ‘daddy’ in ‘Cactus’ and for ‘the one I love’ in ‘Wishing Well’. Yet in each case, desire encircles a horrifying, inert presence, rendered literally by the shadow of the cactus and then by the broken soundtrack in ‘Wishing Well’. Alavanou is showing us how desire is in itself a defence: beyond it is a terrifying void or invasive presence, brought out so clearly in the later work by the simple repetition of the lyric. As she sings of her waiting for the one she loves, the signs of mortality multiply around her, as if the true horizon of her hopes was nothing more than the skulls and skeletons that intrude into the image.
The discord between the manifest gaiety of the lyric and its horrific beyond becomes increasingly a fracture at the level of sound itself for Alavanou. In a work like ‘My My My’, the initial dialogue between sound and image is more and more difficult to sustain: sound jars and tears, and it refuses to follow or subordinate itself to the sequence of visual images. The abyss that these works pinpoint is much more than the simple question of the vanity of desires or human mortality dear to religious art: rather, it is something more structural, a basic cut between the registers of sound and image, as if the two could never coalesce or be evenly superimposed.
From the scratchy bat noises to the later ticking clocks that are so ubiquitous in her work, sound embodies a superegoic intrusion for Alavanou, a remainder that is ever more present and overwhelming, cutting into the visual image, slicing and splitting it apart. In her most recent performance piece ‘Conformers and Purposers’, it actually invades the space occupied by the viewer: a video of the audience is displayed in real time in front of them, with cartoon bats screeching and scattering through them.
This exploration of desire and its remainders is also an exploration of time itself. Time and desire, one might say, are one and the same, in the sense that they are made up of distance and waiting. Yet Alavanou goes beyond this simple equation to bring out what we could call real as opposed to symbolic time. Symbolic time is the time of clocks and chronologies, while real time is both more tangible and less graspable. It is the weight of our experience of time, in which minutes can seem to last for hours and the effects of sexuality and violence escape the symbolic, temporal frame that might appear to bound them.
In ‘Geppetto’s Clocks’ (2005) we see an ordinary family photograph gradually metamorphose. Two elderly people inhabit a banal room, filled with dull furniture and mementoes. The sound of clock chimes introduces animate figures, taken from Disney’s ‘Pinocchio’. These are the three clocks from Geppetto’s home, each one striking with a strange percussion of characters: a woman spanking a baby, a pop-gun being fired and a man trying to chop off a turkey’s head. They repeat again and again, and we wonder what link they have to the elderly couple in the photograph. Do they represent scenes from their lives? Has old age been reduced to a few minimal childhood scenes?
As the screen gradually becomes blacker and all we see are the animated sequences, the symbolic dimension of time starts to evaporate: instead, time and mortality, repetition and violence seem bound together in an inextricable knot. Geppetto is, as Alavanou points out, such a kind character, yet where, she asks, does the violence of the clocks come from?
Beyond the benign character and the ostensibly happy story is a world of loss and separation. ‘Pinocchio’, after all, is really a tale of tragedy, and Alavanou brings out this dark latency both here and in the films of Monroe and Snow White. The happy odes to hope and dreams, through the repetitive insistence that she draws our attention to, show how there is a basic stumbling block in human desire: that repetition, and hence time, take their cue from a fundamental impasse.
Time is measured here through the chimes of the clock, the inane, perverse scenarios played out in each of the three configurations. The actions are pointless, repeated activities, just like the repeated hand movements of ‘Put your loving hand out’ (2009), where the seemingly unique moment of the receipt of a wedding ring is rendered as a mad iteration. With the elderly couple of ‘Gepetto’s Clocks’, have their lives consisted of just such blind repetition? And is time itself nothing but that? The scenarios, after all, are actions involving people and the actual measure of time: they are literally the clocks.
The original photograph now returns into focus and then blanks out, another movement of presence and absence that marks the structure of the clock chimes. The sound is once again powerful in this work, as if it alone marked the lives of the elderly couple and the experience of the viewer: repetitive, musical at one moment, mechanical and sinister at another. As the screen fades to the deep black that features so frequently in Alavanou’s work, we see just a pair of eyes and a lamp, little residues of light, left-overs of the process of repetition.
The black here evokes not simply night and darkness but the black background of popular Cretan mourning images. These 19th and early 20th century framed mementoes combine cloth, silkworm cocoon and photographs on an intense black background, a use of collage highly reminiscent of Alavanou’s compositional style. This link to mourning is clear not just in ‘Geppetpo’s Clocks’ with the elderly couple, but also in a work like ‘Burial of a Priest in an Unknown Village’ (2006) where the theme of the dead is quite manifest. In ‘Birds and Feathers’ (2006), the animation takes as its point of departure a photo of a dead ancestor which gradually becomes a vast black stain. This then passes into a collage of animations, ranging from kicking legs to the chopping motions of an axe, with terse sound cut-ups as its acoustic. We have moved beyond the static, frozen image of the dead to the horror that lies beyond this.
As with ‘Geppetto’s Clocks’, we experience the contrast between the frozen nature of an image and the animations that spring from it. Rather than the static and still following from the animate, it is in fact the other way around, perhaps a reminder of the way that the dead only return to haunt the living. Indeed, in ‘Burial of a Priest’, the group photo darkens and certain parts – primarily the religious features of crosses and bibles – become isolated and then move to form a cross, which then becomes a clock, with the coffin itself moving as its hand. This ghostly clock continues its ticking superimposed over the image, as if to remind us that the same fate awaits all of them.
Alavanou’s recent work continues this elaboration of the question of temporal frameworks, with an emphasis on the relation between frame and material. She is interested in the intrusion of time as a real, material substance: certainly as an embodiment of symbolic, clock-determined time, yet as this is made bodily, as it is incarnated. In film collages such as ‘Put your loving hand out’ and ‘There is nothing between us’, the rhythmic sound of a clock ticking becomes both an external temporal marker and a vehicle of an obscene force, as if to fuse the most abstract and the most concrete. Its beat is at one moment a framework for action and at another caught up within this very action, articulating the pulsations of sexuality.
If the clock chimes of Geppetto’s clocks, as Alavanou says, “replace words”, they function to index the unarticulated violence and mourning present within the family depicted. But this involves a shift, a movement from one dimension to another, from the visual to the acoustic. This occurs at the moment that we move from text to subtext, from the rosy fable to the experience of pain that lies beneath it. The unstoppable sound becomes the tale’s horrific supplement, like the cactus, bringing out the truth of the narrative.
Once again, the animation that Alavanou uses emerges at the point where something cannot be readily symbolised or spoken. It is as if a different medium must be chosen to index this change of registers, which would explain the collage-like quality of her work, combining film, animation and still photography. The medium changes at the moment when one system of registration breaks down. Like the couple’s faces in ‘Kiss Forever’, it is when we move from the false and conventional happiness of the wedding photo to the truth of the sexuality and violence beyond it that the registers change: photo becomes collage, stasis becomes animation, black and white becomes colour.
This is clearest perhaps in a work like ‘There is nothing between us’ (2008), in which a woman’s body almost enters the camera, her nipple large and omnipresent, stretching right up to the lens. The boundary between sexuality and maternal care is broken, impossible to establish, yet it is exactly at this point that the registers change: in contrast to the stark black and white photography, colourful cartoon images start to sprout from her mouth, as if the very impasse in symbolisation necessitated this intrusion of a different form, a different material, a different substance.
All of these works rely on the technique of cutting, and in Alavanou’s startling ‘Chop Chop Tale’, it is cutting itself that becomes the subject matter of the film. Once again, a deep black screen is the space that animations and film clips emerge from, ranging from Pasolini’s ‘Salo’ to Hitchcock’s ‘The Birds’ and De Palma’s ‘Carrie’. The choice of images and the editing style emphasise the violence of fragmentation, as we see and hear the slashing of knives from horror movies, juxtaposed with the isolated pair of eyes that feature in so many of Alavanou’s works.
Rather than trying to make sense of these animate collages in terms of a narrative, we can see them as treating the question of cutting itself, and the destruction and dispersal that this enacts. Each time we detect a narrative here, the cutting deprives us of this support. We cannot make a story from these fragmented scenes, as if the knife cuts embodied the cuts of the editing process. The technique of film is what undermines and decomposes film here.
Just as the cuts tear ‘stories’ away from us, their violence also convulses the characters like puppets. In ‘Eruption of the Father’ (2011), a female figure’s movements seem to be dictated not simply by the editing process but by the sound of a old-fashioned projector: we sense that it is less a narrative that moves us, the viewer, from one scene to another than a soundtrack, exerting a direct action on the character herself. It is as if the harsh noise of the projector is the string which moves her, with no regard for her volition or subjectivity.
The way that Alavanou has framed and edited these sequences also brings out another aspect of the process of film-making. If the knife cuts of ‘Chop Chop’ evoke edits, the ground of blackness and the isolated eyes suggest that the cuts enter the very dimension of the image. The human image, and the images that entice us in cinema, can be cut and peeled away: they can fall, split and tear to reveal something else beyond them. Whether this something has a visual image itself is far from certain, and we could think here once again of the enigmatic cactus and intrusive noise of the earlier works, elements that evoke a presence not situated within the field of meaning or ready visualisation.
Although ‘Chop Chop’ and the other works we have discussed invite us to consider the horror and violence at the heart of the world of images and sound, they also make us aware of the possibilities of creation. Destruction and fragmentation lay the groundwork for making, as we see quite literally when animations suddenly spring to life before our eyes from static images of grief and absence.
The fact that these invoke a register always different from the initial medium is, as we’ve seen, no accident, and it is perhaps one of the reasons why collage is Alavanou’s technique of choice. This emergence of another dimension could be compared to the creative act itself, played out beautifully and strangely before us in these rich, captivating and moving works.