There is a scene early on in Lamberto Bava’s 1986 low-budget Italo-horror schlock fest Demons 2: A sinister figure is seen limping down a hallway. He enters a room, picks up a knife that is covered in what looks like blood, and wipes it on his soiled apron. The camera then reveals the source of the gory substance: a jar of syrup that has been knocked over. The man is identified as a baker and goes about decorating a cake for a woman’s birthday party. The scene of once-impending terror is defused with a comedic twist. This mix of dread and absurdist humor provides an appropriate framework for viewing Alex Da Corte’s immersive theatrical installation A Season in He’ll at Art + Practice.
Upon entering the gallery, it is clear that the viewer is not in a conventional white cube. Da Corte has created a phantasmagorical wonderland, transforming the space through tile flooring, painted walls, and colored lights, while also incorporating olfactory elements with rose, sage, and clove-scented misters. The exhibition takes its title from Arthur Rimbaud’s 1873 prose poem A Season in Hell, which describes the young author’s drug-fueled descent into madness after the dissolution of his tempestuous affair with fellow poet Paul Verlaine. Rimbaud has provided inspiration to a long line of cultural and countercultural figures, from the Surrealists to the ’70s East Village punks like Patti Smith and Richard Hell (who took his stage name from the same Rimbaud poem). Da Corte is drawn to Rimbaud’s work, not only for the way it breaks with conventional reality, but also for its frank and uncompromising descriptions of queerness.
The first object encountered in the installation is a large black cone rising up from a flat circular disc: a witch’s hat blown up to the size of absurdity, referencing both lighthearted escapist fantasy as well as the historical trauma of persecution. A large vintage photograph mounted on the wall continues this sense of ambiguity, capturing a weeping young woman being consoled by a shaggy haired figure. What at first appears as the aftermath of a tragedy is actually a wedding photo—tears of joy rather than tears of pain. A neon sign spelling out “night” with twinkling stars hangs on the wall—a direct, if somewhat cryptic, quotation from Demons 2, where an identical version oddly graces the protagonists’ apartment wall. But viewers need not be familiar with the reference to get the allusion to “the witching hour,” the nocturnal period when occult and supernatural powers are at their peak.
A trio of short films, each named after a different chapter of A Season in Hell, plays sequentially in the second part of the exhibition. An actor resembling the artist stands between a colored backdrop and a table covered in a set of odd, everyday objects: a watermelon, a candle, a soda bottle. In each video, he performs a single ritualistic action in slow-motion sequences set to a creepy synth score—a nod to Bava and his fellow Italian horror director Dario Argento. In one, he injects what appears to be soda into his arm with a syringe. In another, he sucks liquid through a tube, then removes a knife attached to a set of brass knuckles from a watermelon, punches himself in the face, and subsequently spits out the liquid as if it were blood. There is a brooding unease at work, resulting from the altered sense of time, spooky soundtrack, and transgressive acts being performed. In the end, however, these performances can be seen as DIY, slapstick one-liners in which the blood is fake and the drugs are no more harmful than sugar.
Behind a curtain that is printed with a scene from Disney’s Fantasia, a viewing room plays another slow-motion film, A Night in Hell, Part II (2014), in which a flaming man covered in mummy bandages falls before our eyes. As seen in his other films, there is again the mixture of violence and danger, tempered by benign artifice, though this time with a higher production value. The seating cushions in the room resemble hamburgers and help to take the edge off as well.
A Season in He’ll should not be seen as a direct interpretation of Rimbaud’s poem so much as an exploration of the themes of otherness and alternate reality that it conjures up. The word “conjuring” is especially apt in Da Corte’s work, filled as it is with references to the occult, witchcraft, and mysterious ceremonies. Instead of presenting these supernatural tropes as arcane or impenetrable, Da Corte offers the possibility of transformation through everyday items and popular cinema. While his field of references is varied and not always easily discerned (the intersection of Disney viewers, Italo-horror fans, and lovers of symbolist poetry is presumably small), there is an open-ended approach to Da Corte’s constructions that allows viewers to find their own paths through his theatrical fantasy landscapes.
Alex Da Corte: A Season in He’ll will be on view through September 17, 2016.