Picture this: From a bird’s eye view, a car travels along a sunlit road, fringed with countryside. In the car, a family of three is smiling, relaxed, and enjoying the ride.
The mother puts on a CD, and all of a sudden the scene is ruptured by loud death metal, which only we the viewers can hear. The guttural soundtrack foreshadows the destiny of the family, which is to be kept hostage and tortured to death by two bored teens. Oblivious, the family’s still smiling.
This is the opening scene of Michael Haneke’s ‘Funny Games’, an Austrian thriller that I think is brilliant. It’s brilliant because it’s so gory and yet so subtle, a combination that makes the film disturbingly eerie well beyond the end credits. But my admiration of this sadistic display – in one scene, the camera lingers for minutes on a wall coated in a young boy’s remains after being shot point blank by a rifle – strikes me as strange. How could something so macabre be so intriguing to human beings?
Psychologists refer to this as the violence-paradox. It’s a deeply curious area of the human psyche that remains a mystery and is explored by Matt Glenn is his recent exhibition, ‘Undercard’. Glenn’s fascinated with the unusual fusion of violence and grace; how something so destructive can appeal to our aesthetic sense as an object of beauty.
On white walls hung a series of works, most of which at first glance looked like mirrors. Walking up to my reflection, however, I noticed that it was marred with bullet holes. Glenn told me that the works have all been shot at shooting ranges by range officers or ex cops. As a result, the stainless steel panels are left jaggedly perforated.
Another stainless steel panel stretching 2.4 metres across the wall reflected a buzzing room of viewers. The laughing, bullet-holed reflections reminded me of Haneke’s smiling family and the sinister musical overlay. The contrast between the liveliness of the space and the inherent violence of the works hit cleverly on the dichotomies of happiness and suffering, life and death.
The point of the works is to distil the destructive so as to make it an object of contemplation. Suddenly something menacing becomes an object of curiosity, not fear. It is a rare chance to find something of beauty among the chaos. Seeing my bullet-marred reflection in the works was like observing myself posthumously, entertaining the potentiality of my own death.
But because the macabre reflections are works of art, glorified in black frames, they’re disconnected from the viewer. The artist likens this separation to the ‘distancing devices’ of cinema and photography; both make the unapproachable approachable. (See Glenn’s ‘Green Screen for an Action Film’, a lime-green lacquered panel destroyed by shrapnel.) Watching a horror flick, for example, transports us to the headspace of a victim being chased by a crazy person armed with a carving knife. Unaccustomed to extreme violence, this is our chance to get in on the action via the big screen, like a sex-deprived voyeur peering through a stranger’s window.
But despite being able to suspend our disbelief and vicariously partake in cinematic violence, the movie screen will always act as a barrier, albeit transparent. This barrier both excludes and protects us – it is our shield from the horror. The situation is controlled, no one is harmed, and we are reminded of our safety the moment the end credits start rolling.
Perhaps this somewhat unravels the violence-paradox as it hints at the idea of us taking pleasure in danger but only in a context that we can control. This notion reminds me of philosopher Immanuel Kant’s account of the ‘dynamical sublime’. In simple terms, Kant believes that we take pleasure in being confronted by something infinitely great in power – like a turbulent sea or thunderous sky – so long as it’s not a direct threat. We respond viscerally to the idea of a physical threat upon our existence, while at the same time recognising our real safety from it. Imagine peering off a cliff’s edge down into a plunging valley, and pondering falling, but staying put.
Kant summarizes this sublime state of mind as ‘a rapidly alternating repulsion and attraction’ to something. Sound familiar? It hits on the approach-avoidance trance we find ourselves in when faced by a car accident; graphic news footage; or those late-night dodgy dramatic remake shows about serial killers. We are seduced by the violence, both horrified and enthralled.
We’re enthralled also due to the body’s chemical response to danger. The release of dopamine, adrenaline and cortisol makes us feel more powerful, more positive and more confident. And it’s easy to get hooked on this sensational high. Driven by a need for heightened physiological sensation, we seek out stimulus that will incite it, like televised contact sports, graphic video games, and violent films. These events are part of a very long history in which torture and public executions are part of popular entertainment. For as abhorrent as the bloodbaths in the Colosseum, the Inquisitions, and war may be, they are unshakably human, whether we like to admit it or not.
It’s biologically ingrained in us. We all have in us a violent reflex to conflict, confusion or fear. And yet it’s no longer functional in modern life as it was for our ancestors who were staving off sabertooth tigers in loincloths. Now we need alternative ways to deal with our violent impulses, like watching ‘Hostel’, or some guy pounding in the cartilage of his opponent’s face on ESPN.
Plus there’s an aesthetic appeal to the drama, as Glenn suggests in his work ‘Dream Bout’, a fluorescent sign with ‘Ali vs Tyson’ in black and red lettering. Illuminated on glittering billboards, we glorify violence.
But I’m still not convinced as to why we are infatuated with violence. Adrenaline rush aside, danger also triggers anxiety, palpitations, headache and hypertension. And even if we tell ourselves it isn’t real, this doesn’t prevent us from responding in the same physiological way to actual horror. So what compels us to excitedly queue up to watch the latest horror flick? Why do we detect something beautiful in artworks that are inherently violent?
Maybe it’s a mode of self-preservation, as psychologist Jeffrey Kottler suggests? In his book, ‘The Lust for Blood: Why we are fascinated by death, murder, horror and violence’, Kottler explains: ‘There’s actually highly functional aspects to our behaviour that make us fascinated to find out how people die, what happens, so we can protect ourselves from a similar fate.’ When we find ourselves inescapably staring at a car crash, we’re committing to memory what should be avoided at all costs. If we analyse violence, we seem to think that we have control over it.
But really we don’t. Nearly everything experienced in life is beyond one’s control, and no matter how much you steer away from death, you cannot avoid your own mortality. I think this hits on the crux of the paradox. We are fascinated by violence because it reminds us of our mortality, and consequently, of life. Curious, we look out from the cliff’s edge, down into a valley that life could so easily plunge into. Violence is an exhilarating reminder of the fragility and beauty of life.
Glenn’s artworks remind us of this. They’re strangely beautiful, simple, layered and menacing, reflecting his fascination in the crossover of violence/disruption and beauty/romance. He writes: ‘The points of this intersection evoke a range of different responses for me; intrigue, empathy, nostalgia, curiosity and introspection.’ The exhibition prompts a dialogue with all these things, and in turn, incites in us a heightened awareness of life. Awakened, we gaze consciously into the artworks and can hear the faint sound of death metal.
‘Undercard’ by Matt Glenn is on display until March 25 at the James Dorahy Project Space, Minerva Building, 111 Macleay St, Potts Point.