Sometimes a music video becomes a blood orange fever dream
Michael Hersch was quick to bring up the work of painter/sculptor Antonio Bernardo Fraddosio as he and I started brainstorming this video for the second movement of the Vanishing Pavilions.
Hersch’s pervasive use of tone clusters and Fraddosio’s layering of paint and plaster and metal seemed intrinsically connected, but beyond this countenance of devastation the works needed other more tangible points of alignment.
The challenge of melding two personalities into one artistic product meant working at cultivating a larger concept that could contain them both.
A portrait or a landscape?
Hersch and Fraddosio each force us into encounters with fundamental aesthetic oppositions. They open up conflicts between the abstract and the figurative, stasis and motion, collision and abscission. This core duality came to amplify the movement’s two-part musical form.
My goal was then to find a way to keep these oppositions in a constant state of play.
Hersch sent me around thirty images of four or five different pieces by Fraddosio. One sculpture of a torso on a plinth stood out and several other abstract works filled out the collection. I began by setting the entire piece to just a single shot slowly zooming into a glob of paint on one of Fraddosio's denser field paintings. I wanted to create the effect of surveying a thick forest. It felt important to try collecting all of Hersch’s musical lines of flight within a single gesture. But, then, I’m an ascetic minimalist at heart.
We didn’t continue in this direction, but my first pass helped to clarify Hersch's relationship to Fraddosio's work. The first phase of any project is where you make all these important mistakes.
Hersch seemed drawn to the sculpture of a helmeted torso and saw the non-figurative works as wrapping around this central image. There was also some quality within this abstract forest concept that sparked more direct connections to nature. It brought to Hersch's mind images of rushing water and dense flocks of birds, which we pursued further after deciding to split the video’s content into two distinct halves that reflected the musical form. We reworked the forest idea into a slow zoom on the torso from a wide angle with these natural images layering over it.
The difference between a face and a head
As its significance became clear, I spent some time studying the figure.
The etymology of the word “torso” comes with some basic connections to nature. It was carried into modern Italian from the Latin for stalk, stem, stump, &c. Fraddosio’s sculpture cuts the trunk lines of the neck, arms, and legs. The surrounding sharp objects seem to be the agents of this abscission.
The figure's plinth is another kind of torso, one whose purpose is detached from that of the stem or root. Before it’s association with the human body, torso referred to the trunk of a statue. As a platform, it is formlessness that defines this torso. It isn’t the root of a form, but a indifferent surface for presenting a form. It marks a new landscape in which this portrait takes root.
From here a question would continue to loop around in my mind: is this torso a portrait or a landscape? Is this the difference between a head and a face; is the torso just a field on which the features of our identity sit? Our eyes, our smile, our symmetry. A more practical question for artists would ask: is surface form?
All the permutations of this essential question seem to reflect the overlaying oppositions at work in the video.
Cutting the Music Video
While editing the video, I started to sense the act of cutting itself as an ambivalent force. There are always two kinds of cutting: a kind to remove or discard and a cutting to reveal more.
The two repeated musical sections that comprise this piece set a perfect stage for this stark ambivalence. In the first half, the fields that cut off our view of the figure are themselves framed as cuts. I tried to orient the images around a central diagonal from the lower left corner of the screen to the top right. Certain images in the sequence break this convention to emphasize it as such.
Cutting the screen itself was a culminating expression of aural and visual exhaustion. It was a way to bridge both forms of cutting and to deliver on the gesture suggested by the framing of the earlier shots. I achieved the effect by weighing down a cardboard box and taping a sheet of paper over the opening. I sliced into the paper with an exacto knife. Voilà.
The figure-ground illusion
The Rubin vase is the most famous example of the figure-ground illusion. The image tricks your brain into seeing both a vase and two faces in profile within a single image. This is the clearest analogue of our surface/form question. Our brain hunts for faces everywhere. On the detached torso, the breast becomes an eye. A line across the screen turns into a smile. If we define a surface as the boundary between two forms, then it takes on the definition of form itself. As we hunt for form, the face and the head are always disintegrating into one another in a constant loop.
Then, can art be figurative without a face, or should the detached torso be considered a landscape? Will we always experience it as something unorganized: a deployed confederation of features?
The problem of the torso— the root of everything cut off from everything— gives us an oblique way to think about music whose form is simultaneously so contained and yet chaotic. Both Hersch and Fraddosio's poetics go beyond the collision of notes or colors or materials to that point when two bodies occupy the same space. A place where you might be picking someone else’s teeth out of your skin.