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Film Clips that Established the Reputation of American Artist Bruce Conner at Kunsthalle Zurich
Bruce Conner, still from Marilyn Times Five, 1968-73 © The Conner Family Trust, San Francisco, VBK, Wien, 2010.

ZURICH.- To an alternately rousing and poignant soundtrack, Indians chase a stagecoach and a tightrope walker balances on a wire above a city – these images feature in the found footage masterpiece A MOVIE (1958), an assemblage of newsreel images and film clips that established the reputation of American artist Bruce Conner (1933–2008). Today, Conner is viewed as one of the pioneers of the music video. Based on his experimental films, he is also mentioned in the same breath as Stan Brakhage, Jack Smith, Jonas Mekas and Andy Warhol as part of the avant-garde of independent American filmmaking.

Diversity is the hallmark of Conner’s work and it is also reflected in his multiple careers and manifold identities. Drawings, collages, sculptures, assemblages, paintings, prints,
photographs and films are just as much a part of his oeuvre as his conceptual, ephemeral, destroyed and lost – “invisible” – works. Conner explored topics like identity, biography and authorship with a critical and humorous touch, and constantly evaded artistic, personal and marketable categorisation: in 1967 he ran as a candidate for the Board of Supervisors in San Francisco (BRUCE CONNER FOR SUPERVISOR), he substituted a thumb print for the artist signature in a series of his works, he explored the question “Who is Bruce Conner?” by tracking down his namesakes throughout America, he planned a convention in 1964 – for which, among other things, he designed and produced the I AM BRUCE CONNER and I AM NOT BRUCE CONNER badges – and even adopted the name of his friend, the actor Dennis Hopper, as a pseudonym (THE DENNIS HOPPER ONE MAN SHOW). He also had himself declared dead in the reference work Who was Who in America in 1973.

Having gained renown in the 1950s for his assemblages of nylon stockings, furniture components and other found objects, in the late 1960s Conner produced drawings and paintings which were increasingly characterised by a narrative density and optical overloading that culminated in the emergence of a lyrical formal idiom in the 1970s. Abstraction is expressed through symbols of the metaphysical and transcendental. Motifs that present possibilities for the representation of the numinous or unconscious are presented in his inkblot drawings, mandala-like forms, images composed of innumerable white dots on a black background, the series of black drawings with their characteristic style and the engraving collages. Conner’s INKBLOTS – the folded piece of paper is spattered symmetrically along a vertical crease – may be reminiscent of Rorschach tests but clearly differ from them in that Conner controls the emergence of the blots, hence the boundary between the artist’s intention and the viewer’s interpretation is difficult to pinpoint. The presentation of a seemingly endless series of fragments simultaneously supports and hinders the identification of a narrative. The all-over structure is also found in his STAR drawings. With a characteristic disciplined style, Conner guides the pen over white paper to form innumerable loops until all that is left of the white is dots that shine out like lights from a raven-black sea of ink.

The play of light and dark is also an important component of the ANGELS series of photograms. These present increasingly disintegrating figures of light produced by the imprint of a body – usually Conner’s own – on photosensitive paper, and thus explore the dematerialisation of both the work of art and the identifiable body per se.

Toni Basil also appears as a white figure against a black background in the film BREAKAWAY (1966). She appears naked or dressed in outfits that play with strong contrasts and, again, abstractions of the human body and her movements in front of the camera are followed using alternating close-ups and full shots. The impression of immateriality and of a dance liberated from an identifiable body is created using formal parameters such as the montage speed, the acceleration and deceleration of the image sequence, Basil’s movement and that of the camera, and the varying dissolves.

Bruce Conner’s films are closely related to his other creative work. Formal strategies, such as non-linear narrative threads, manipulation through optical effects, the use of contrasts, e.g. black and white, light and dark, and the evocation of movement are found in all his works.

The exhibition at the Kunsthalle Zürich presents a selection of Conner’s film works which, in addition to BREAKAWAY, also include CROSSROADS (1976), a film based on the documentary film recordings of the nuclear tests in Bikini Atoll, and MARILYN TIMES FIVE (1968–1973), a soft porn film from the 1940s in which a topless Monroe look-alike alternately holding an apple and Coca-Cola bottle in her hand flirts with the camera to a soundtrack of the song I’m Through with Love. The show also includes the similarly conceived and realised films TAKE THE 5:10 TO DREAMLAND (1977) and VALSE TRISTE (1979), which lure the viewer into a sepia-steeped dream world. Conner saw his films as extensions of music and produced music clips for punk-style bands like Devo and for Brian Eno and David Byrne’s experimental art-funk project My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, which can also be seen at the exhibition.

The Bruce Conner exhibition at the Kunsthalle Zürich was organised in collaboration with the Kunsthalle Wien where the show «Bruce Conner. The 1970s», curated by Barbara Steffen and Gerald Matt, was presented from 8 October 2010 to 30 January 2011, and with Ursula Blickle Foundation where the show «I AM BRUCE CONNER. I AM NOT BRUCE CONNER», curated by Gerald Matt, was staged in autumn 2010. The exhibition at Kunsthalle Zürich is curated by Beatrix Ruf in collaboration with Rahel Blättler. The selection of cross-media works presented – the exhibition includes over 100 works including drawings, oil and acrylic paintings, lithographs, photograms, photographs and a selection of Conner’s films – illustrates the formal-aesthetic parallels between Bruce Conner’s work as a visual artist and a filmmaker.

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