ARTIST IN FOCUS: Leslie Thornton


In the context of the Courtisane festival 2013 (Gent, 17 – 21 April)

Our culture is a culture of fear, or so it is said : the fear of uncertainty, of otherness, of everything that stands in the way of consensus. It is a fear that is not least cultivated by the mass media, driven by a logic of anticipation and premediation. It is a culture that was already anticipated a few decades ago in the form of a remarkable science-fiction parable: Leslie Thornton’s Peggy and Fred in Hell. This consecutive series of films, whose first episode dates from 1985, portrays the lives of two children, the only survivors in a post-apocalyptic landscape, who create their own imaginary world in the midst of the debris of the 20th century. The relationships between technology, identity and subjectivity that characterize today’s media culture are no longer applicable here, but they shimmer and reverberate in the form of shadow images and echoes. In the meantime, the children have grown up, the future has become part of the past, analogue became digital: reality seems to be catching up with Thornton’s fiction at an ever increasing rate, but it continues to steadily mutate, ceaselessly assessing the remains of a human culture in an expanding body of raw data. It is this critical perspective of the relationship between society and technology that forms the consistent thread throughout the entire oeuvre of Leslie Thornton, whose father and grandfather both worked on the development of the atom bomb during World War II. The awareness of the ambivalences between the personal and cultural, the local and the global, forms the basis of her far-reaching and profound investigation into the aporias of language and media, one that moves on from where the tradition of the American avant-garde left off.



20 April 2013 20:00 Paddenhoek

Leslie Thornton
Peggy and Fred in Hell

US, 2013, 16mm, video, b&w, colour, 95′

A unique screening of the completed cycle of Thornton’s epic serial, ending with the world premiere of the closing episode, The Fold. The presentation will include both film and video running simultaneously, in a recreation of its original form as a multi-screen, multiple format event.

Peggy and Fred in Hell is a very strange project. I don’t think there’s anything else in the world quite like it. From the beginning I knew I was doing something strange. I was very turned on by the two children when I first met them. They were my new neighbors and it was love at first sight. I had already conceived of the project but intended to shoot with two adults, an eccentric couple actually named Peggy and Fred. Meeting the children changed my plans and my approach. With the adults I would have developed a loose script. But with the children that wouldn’t work and I needed to invent a motivation that would allow me to shoot freely, to capture whatever might unfold between us. I saw myself as the eye of an Artificial Intelligence (AI) entity. They were the sole survivors in a post-apocalyptic world, and I was observing them, studying them, to learn about this thing called “human,” this thing that made both “me” (AI) and them (…) Then one day recently I just woke up and wrote the end, in which the entity reveals itself. It explains that it has been studying human emotion. It tells jokes and is its own judge and jury. It is completely alone, except for these children, these images of two children. It may even know enough to realize it is alone, lonely, because it has been teaching itself how to learn. So it is the-robot-that-feels, in the end, a common science fiction pretense. What is different, though, is that you don’t know it was there all along, running the show. This final episode will provide closure for Peggy and Fred, in a twisted, self-reflexive act of revealing “the maker” who is also the fictional audience or voyeur, an audience of one.” (from an interview with Katy Martin, 2011)


21 April 13:30 SPHINX cinema

The Most Impossible Work

Leslie Thornton
((((( )))))

US, 2009, HD, colour, 9′

“((((( ))))) derives its title from the obsessional punctuation of Raymond Roussel, the parentheses within parentheses, worlds within worlds, housing a tunnel space of endless imbeds. (((( ))))) — reflections in a golden eye. The glass menagerie of the vitreous humor from both sides of the glass, an active gaze “on location” that cannot be penned… ((((( ))))) is a cycling of regenerative ingestion, devouring radiance. A porthole, a portal, mimicking wellspring. In this terraced lapidary setting where any object could substitute for another we sense the governing madness in the ordained order. Or in reverse, a lucid logic wormholing through quotidian chaos. Every habitat rendered into Dioramas of the natural world, an accordion expansion of consciousness and the cosmos, all under observation by something, somewhere, sometime… As in Peggy and Fred in Hell we feel the operations of an artificial or outside intelligence, a god machine dealing shuffled hands from the infinite playing deck, as indicated by the Upanishads: “Wise intelligent, encompassing, self existent, it organizes objects throughout eternity.” (Mark McElhatten)


Leslie Thornton

US, 2007, HD, colour, 12′

Thornton describes Sahara/Mojave as a “little trip to Hollywood via North Africa, circa 1900. I hone an ‘aesthetics of uncertainty’ to question our understanding of the real.” Here Thornton pairs two disparate media sources, a collection of vintage erotic North African postcards and video footage that she shot at Universal City, Los Angeles. The images are overlaid with a dense audio collage that includes the narration from an archival documentary on the Sahara and the Bedouin people of North Africa. The result is in an elliptical inquiry into culture, history and representation.

A reading by Leslie Thornton of her text, “Philosophers Walk On The Sublime” (2013)


Andy Warhol

US, 1965, 16mm, b&w, excerpts

Warhol bought the rights to Anthony Burgess’s novel A Clockwork Orange six years before Stanley Kubrick made his Clockwork. Warhol’s film features Factory star Gerard Melanga as a juvenile delinquent who undergoes “reprogramming” by the welfare state, a process that reads as a metaphor for trying to convert gays into straights. Edie Sedgwick, added to a tableau for compositional balance, steals the movie.


Leslie Thornton
SONGS One Two Three

US, 2012, HD, colour, 14′

Orientalism, photography, and “unknowing” are recurrent obsessions in Leslie Thornton’s work. SONGS One Two Three embodies all three in what seems at first a cinéma verité style toss-off of a strange touristic site in Western China, at the massive sand dunes near Dunhuang. That it also looks like a set for a science-fictional thriller, but not quite, adds to the mystery. A woman leaps into the frame, poses, and others show up, also posing, all wearing neon orange boots. Everyone is in neon orange boots, some are wearing cowboy hats, and soon the camera is surrounded by others with cameras and more people in boots, posing, yelling, laughing, indifferent to the camera through which we see this spectacle—”our” camera. As this strange choreography unfolds the camera begins to make noise, to compose and correct itself, but it remains no more than an ignorant eye, stealing a show. Our camera retains its distance while it is swallowed up by indifference, until finally the most beautiful woman there (she must be the most powerful) looks back. She asks our camera to film her beauty and power. We walk away afterwards, caught in the suspension of invisible thoughts.


21 April 21 15:30 SPHINX cinema

What Helps


Werner Herzog
Die große Ekstase des Bildschnitzers Steiner (The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner)

DE, 1974, video, colour, 45′

“Most documentaries set out to represent reality, but Herzog, as the best of all non-fiction filmmakers, understands that a documentary must transform reality and present it to viewers in a way they had never before imagined. The protagonist here is Walter Steiner, Swiss ski jumping world champion. Herzog uses high-speed cameras that slow down the action to one-twentieth of its normal speed. But this isn’t a sports film; it is rather a film about isolation, about human limitations and obsessions. Herzog watches and films Steiner jumping 179 meters (ten more than the previous world record, and ten short of what could have been a certain death), but what Herzog really sees a lonely visionary artist (a woodcarver) and a curious Human phenomenon that simply must be explored. The film’s images beg the question of whether this man turns away from society because of his passions, or has instead chosen his passions as a way of isolating himself from the rest of humanity. There, floating in the air, with his feet far off the solid ground, the look on Steiner’s could be one of horror or ecstasy. A mere sports film becomes a mystical experience.” (Carlos Reviriego)

A reading, by Leslie Thornton, of a short piece on Steiner and Herzog


Les Blank
Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe

US, 1980, video, colour, 20′

German film director Werner Herzog made a bet with fellow director Errol Morris (a film student at the time) that, if Morris finished a movie on pet cemeteries, Herzog would eat his shoe. Morris went on to film Gates of Heaven so Herzog kept his promise. While eating the boiled shoe, Herzog carries on a dialogue on film, art, and life with the film premier audience. The shoe was boiled with garlic, herbs, and stock for five hours. He did not eat the sole of the shoe, however, explaining that one does not eat the bones of the chicken.


Johan Renck
Pass this On (music video for The Knife)

SE, 2003, video, colour, 3′

It is the annual meeting for the local football club, yet the entertainment turns out to be not quite what was expected.



Binocular Series

Selections from Thornton’s gallery based installation series will be running during the festival.

“It makes sense that today a number of artists and writers are examining the animal world and our relation to other living beings. Animals are the new “Other” and the new victims, post multi-culturalism and globalization. But it’s all the same thing in a way; discourse on power, vulnerability, the unknown, the oppressed, difference, loss, growth, resilience. For me, there is just so much to learn here, so much to care about, and I approach my new subjects in complete and utter awe, with a sense of heightened awareness.”