Summer Reading Series #2: The miracle that is my body - Victoria Wynne-Jones on Megan Dunn

Still from Is America a good place for genius? (1997) Megan Dunn

Sound has been slowed down, yet it is still atmospheric. Winds whorl, there is distant thunder, flowing water. A sail flaps and a heart-beat steadily thumps. A man whispers ‘I love her.’ A nineteen year old Kate Moss stands before a wall, on a beach, tossing her head back, looking into the camera uncertainly whilst wading in water, one eye opens, her mouth opens, she stands before the camera declaring ‘I love you.’ Pale, floating ghosts emerge from gravestones, wraith-like, draped in torn shrouds. Boney and skeleton-like they fly upwards, thin, floating, accompanied by skeletal horses, bird-like creatures, some with streaming hair all painted watery white, wavering through the night. Shyly burying her face in her shoulder, playing with her hair, casting her eyes downwards, Moss rests her chin on her hand.

I love you, Kate

In the late 1990s Megan Dunn made a series of video works constructed with appropriated sound and footage. In Obsession (1998) Dunn edited together multiple versions of advertisements made in 1992 for US fashion designer Calvin Klein’s perfume, starring a then-teenage model, Kate Moss. Dunn has utilised the soundtrack taken from the original advertisements then layered on top via video-mixing footage taken from the Night on Bald Mountain sequence from Walt Disney’s 1940 animated feature Fantasia. There are two voices within the soundtrack, one is that of Moss, the other that of her then-boyfriend and first love, 21 year old photographer Mario Sorrenti who also took the photographs for the same campaign. The text is confessional, Sorrenti intones ‘I love you… I’ll always love you… Obsession… Obsession… Love is a word you can’t explain, love… it’s like paradise being near… I love her…’ Moss looks into the camera and replies ‘Between love and madness, lies obsession.’


Still from Obsession (1998) Megan Dunn

The advertisements appropriated by Dunn were directed by Robert R. Taylor and filmed in the Virgin Islands in black and white 35mm film that at the time signified an almost painful good taste. Stylised, they were filmed hand-held in a voyeuristic style, from a point of view angle so that they are dream-like, evoking the psycho-drama genre or perhaps even horror. A pursuit is filmed, that of Moss by the camera or her lover. She runs upon paving stones, past distressed walls, she hides, thinly veiled, behind curtains. Partial images of Moss have been quickly edited, her body is dissected, cut up into fragments and moments- eyes, mouth, freckles, shoulders. Collar-bones are caressed by her own attenuated fingers, she wears spaghetti-strap singlets and is dressed in black then white. Blinking, breathing, sighing, laughing, swimming, running, sitting naked on a couch, on a beach, walking in water. Freckled, seemingly without make-up, strands of salty wet hair carelessly criss-cross her face. Taylor referred to Moss’ role in the advertisements as that of ‘an unknowable, capricious woman who was always a few feet out of reach.’(i) Klein chose Moss for his brand because ‘I wanted someone who was natural, always thin. I was looking for the complete opposite of that glamour type that came before Kate.’(ii)

Between love and madness, lies obsession.

Sorrenti murmurs ‘I love you… I’ll always love you.’ Eyes blinking, Moss stands before a wall with a downcast face, then looks up into the camera. Thin white ghosts ascend from gravestones, then ripple as they ascend over Moss’ face. Spectres emerge, waving from graves, travelling upwards through a nocturnal landscape, one that is mountainous. Sorrenti sighs and continues ‘I love you.’ A large demonic figure looms, black, muscular with wings, horns and yellow eyes, he surveys what is occurring below him. He is super-imposed upon Moss, leaning against a white wall, her head turning, gazing doe-eyed into the camera. ‘I love you.’ There is an eruption of fire. Sitting on a chair, before a white wall, Moss opens her eyes wearing what appears to be a black string bikini. Lying down, Moss opens her eyes, turning her face towards the camera. Against the flames are the silhouettes of tall figures. ‘I love you, I love you.’ The sound of thunder. All tangled limbs, Moss sits naked on a black couch. The flames emerge from a large pit of fire and lava. ‘Love is a word, you can’t explain love.’ Blinking, her face inclined towards her shoulder, Moss playfully turns back towards the camera. Knowing. Against a fiery landscape dark figures can be seen dancing, contorted. A mid-shot, sees Moss turn to the camera and speak ‘Between love and madness, lies obsession.’


Still from Obsession (1998) Megan Dunn

Dunn posited that ‘The emaciated cartoon demons subtly accentuate Kate Moss’s own status as a waif. The towering devil that rises above her (and from within her) could represent a lover or demanding inner critic.’(iii) Accompanied by the atmospheric storm sounds and repeated heartbeat, the skeletal forms, watery ghouls, dark-prickly dancing figures and large demon create a threatening environment, one that reflects the fear of body dysmorphia, anorexia nervosa and bulimia thought to be induced by Moss’ slight example. Indeed the Night on Bald Mountain animated sequence was so terrifying that memories of seeing it in the cinema still haunt my father along with the terrifying character that was Snow White’s wicked stepmother-queen. This foreboding is echoed in the pursuit of Moss filmed by Taylor, she is manipulated, chased and framed, used to sell a product and even facilitated in doing so by her first love slash photographer. Despite all of these warnings and foreshadowing Dunn’s video also brings to mind how I first read these advertisements, as a sixteen-year old growing up in Hamilton. Moss was thin, urbane and impetuous as well as androgynous, artless and adored. Like Disney’s little stick demons drawn to the lava-like flames we sprayed ourselves with CKOne then the even cooler CKBe and tore out images of Moss from Seventeen magazine and stuck them to our ringbinders, especially the ones for French for which were reserved only the most sophisticated of imagery.

Every moment, we are making choices. And these choices determine our future.

Louise Hay is a self-help author who champions the view that positive thinking can heal the body. For Labyrinth (1998) Dunn placed Hay’s calming pronouncements over the top of footage taken from Jim Henson’s 1986 film with the same name. Dunn’s work begins with an airborne computer-generated owl, followed by the animated title Labyrinth emerging from concentric ripples. The letters sparkle, catching and reflecting light whilst buoyant music consisting of midi harps and synths taken from Hay’s new age recordings can be heard. Unlike the menacing tone of Obsession, Labyrinth is frothy and saccharine, though still slightly tinged with wrongness. Sarah, a young woman played by the actress Jennifer Connelly, stands before a frame that resembles a window, in a landscape filled with peach and pink coloured light. Hay intones 'Life, is always choice. How we live our life is always our choice'. Sarah gazes wide-eyed before her. The camera tracks and zooms into an extreme close up of her eyes. This then cross dissolves into a bewigged David Bowie in outlandish make-up, as Jareth the Goblin King, juggling and rotating glass baubles in his gloved hands. Hay continues 'How we experience others is our choice'. Bowie takes one globe and blows it into the wind from his perch on a baroque balcony surrounded by a burning torch and a bare tree branch. ‘Every moment, we are making choices. And these choices determine our future.’


Still from Labyrinth (1998) Megan Dunn

Whereas Obsession was somewhat cautious (iv), Labyrinth is an unabashed adoration of the character Sarah and the actress Connelly. Dunn points out "This is my most autobiographical video. In Labyrinth, I am played by the young Jennifer Connelly. Trapped in a metaphorical maze (which does strongly resemble the movie set of the Jim Henson film) I wrestle with my own inner demons… I think this video reveals that I have never been good at practicing ‘affirmations".(v) Here Dunn extends appropriation until it becomes autobiography, a song of herself. Labyrinth is a portrait of the artist as an actress, a fictional character, a young woman embattled by her dangerous desire to be left alone to enslave a British pop-star and her benevolent wish to rescue her baby brother. Dunn explains that "overall, it reveals how much I loved the film Labyrinth and how much I wanted to look like Jennifer Connelly. Still do". 

The video alternates between Connelly’s bewildered searching and Hay’s positivity. ‘Every thought we choose to think and every word we choose to speak is creative.’ Sarah/Connelly/Dunn runs down a deserted alleyway that stretches impossibly into the horizon. She leaps over twisted branches that litter her path again and again. ‘If we grew up in a family that was frightened and angry, or guilty and sad then we are likely to choose to think angry and frightened or guilty and sad thoughts.’ No matter how far she runs the indifferent landscape seems to stay the same. ‘These thoughts will create unpleasant experiences for us.’ Sarah stops and looks around, bewildered and furious. She slams her body against the walls in frustration. She slumps down in despair. Hay reassures with the words 'However we are never stuck, we can always choose other thoughts. We do not have to think like our parents. We can begin to look at life in a new and different way.'

A fairy with long white hair and dragon-fly wings flies towards the camera surrounded by roses and a honey-coloured haze, she flies away. Hay seems to narrate ‘When we consciously choose thoughts of love and joy and freedom, then we create wealth beyond compare.’ Sarah gracefully falls through the sky, in a whirl of shattered glass, petals, strings of pearls and pale veil-like fabric. Again sitting upon her bed she looks into the distance, holding a teddy bear. The fairy lies on the ground, exhausted she looks pleading into the camera above her. "No matter how painful your past was, this is a new moment, and a new beginning.' Excited Sarah jumps off her bed and exits to the left of the camera.

I love the miracle that is my body. My days are filled with joy.

Prior to starring in Labyrinth Connelly played Natalie Becker, a 15-year-old straight-A student in the film Seven Minutes in Heaven (dir. Linda Feferman, 1985) and much of the virtue and precocity of Becker was brought through to the character of Sarah. She is wholesome in blue jeans, an oversized shirt and penny loafers. Her skin is rosy, her eyebrows admiringly healthy and dark. Yet she is also mature and adult, at the start of the film her father and stepmother encourage her to go on ‘dates.’ Like Hercules she hesitates between two paths, the all-American big sister and the medieval heroine commanding an enchanted kingdom and Bowie, simultaneously. Joyful confusion and ambiguity is personified in Bowie with his feminine make-up and pastel coloured hair but also a dark lush singing voice and suggestively bulging tights. The tension is heightened by Dunn’s own narrative within the essay Submerging Artist in which she recounts her wide-eyed desire to become an artist and the threatening reality which subsequently overwhelmed her.(vi) In the end Sarah makes a far more fascinating decision, she chooses a third term, the heroism of rescuing her brother, a spurning of the devoted Bowie and a delighting in the company of a score of trusted companions, all of them hybrid as well as earthy, irreverent and fun. As Hay affirms 'All that I seek is already within me. I look within to find my own treasures. I trust myself. I know I am worthwhile. I am at peace with where I am. I love my thoughts. I am grateful for my life.'

I think I’ve been hypnotised…

Whereas both Moss and Connelly exhibit and unravel girlishness, the actress Kim Basinger, the star of a third film by Dunn is undoubtedly woman. Is America a good place for genius? (1997) combines footage from 9 ½ Weeks (Dir. Adrian Lyne, 1986) and Wild Orchid (Dir. Zalman King, 1989) with overlayed animation sequences from Fantasia to a soundtrack that of the Doors’ 1971 track Riders on the Storm. Basinger sits on a revolving chair in a white blouse, black pencil skirt and black stockings, a projector beside her emits a beam of white light. She swings back and forth, her blonde head resting on her hand. She gazes straight ahead and moves her hand until it sits below her chin, her long fingers extended. She looks at a screen upon which she is projecting slides in the back room of an art gallery. The slides change. Basinger sits, her legs crossed and a large pink lily unfurls its petals on the right of the screen. Sparkles and seaweed sway before the projection screen. Basinger sighs, tilts her head and uses the remote to browse through the slides. The pink petals unfurl to reveal that they are in fact the gossamer fins of two goldfish with long eyelashes and big lips. They look startled and swim away in waves of water and bubbles. Basinger rests her face on the back of one hand and looks penetratingly at the screen before her. The light from the projector cuts through the smoky atmosphere in a starburst of light beside her. The Door’s lead vocalist Jim Morrison sings ‘Riders on the storm…’


Still from Is America a good place for genius? (1997) Megan Dunn 

Basinger tilts her head. ‘There's a killer on the road / His brain is squirmin' like a toad.’ Above what seems to be a large pink clam shell, five black fish move in synchronisation. Basinger exhales, runs her fingers through her hair, they drop to her blouse and she touches herself. ‘Take a long holiday.’ Her fingers slide down her chest and her heavily made-up eyes close. She hitches up her skirt to remove her underwear, we see the tops of her stockings ending at her thighs. ‘Let your children play.’ Bright fish can be seen darting around dark filigree-shaped coral, they peer out from behind the coral as Basinger slips her hand inside her blouse and grasps her breast. The fish swim around in circles, Basinger’s chair spins and one breast oozes out of her blouse as she masturbates with the other hand. ‘If ya give this man a ride / Sweet family will die.’ Her head is tilted back, her hair dishevelled. A trio of goldfishes rotate in sync while sparkles glisten around them.

The camera pans down to reveal Basinger has two hands between her legs though her stockings remain firmly at her thighs, kept in place by her garter belt. ‘Killer on the road, yeah.’ As the guitar bridge builds goldfishes speed from the bottom to the top of the screen and Basinger, eyes closed, places two fingers inside her mouth. Lips parted she looks towards the camera through half closed eyes. Basinger flings her head back in ecstasy, flicking her blonde bobbed hair back and within a pink haze goldfish encircle her face. Her head falls forward and back again and goldfish to continue to swim around her. A frontal shot shows Basinger with one foot on the chair, knee bent, one hand on top of the bent knee, the other between her legs. She drops the remote to the projector and focuses entirely on her own pleasure as the goldfishes with wispy fins assemble themselves into a circle creating a dark, pansy-like pattern. Basinger places first one heeled foot, then another against two Grecian sculptures resting on the wall so that her legs are partly spread. Bubbles then sparkles emerge from between her thighs and the projector continues to run through its carousel. Images flicker faster and faster accompanied by the pink haze, bubbles and sparkles in a frenzied rhythm.


Still from Is America a good place for genius? (1997) Megan Dunn

Bearing in mind Dunn’s self-professed interest in subtext, Morrison’s voice acts as a surrogate for Basinger’s absent lover, the brooding guitar becomes her ungratified desire and the tinkling Rhodes piano and fluid fish forms her pleasures and fantasies.(vii) Intriguingly Basinger plays Elizabeth, a gallerist in Lyne’s film from which this footage was taken. Her lover, John, played by a surprisingly handsome and young Micky Rourke has just given her a watch, explaining that such devices were once used in hypnosis and requests that she think of him at midday, every day. Later toying with the watch Elizabeth tells her co-worker, ‘I think I’ve been hypnotised.’ Unable to contact John, Elizabeth finds herself alone in the gallery, pleasuring herself rather than diligently reviewing slides.

Is America a good place for genius? is far more overt in its presentation of heterosexuality than Obsession and Labyrinth. Basinger plays the role of a lonely art worker who literally takes matters into her own hands. Adorned in the provocative attire of a working woman, with an open blouse, knee-length pencil skirt, garter belt and thigh-high stockings she is the very image of sexual maturity. Returning to the notion of obsession, the context of 9 ½ Weeks re-introduces the theme of servitude, particularly of a sexual nature but also a more literal enslaving/enslavement as John feeds and clothes Elizabeth while simultaneously manipulating her through incertitude and fear. This enslavement ties into the slavery Jareth proposes to Sarah which she declines, as well as Sorrenti’s inexplicable and doomed devotion to Moss. All three of the women Dunn has chosen have a relation of servitude with men. Moss enslaves by merely blinking and being, whereas Sarah controls Bowie with her normality and touching naivety.

Gotta love your man, yeah

Dunn puzzled at the mysterious connections between the Doors, Fantasia and Basinger: ‘I probably thought I was making a penetrating cultural critique with this video. Hell, maybe I was.’(viii) Riders on the Storm is said to be the last track the Doors recorded before the untimely death of Morrison. This finality and death ties into the tensions between darkness and light, innocence and knowing, exploration and voyeurism. In the second half of Dunn’s video in footage taken from Wild Orchids, a woman with a large unruly head of hair and a red dress is thrown against a wall by a shadowy figure. This cuts back to a shot of the actress Carré Otis wearing a white polka-dot halter dress looking astonished and aroused surrounded by orange flowers and accompanied by a pink fairy. The woman in red pants heavily against the wall. ‘Gotta love your man, yeah.’ Otis peeps from behind a ruinous and stony wall. A pink fairy creates pink ripples and flies from left to right. Two more fairies, one green, one blue also zoom by like dragon-flies. The dark figures holds the woman in red against the wall and tears off her dress revealing her naked form. A large, explosive yellow dandelion is superimposed over her torso, it unfolds, and enlarges. It glows pink. The man steps out of his underwear and he quickly embraces the woman. Otis continues to watch from behind her wall and a pink-white fairy sprinkles light around her face.


Still from Is America a good place for genius? (1997) Megan Dunn

Dunn once reflected that her main themes were ‘herself, beautiful actresses like Daryl Hannah, life’s many disappointments, popular culture and MTV.’(ix) Indeed there is something music-video like about all three videos with the way they utilize a soundtrack with montages of seemingly paradoxical images. Atop the images of Basinger pleasuring herself are aquatic elements taken from the animated sequence in Fantasia that accompanies Russian composer Tchaikovsky’s frothy Nutcracker Suite. And on top of the second half of the film are fairies from the same sequence. The fairies, flowers, fishes and bubbles hovering over Basinger and Otis perform a similar function to Bowie’s baubles and the aural affirmations of Hay for Connelly. Moss is chased yet she is also very much aware, encouraging the pursuit through her coyness and simplicity. Connelly is chasing, searching for resolution even success, Basinger longs for pleasure and acceptance while Otis runs away from a direct encounter with carnal sexuality. Storms and skies are motifs in all three films too, Morrison’s storm crashes over Basinger’s head accompanied by Lyne’s cinematic and urban stormwater grates, Connelly is canopied by slight post-apocalyptic and dreamy pastel skies and Moss is surrounded by sultry and tempestuous Carribean weather. There is the positive comfort and trappings of flowers, pastels and fairies as well as the threatening foreshadowing of the elements. All of these are whipped up together in these three videos by Dunn in a melange of authority, beauty and femininity. 

Dunn recently reflected that ‘Appropriation was a way to assemble an artwork like threading beads on a string. It was also a way to deal with the fact that I wasn’t very good at making films. I didn’t have the budget to produce a slick artwork. By appropriating mainstream movies I could borrow scenes of great visual splendor and it only cost the price of the video rental.’(x) Something of a pioneer, the only facilities Dunn had access to in order to produce her video works was an editing suite away from Elam in the science department in the main campus of the university. Obsession was originally screened at Fiat Lux, an artist-run space on Hobson Street in central Auckland co-directed by Dunn. Documentation of its installation provides an additional aspect of the work, it was doubled, screened simultaneously on two monitors on either side of a door. A doubling of two layers, a kind of reflection so that Moss was cloned and accompanied by a doppelganger. Labyrinth featured as part of an exhibition The Dark Crystal at Rm 3 in 1998 and Is America a good place for genius? was included by curator Robert Leonard in Come – New Artists exhibition at Artspace, Auckland in the same year. Dunn noted of this film in particular that ‘People loved it, especially men. Go figure.’(xi)

Aside from the obvious lasciviousness of Dunn’s videos ‘at once homages and parasites’ there is a seriousness. They slip beautifully into a legacy of appropriation, utilising the ‘past as raw malleable material’ following Sherrie Levine and sometimes recalling the self-imaging of Cindy Sherman.(xii) Technique is beside the point, although Dunn’s videos demonstrate astute and deft editing skills, an acerbic wit as well as dark sense of humour. One can’t help but think they have been under-appreciated. Fitting with Dunn’s preoccupation with autobiography I could note that Basinger was always a particular role-model for my younger self. Like Dunn I turned to cinema to seek models or precedents. In Batman (Dir. Tim Burton, 1989) when I was eight, Basinger and I even shared the same name as she realised the journalist Vicki Vale with a mane of impeccably crimped blonde hair. Basinger was woman par excellence who could even charm the dark knight, seeming to embody longing and smouldering desire. Connelly evoked a darling danger and allure, whereas Moss was all louche coolness. Exceeding the expectations of frivolity, frothiness, flowers, fairies and fish of femininity Dunn’s artistic practice repeated all of these with difference, brushing aside the veils, incising and assembling, confusing codes. Similar to the way in which Basinger utilised Greco-Roman sculpture as a material prop upon which to rest her spread legs so that she could better experience her own pleasure, Dunn utilised Hollywood master narratives and commercial art to her own ends, for her own auto-eroticism. Recounting particular and local autobiographies, confounding masculine desire with feminine aspirations and perhaps demonstrating the power of woman as an ability to contain multitudes, within, in the words of Hay, ‘the miracle that is my body.’

- Victoria Wynne-Jones

References
(i) Zing Tsjeng, “Obsession through the ages,” Dazed Digital, accessed November 28, 2014, http://www.dazeddigital.com/photography/article/17120/1/obsession-throug...
(ii) Calvin Klein quoted in “The Man Behind Calvin Klein’s Iconic Obsession Ads, Robert R. Taylor, Dies,” Huffington Post, accessed November 28, 2014, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/09/11/calvin-klein-obsession-ads-phot...
(iii) Megan Dunn, “Obsession,” Circuit Artist Film and Video Aotearoa New Zealand, accessed November 28, 2014, http://www.circuit.org.nz/film/obsession
(iv) Some might think deservedly so given Moss’ brazen self-proclaimed motto ‘Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels.’
(v) Megan Dunn, “Labyrinth,” Circuit Artist Film and Video Aotearoa New Zealand, accessed November 28, 2014, http://www.circuit.org.nz/film/labyrinth 
(vi) Megan Dunn, “Submerging Artist” in Judy Darragh I See Art Everyhere! (Auckland: New Books, 2013) 11-14
(vii) ‘Dunn was always interested in the subtext. She still is.’ “Megan Dunn,” Circuit Artist Film and Video Aotearoa New Zealand, accessed November 28, 2014, http://www.circuit.org.nz/artist/megan-dunn 
(viii) Megan Dunn, “Is America a good place for genius?” Circuit Artist Film and Video Aotearoa New Zealand, accessed November 28, 2014, http://www.circuit.org.nz/film/is-america-a-good-place-for-genius
(ix) “Megan Dunn,” Circuit Artist Film and Video Aotearoa New Zealand, accessed November 28, 2014, http://www.circuit.org.nz/artist/megan-dunn
(x) Dunn, “Submerging Artist,” Ibid
(xi) Megan Dunn, email message to the author, December 11, 2014. Also see Jon Bywater’s review of Labyrinth in the New Age-themed LOG Illustrated, Issue #10, Winter 2000
(xii) David Evans (ed.) Appropriation (London: Whitechapel; Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2009) 12