Defying Gravity

L.A. Expanded: Notes from the West Coast
A weekly column by Catherine Wagley

Marco Brambilla, "Civilization,"

Marco Brambilla, "Civilization (Megaplex)," 2010, 3-D High Definition disc. Private collection, London.

“I believe we were born dead,” said motorcyclist-daredevil Evel Knievel, rambling to Sports Illustrated in 1968. He’d just cleared 16 cars in Gardena, CA, before crashing over the fountains at Cesare’s Palace, and was romanticizing about future stunts. “I have accepted the fact that dying is a part of living,” he continued. “If I make it across the Grand Canyon, I’ll be a millionaire. But I’m not all jacked up to make a big killing. I want to do this thing because I want to do this thing. I don’t know if it’s going to make a worthwhile contribution to society or transportation, but I’m going to do it.” He never jumped the canyon; no one with sway—the U.S. government in particular—would let him. But if he had, he’d have had an audience big enough to fill a stadium.  He knew it too: “if I have to get off halfway across[,] [o]ne hundred thousand people aren’t going to say ‘boo.’’’

Madness meets mechanics, brazenness meets skill—it’s the combination of real dexterity and superhuman (crazy) ambition that can turn a man with a motorcycle into a crowd pleasing phenom.

Stuntman Evel Knievel jumping 140 feet at 90 mph over 13 buses at Wembley Stadium, May 27th, 1975. He crashed upon landing. Photo by David Ashdown.

There’s something of this outlandish, expert ambition coursing through Marco Brambilla’s current exhibition at the Santa Monica Museum of Art. Hailed as the world’s first exhibition of 3-D video art–a claim to fame that’s admittedly tinny (3-D film exists; how much back-patting does art deserve for catching up?)–the real pull of Brambilla’s show lies in the mad scope of its technique.

Angelino by way of Italy and New York, Brambilla has been filmmaking since the ’70s, experimenting, pushing buttons, keeping abreast of innovation. He’s known for appropriating blockbuster film clips and other iconic imagery, though the virtuosic density with which he pieces his appropriations back together is what makes him so singular. Most recently, he turned Kanye West’s egotism into magic, with his surreal, seductive video for the celestial single, “Power.” He also reportedly stole the show at the Loop video art fair in Barcelona, where Christopher Grimes Gallery featured his Evolution (Megaplex) in 3-D.

Marco Brambilla, "Wall of Death," 2001. Courtesy of the artist.

Marco Brambilla, "Wall of Death," 2001, Single-channel video. Collection New Line Cinema, Los Angeles.

The Santa Monica Museum show includes ten years’ worth of work, highlighting Brambilla’s savvy as  borrower as well as visionary.  When you enter the gallery—you’ll pick up your 3-D glasses on the way in, and save them until the very end—you first encounter Sea of Tranquility (2006), a grainy loop based on images of the 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing; then the pulsating, multi-layered Cathedral (2008), a kaleidoscopic fantasia of shots of mall shoppers; followed by HalfLife (2002), which, grainy again, invasively pairs surveillance footage of gamers with footage of the games they play. But it’s when you get to the fourth gallery space and see Wall of Death that the exhibition really begins to show its grit.

Long before Evel Knievel, motorcyclists performed the gravity-defying Wall of Death trick, often as a carnival sideshow. The “Wall” is the 20-30 foot vertical wooden side of a cylindrical drum that cyclists ride around after building up enough speed to coast horizontal to the floor. In Brambilla’s Wall, reimagined using black and white 1930s footage, the rider circles the drum endlessly, throwing up his hands in a magnetic gesture of showmanship. Brambilla used the Kinetoscope films popular in the early 1900s as the inspiration for his editing, and the loop has a quaint, vintage feel.

If Wall of Death depicts daredevilry, the show’s final two works, Evolution (Megaplex) (2010) and Civilization (Megaplex) (2008/2011), are themselves feats of daredevilry. They combine hundreds of looped videos from iconic films into scrolling inferno-like, 3-D opuses. They give gaping pictures of civilization as dark and complicated as Peter Jackson’s Mordor or Heironymus Bosch’s The Last Judgment. Crawling naked bodies from Pasolini’s Salo, Clint Eastwood striding forward, and the romantic soundtrack of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet—the panorama of references scrolls on and on. You feel as if you could fall in to the imagery headfirst and be lost for eons.

Yet, despite the undeniable impressiveness of Evolution and Civilization, it’s Wall of Death that remains for me the most exquisite and compelling of Brambilla’s works. To depict the totality of humanity in a manner worthy of both Spielberg and Dante is a feat, but to get at one man’s insatiable, tireless desire to perform the impossible? That’s precious because it’s particular.