POV Winter 1993/94, p.6-9

The strange object of Canada´s desire:

Cronenberg under Glass

By Christine Ramsay & Kenneth Wilson

David Cronenberg exhibition
David Cronenberg and his friends

This autumn there were flies inside the Royal Ontario Museum - flies of a kind you wouldn´t expect. Not dead ones dried and mounted in display cases; not live ones buzzing inside glass-walled terrariums; not even ordinary house flies, dazed and looking for shelter from the coming winter, sleepily oblivious to the cultural gates they were crashing. No, these were unusual flies - flies by human design: the charcoal, pencil and pastel preliminary sketches used in creating the fantastic transmutation of Jeff Goldblum from man to beast in David Cronenberg´s 1986 film The Fly.

They were part of a collection of 250 drawings, objects and creatures from Cronenberg´s films curated by the Government of Ontario Art Collection´s Fem Bayer for the ROM´s new Institute of Contemporary Culture. Indeed, the exhibit, entitled "The Strange Objects of David Cronenberg´s Desire", announced its strangeness before we even entered the Roloff Beny Gallery where it was on display. A sign by the door warned: "The artistic vision documented in this exhibit stikes at the core of human fears and fantasies. - Enter at your own risk. - We warn you that some visitors may find these objects disturbing. - This exhibit is not for children. - Photography and sketching are not allowed."

How often does a museum exhibit caution visitors to enter at their own risk? Could anything in this brightly-lit and freshly-painted space merit such a warning? A frisson of anticipation ran through us: with a quick exchange of glances, we opened the heavy glass doors, entered the gallery, and took the risk.

It has been widely observed that what David Cronenberg "disturbs" is the institutional: order, systems, rules. His films thematize the transgression of boundaries of all kinds - biological, psychological, emotional, sexual, social and political. Thus this installation at the ROM presents us with several paradoxes. The work of a filmmaker who is consistently skeptical of institutions - think of the Canadian Academy for Erotic Inquiry, Consec, Spectacular Optical and the Cathode Ray Mission, even Interzone - becomes an exhibit withon the Royal Ontario Museum and its institutional traditions. Furthermore, a filmmaker whose work once was called "an atrocity, a disgrace to everyone connected with it - including the taxpayers" by Marshall Delaney (the pseudonym of Robert Fulford, himself a fusty cultural institution) because of its engagement with popular culture and, more specifically, because of its use of the conventions of the horror genre, now finds himself ensconed within one of the august bastions of high culture in Canada. But, not only is his work in an institution: it is becoming an institution. After all, despite the hyperbole of the museum´s rhetoric - the exhibit´s introductory text calls Cronenberg´s work "one of the most important and compelling expressions of the culture of our time" - how many other Canadian film directors have been honoured by an installation of this kind in any museum?

The fact that Cronenberg is singled out in this way suggests that his work is indeed becoming a cultural institution - not unlike the ROM itself, the Art Gallery Ontario (AGO) or the NFB. Of course, Cronenberg´s work - like any filmmaker´s - is imbricated within a number of institutional networks: financing (including Telefilm and the OFDC), marketing and distribution. But this exhibit announces a certain institutionalization of Cronenberg himself: it is named after Cronenberg and the "strange objects" of his "desire". To his credit, Cronenberg seems to be aware of these paradoxes. When asked by Ralp Benmergui on CBC´s Friday Night! how it felt to be a cultural icon like Anne Murray, Cronenberg replied with characteristic irony, "I am an exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum now. Until Anne gets her own exhibit, she´s got a long way to go."

Of course, the exhibit at the ROM was also part of the larger marketing strategy for Cronenberg´s latest film, M.Butterfly. It could be considered in the context of the interviews with Cronenberg and articles about his work which appeared on television, on CBC FM´s The Arts Tonight, in Saturday Night, the Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail, and in other media outlets as part of the publicity surrounding the film. These articles and interviews and the installation at the ROM coincided with both the world premiere of M.Butterfly at the 18th annual Festival of Festivals, and its Canadian theatrical release. Moreover, not only were artifacts from Cronenberg´s films on display at the ROM, but he himself was interviewed at the museum before a large audience. Tickets for his appearance at the ROM, entitled "An Evening with David Cronenberg", went for $13 apiece - nearly double the price you would pay to see M.Butterfly - and were sold out virtually the day the event was announced. We contacted Media Relations at the ROM hoping that we could be admitted as members of the press because we were writing this article for POV. Absolutely not, we were told. The event had already been moved once to a larger hall to accomodate more people, but not it too was full - so packed, in fact, that the ROM was in danger of violating fire regulations. "This one has broken all borders," the woman at Media Relations laughed. Indeed, it would seem that Cronenberg´s popularity knows no bounds this year - either within Toronto or nationally.

"The Strange Objects of David Cronenberg´s Desire" was conceived when the Seibu department store chain in Japan requested "something from Ontario" to install in its gallery spaces in Tokyo and Fukuoka.

Because the galleries also had movie screens, Cronenberg immediately came to mind. Under Fern Bayer´s curatorship, and under the organization of Cinematheque Ontario, the exhibit toured Japan before coming to Toronto in September (1993). But the exhibit the Japanese saw (10,000 in 11 days) was very different from the one that we saw. Michele Maheux, Director of Marketing and Communications at Cinematheque Ontario, toured the exhibit in Tokyo and told us how "sinister" and threatening the Japanese exhibit was. The Mugwumps from Naked Lunch, for example, were hung so low from the ceiling that viewers were forced to brush against them as they passed through a very narrow and dark exhibition space. Spotlights were strategically keyed, not only on the faces of the Mugwumps, but on other objects and creatures from the films. The effect was striking - a clear homage to the dark and disturbing quality of Cronenberg´s films. It seems that in Japan visitors did indeed experience the strange objects of David Cronenberg´s desire as if they were actually lost in a tunnel leading into "the core of human fears and fantasies."

In contrast, the installation at the ROM could only be described as sanitized and aestheticized. Rather than a dark tunnel, the space clearly retained the flavour of the Roloff Beny Gallery as a distinguished place for the exhibition of art objects. The illumination of the art objects in the room was bright and even; the wood floors and brass railings were cleaned and polished. The Mugwumps were grouped together and hung from the ceiling so that they remained well out of the path (and reach) of visitors. (Some of the Mugwumps displayed wear and tear that might have been caused on the set of Naked Lunch, but might also have occured at the Seibu exhibits.) Many of the objects (the telepod from The Fly, the sex-blob and the Mugwumps from Naked Lunch) were actually roped-off. Many others (the exploding head from Scanners, the Videodrome helmet, the maquettes of the monstrous Brundlefly, the statuette representing the rape and murder of Kiki, the bugwriters and mugwriters from Naked Lunch) were sealed under glass display cases. Security was tight - nervously so: we repeatedly had to explain to one of the guards that we were taking written notes for an article, and not making sketches. If the exhibit mounted by the Seibu department stores aimed to provide visitors with a maximum quota of thrills and chills, the installation at the ROM had a very different intention: the artifacts from Cronenberg´s films - and Cronenberg himself - were treated seriously and with care, as objects imbued with a particular cultural significance and value. It wasn´t just a freak show. It made a carefully structured argument about Cronenberg´s status as a Canadian auteur and about the substance of his films as high art, rather than mere popular culture.

The installation opened with a kind of witty hommage to Cronenberg´s status as a film director and artist. A Mugwump, cigarette in hand, sat in an oversized yellow director´s chair by the door of the gallery. This creature was very much like the kind of condensation one experiences in dreams, where several things are suggested at once: through the director´s chair, the figure of Cronenberg himself; through the skeletal, corpse-like body of the Mugwump, William S. Burroughs, whose infamous novel was, of course, the source of the film Naked Lunch; through the beast´s cigarette, the first bar-fly Mugwump we see in that film, who sends Bill Lee to Interzone; and through the Mugwump´s status as an objet d´art or artifact, Cronenberg´s signature creativity. Thus this carefully and playfully posed creature conflated Cronenberg the auteur, a literary icon, the film Naked Lunch, and that film´s special effects as hight art objects in their own right, worthy of an exhibit.

The installation proper began beyond this seated Mugwump, down a short flight of stairs. Using statements by Cronenberg (quoted from Chris Rodley´s Cronenberg on Cronenberg), film synopses, video clips and other text, documents and artifacts, the exhibit was structured in three sections. The first section was arranged chronologicallym, beginning with student work from the 1960s and ending with 1982´s Videodrome. There were few artifacts of the films´ special effects in this first section compared to the second section, which dealt with The Fly and Naked Lunch. Rather, these early films were represented by documents and what could be called memorabilia: promotional stills and other photographs, a fragment of a script from Scanners with marginal notes in Cronenberg´s hand, letters, buttons and badges, advertising posters and flyers, invititations to screening previews, and so on. The notable exception to this were the Videodrome helmet, the head of Barry Convex from Scanners, and the parasite model used in Shivers (now dried up and looking not unlike a turd). The paucity of artifacts from these early films is understandable, of course; fewer are likely to have survived, compared to artifacts from the later films. Certain films were omitted in this first section - notably Cronenberg´s 1979 film about drag racing, Fast Company, which certainly does not fit into the definition of Cronenberg´s oeuvre as articulated by the exhibit. Moreover, although the last two sections of the installation were devoted to Cronenberg´s last three films, the first 17 years of his film career were compressed into the first section. The effect of all this was that the installation contructed a particular narrative of Cronenberg´s career that emphasized the artistically successful (if not financially so) films of Cronenberg´s later career - those films which marked his ascent from tax-shelter schlockmeister to auteur.

The second section diverged from the chronological order established in the first, representing The Fly and then Naked Lunch, leaving Dead Ringers for the third and final section, and, significantly, leaving the advertising and television work that came between Dead Ringers and Naked Lunch out entirely. The commercials for Ontario Hydro, Caramilk, and Nike, and the episodes for the CBC television series Scales of Justice that Cronenberg filmed between 1989 and 1991 were conspicuously absent. (This, of course, not unexpected in an installation cleary intended to emphasize Cronenberg´s unique sensibility and to reify the films produced by this sensibility as high art.) In fact, material from The Fly and Naked Lunch - the "strange objects" of the exhibits title - constituted the bulk of the installation. It included story-boards, drawings and plans for the appearance of Brundlefly, maquettes of the fly, drawings for the telepod, and the telepod itself from The Fly; as well as models for the Case Officer Beetle, the Mujahadeen and Clark Nova bugwriters, a six foot long black centipede, the Fadela/Benway mask, drawings and maquettes for the design of the mugwump´s heads, and a large group of mugwumps, all from Naked Lunch. These artifacts subtly revealed the extent to which Cronenberg´s "vision" depends on the artistic talent of others: the artists, designers, crafts people and special effects wizards who help bring that vision to life. For example, the basis of the transformation of Jeff Goldblum into Brundlefly was the product of the design and drawing work of Stephan Dupuis. Chris Walas, James McAteer, and Carol Spier, among others, were also credited for their extensive work on the various objects displayed. So, even as it privileged Cronenberg as an auteur, the installation could not avoid exposing the extent to which the realizations of "David Cronenberg´s Desire" on film are collaborative efforts.

Given the large number of artifacts from these two films, and the large amount devoted to their display, you would expect The Fly and Naked Lunch to be considered the most important and signifant for the exhibit. Not so. The third and final section of "The Strange Objects of David Cronenberg´s Desire" was taken up solely by the film Dead Ringers. Set off by opulent red drapery in a separate alcove (suggesting the film´s operating room sequences) were a large colour still from those very sequences, the drawings from the film´s opening credits, the "Mantle retractor", and the "surgical instruments for operating on mutant women" designed by Beverly Mantle/Jeremy Irons. The treatment of these latter objects was particularly interesting. They were carefully place in a display case (itself lined with royal red fabric) where their smooth lines and gleaming stainless-steel surfaces marked them as works of art rather than film props. Indeed, it was as if they had been returned to the art gallery from which Beverly Mantle steals them in the film - or, as if they were honoured cousins to the kinds of anthropological instruments on display in the regular collection of the ROM. The physical separation of this part of the installation from the rest, the fact that it was presented out of chronological sequence, and the rich red drapery, maked this section as the most significant. But why privilige Dead Ringers in this way? Perhaps because it is (superficially, of course) the easiest of Cronenberg´s films to digest. Or, perhaps its significance in the installation was, paradoxically, a product of its very lack of artifacts: like M Butterfly (which was not included), Dead Ringers is a film whithout special effects in the strict sense of the term, and so, unlike The Fly and Naked Lunch, there were fewer "strange objects" to display. The lack of artifacts also suggests that Dead Ringers is further from the generic ghettos of science fiction horror which rely upon such special effects trickery, and therefore closer to a type of cinema that the ROM´s patrons (and curators) would more readily appreciate. In this sense, the emphasis on Dead Ringers and its gynecological instruments (gender implications aside) could be seen to hinge on the play of similarity between these instruments and the arcane anthropological objects traditionally housed in the ROM.

In the end, although the installation was a useful summary of Cronenberg´s career to date, and an entertaining close-up look at the mechanics of cinematic special effects which the general public rarely gets, it nevertheless left us thinking about the significance of the emphases, omissions and distortions produced by the institutionalization of David Cronenberg.

David Cronenberg exhibition
From the Japan exhibit: Dead Ringers´"Mantlepiece"

Christine Ramsay is a student in the department of Social and Political Thought at York University. Her doctoral thesis will deal with questions of masculinity in the films of David Cronenberg.


Kenneth Wilson teaches Canadian literature at York University.