On the first Saturday of March, at noon, around a hundred people wait outside the Cartier Foundation in Rue Raspail, Paris for the opening of The Air is on Fire, an exhibition by North American film-maker David Lynch, which runs until May 27.
Cinema is becoming ever-present in museums and art galleries, after film retrospectives last year of Jean-Luc Godard (Pompidou Centre) and French director Agnès Varda (Cartier Foundation). But this current exhibition has at least one peculiarity. It presents little-known facets of a man who wanted to be a painter as a child. A few weeks after the release of Inland Empire, Lynch presents a large selection of his work in the plastic arts: paintings, photographs and unseen designs.
The exhibition shows us a universe that will be familiar to followers of Lynch’s cinema: everyday scenarios are the backdrop for a mood of unease in which eroticism is bathed in abjection, humour in cruelty. A soundtrack emanates from the bowels of the earth, and the visitor passes through spaces in which ruptured images and the call of the repressed seem to assert themselves as the very sources of perverse delights.
What is most hypnotising in this labyrinthine exhibition are perhaps the bodies: bloated, broken, disfigured. Some are moulded into collages over digital images themselves superimposed on realia: they erupt like misshapen stains, emerging as living manifestations of the un-representable. The evocations are multiple: one reminds us of the suicide of Diana, the lead character in Mulholland Drive; over a digitally-created sofa, a female nude, her underwear around her knees, shows the black hole of her sex, her eyes, her mouth. There is a pink telephone at her side; she holds a revolver to her stomach: the image is awash in fluid swirls, but the shiny buckles of her shoes are still discernible, and we read in the speech-bubble emerging from her head: 'Well … I can dream, can’t I?'
The series of images dedicated to Bob – more homunculus than man – describes the changes in this character with a mixture of sadism with irony. 'Bob Sees Himself Going Off To War From The Air'; 'Bob Meets Himself In A World He Cannot Comprehend'; 'Bob Makes Love To – Or Tortures? – Sally Until She Turns Blue On A Bed Of Withered Roses'. The texts inscribed in the images contribute to the ambivalence: in one, we see man who has just been shot; his guts – identified as his spirit – escape from his body 0.9502 seconds after the shot is fired. Armed with a mobile phone and a watch, he is fixed mid-air at the moment of his death. The black humour is established in another image, as someone calls out after firing 'I didn’t know that the gun was loaded sorry!.'
The exhibition includes five hundred designs, notes and sketches on paper from two filing cabinets dating back to Lynch’s adolescence. Most are simple sketches which the artist regularly goes back to as a source of inspiration. In these, just as in the paintings and other images, the characters and situations that appear in his films can be recognised: a large painting of the monster from Eraserhead, with its intestines sliding out of its body as blood pours from the mouth; in another, a man watches from his bed as a tree grows from his bedside table.
In the basement of the building, a small theatre, which malevolently evokes the one hidden behind the radiator in Eraserhead, projects some of his earliest short films, in which we discover many of the spectres that haunt his later work. The selection of photographs largely comprises decaying industrial landscapes and female nudes, the latter contrasting with the Distorted Nudes series exhibited alongside it. Here Lynch takes erotic photographs from 1840 to 1940 and vents his pleasure on the images of the bodies which he mutilates.
The exhibition, which also displays designs from the late ‘50s as a kind of backdrop based on an image that is Lynch himself, is an excellent opportunity to get to know the cruel, ironic and disturbing world of this film-maker.