November 20, 2012  |  Behind the Scenes, Collection & Exhibitions
Approaching the Quay Brothers: From the Oblique Chattering of Birds

Installation view of Quay Brothers: On Deciphering the Pharmacist’s Prescription for Lip-Reading Puppets at The Museum of Modern Art, 2012. Photo © 2012 Jason Mandella

This summer I served as a curatorial intern assisting curator Ron Magliozzi on the exhibition Quay Brothers: On Deciphering the Pharmacist’s Prescription for Lip-Reading Puppets. My first brush with the Quay brothers, perhaps like most visitors to the Museum’s new retrospective, was entirely tangential. In high school, an English teacher recommended to me Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler, the Italian fabulist’s playfully experimental novel celebrating the intricacies of chance intersection and obscurity (it’s this same tendency, in Julio Cortazar’s Hopscotch, which informs the quietly abrasive compilation the Quays assembled for the show). I devoured the novel and much of Calvino’s work over the following months. As it happens, a hypothetical cover design for If on a winter’s night, appropriately half-obscured, rests in a drawer of ephemera mounted in the second-floor gallery; on the wall’s reverse are a series of covers designed by the Quays and commissioned for the UK releases of Calvino’s novels and short stories. Among them is Mr. Palomar, a thin volume I first discovered in the winter of 2007 (the American edition was sadly not designed by the Quays), three years before I would see their breakthrough short film, Street of Crocodiles , and five before I would meet them in person.

Street of Crocodiles. 1986. Great Britain. Directed by the Quay Brothers. Image courtesy of the filmmakers

In it, Calvino presents a tapestry of familiar essay/short story hybrids that read as though Samuel Johnson wrote The Little Prince—at turns mundane and cosmic, revelatory and restrained, Mr. Palomar observes and remarks on the passing of time, the nature and the beauty and the terror of the universe and life. He notes with an acute awareness in one entry, relaxing in his garden, “The blackbirds’ whistle has this special quality: it is identical to a human whistle.” This remark begins an excavation of mimesis, conversation, communication, and twinness—the twinness of allegory, analogy, and identity—which is as mesmerizing as it is succinct. “After a while the whistle is repeated—by the same blackbird or by its mate—but always as if it were the first time it had occurred to him to whistle; if this is a dialogue, each remark is uttered after long reflection… And what if it is in the pause and not in the whistle that the meaning of the message is contained? If it were in the silence that the blackbirds speak to each other?” Here, I arrive at the Quays’ universe again, for the umpteenth time, from the oblique chattering of birds.

Installation view of Quay Brothers: On Deciphering the Pharmacist’s Prescription for Lip-Reading Puppets at The Museum of Modern Art, 2012. Photo by Daniel LoPilato

And it’s the way I think one should meet their dark and mystifying worlds, as if suddenly hatched from a misplaced egg. Their films are for the large part brief and unspoken, inevitably and chronically indecipherable (as the exhibition attests to), yet only remain out of sight so long as one refuses a “turn of the head,” or resists the leap from one medium, artist, image, to the other. This quality perhaps arises from a mastery of adaptation, or its close relative I’ll call incorporation. (Neither term truly does justice to their originality, but for the sake of argument.) The Quays allow their art to spring from the minds and works of others in a peculiar blend of homage and rejection, an impulse influenced perhaps by the Polish Surrealist school of graphic artists—whose works, also on view in the gallery, take their subjects in stride—or by the very trade of graphic design itself, in which the Quays began. I’d place a fair bet that any reader stumbling through Bruno Schulz’s Street of Crocodiles for the first time (also published under the name Cinnamon Shops) never imagined the nightmarish bric-a-brac landscape quite the way the Quay brothers did. What’s more, Street of Crocodiles never suffers from the kind of adaptive dissonance that plagues any run of adaptations afraid to step on the toes of its originators. Instead, the film presents a world running parallel to Schulz’s novel while still possessing the dignity to own itself, as does each object in the show bound to strike the viewer with a twinge of familiarity. Chances are you’ve seen or read A Clockwork Orange, whose yet-to-be-adapted sequel The Clockwork Testament, or Enderby’s End the brothers emblazoned with their unmistakable aesthetic of decay; or else you’ve listened to or know someone who’s listened to the Blood Sweat and Tears album that the Quays also designed (albeit, decapitated). Perhaps the most commercial of all their work, that record album even bears the distinctive and unmistakable Quay landscape, a sparse horizon dotted with a blotch of trees they began pioneering­—evidence suggests—at the very Italian age of 8 ½.

None of this, of course, is to say that others deserve credit for the Quay brothers’ accomplishments, whether the artists themselves would admit as much or not. Rather, it’s these kinds of obliquities that enrich the world of Quay and lead anyone brave enough to admire their universe through a narrow, winding, and utterly Quay-like passageway. For this intern and blogger, it boils back down to the blackbird’s whistle. The first time I tried to write on the Quays’ work (for a term paper), I felt I failed miserably to actually understand their films, or that maybe the unavoidable stigma of being innately resistant to analysis and therefore, somehow, flat, was a pitfall of their body of work. Yet it’s in silence they speak, in a kind of transmutable language of sirens that may be human, or half-human, or not human at all. And whether film or design or the mechanical alchemy that settles over their dormitorium installations, their art is shot through with a singular and unforgettable quality, a thread of intrigue that cleaves them all together and also threatens to pry apart. I suspect, for some, their silences and rejection of meaning may be offensive; yet once taken, the first step into the visionary output of Stephen and Timothy Quay is irreversible. They’ve already got you in their twisted and magnetic grasp.