Back in mid-2014, with the announcement of the forthcoming David Lynch exhibition at Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art (mima) we all got a bit Lynch obsessed. Like the release of a new album or film by your favourite artist, director or actor, it became an excuse to revisit the back catalogue and remember all the reasons you were a fan in the first instance. Whilst Northern Film & Media (NFM) worked with mima to programme Painting in Perpetual Motion: Art, Film, TV and David Lynch; rumours started circulating suggesting that the long awaited sequel of David Lynch’s defining serial Twin Peaks was in the pipeline. It was David Lynch season.

Whilst the exhibition David Lynch Naming has unquestionably been a prompt to re-watch and re-screen films from Erasurehead (1977) to Inland Empire, (2006) and to embrace the overall cult of Lynch, it also made evident an important fact. In every way in which Lynch’s films and his 30-year career may be celebrated and to a certain extent, familiar – the drawings, photographs and early film works presented as part of the mima exhibition are, comparatively, not. Making our own modest intervention into the proceedings, in February 2015 [I’ll be your mirror] in collaboration with NFM programmed a day-long event Lynch vs. Lynch seeking to explore the many and varied outputs of Lynch the filmmaker; Lynch the artist; Lynch the musician. With the aim to try and make the connections or to explore a possible contextual framework in which to view the exhibition, the day concluded with a round table conversation and this text offers a reflective summary of some ideas that surfaced through the dialogue.

Starting the day in a cinema the event began on safe ground. Seeing Lynch in a cinema is exactly the context in which we are used to encountering him and his work. Consensus would agree, watching a Lynch film is its own particular viewing experience, but in that context, it works with, and at the same time plays against the conventions of Hollywood cinema that come with such a setting. As an interpretive experience moreover it is something that can’t be wholly gleaned (if ever) in a single viewing, often requiring the film to be watched multiple times with different interpretations resulting from each viewing. For many of us we had seen the film before, but starting the day at 9.30am watching Inland Empire fuelled on Jelly donuts and a damn fine cup of coffeeBlack as midnight on a moonless night – certainly added its own experiential tier to that particularity. Lynch films as you know come with certain expectations – or lack there of – and it was to this recognisable surrealist vernacular that we as viewers subscribed.

Watching a Lynch film, you sometimes just have to go with it. Lynch is unique in this way because he had been able to establish his own parameters by which his films are viewed and judged – at least by his fans. As for the critics, how do you review something that is itself defiant of the usual conventions to which criticism usually indexes its commentary?  Having looked up some of the reviews of Inland Empire over the course of the day the verdict was poorly: Not because they gave it bad reviews but because ‘no one said anything worthwhile about it; no one really knew what to do with it.’ Online film streaming site MUBI summarised Inland Empire as: ‘Some people say difficult for difficult sake. We say, we like it’. In other words its Lynch, and we like Lynch. Maybe at this stage in his career, that is enough.

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And did we like it? Well, that wasn’t exactly the point. One person described the experience as a ‘long horrific dream – but that’s kind of fantastic’. There were certainly some things that stuck, some ideas that later resurface in the discussion of the exhibition. But ‘like’ would suggestion resolution, and indeed a singular conclusion, where in fact there was many and none in simultaneity. Watching Inland Empire (and indeed any of Lynch’s films), the verdict seemed to be a sense of enjoyment in process; in watching his process unfold however much we do or don’t understand it:

‘the way that the film form is played with, the way that the syntax is all thrown up in the air, that’s where the interest lies … it’s about the construction of it as much as anything’.

There is more to be said about ‘explanations’, the need for everything to be intellectualised and the way culture is sold to us as an explainable, neatly packaged commodity, but as one participant concluded:

‘I’m more content not knowing what things are about. I like that. I like watching a film when the filmmaker knows more than you. I like watching them be on their on their own wave length of what they are meaning, and you don’t have to climb to their level, it’s just nice to experience with them working with whatever we attach on them.’

Continuing on with the day – our Lynchian tour in which, in the words of David Foster Wallace, ‘the very macabre and the very mundane combine’ – we took a slow train to Middlesbrough. A very, slow, train, which first headed eastward through Sunderland and then skirted south down the north-east coastline. Lynch perhaps once made the very same journey himself. He came to Middlesbrough in the 80s, drawn to its propensity for industry for which he was more than a decade too late. For us, this passage through this ‘atmospheric wasteland’ was more than just a necessary journey, by design it was an experiential backdrop ­against which we listened to a soundtrack of sorts, a playlist of David Lynch music devised by artist Toby Phips Lloyd.

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In all of David Lynch’s films, music is an important component. The way the music cuts together with the film often helps make a scene more complete: seemingly resolved. As a musician he often contributes or collaborates on the production of the soundtracks to his films as well as more recently releasing musical albums outright. Drawing on this diverse selection of soundscapes and songs, the hour-long train journey was scored to David Lynch the musician. We as a group were ourselves quite a macabre proposition: sat together, headphones in ear, listening and looking at the same things at the same time, but experiencing them on our own – left to make our own minds up. There were moments of genuine serendipity, where the soundtrack clicked: where the whirr of the diesel train interlaced and overlaid with the music, or the industrial drone and beat of the music seemed made for the rubbish-strewn wilderness surrounding the train tracks; where a reference to violence in songs lyrics chimed with the aggressive behaviour of a man on a near-deserted rural station platform. The individual tracks may have been taken out of context, stripped from their originating film-score or de-sequenced from their album listing. But for all they were diverse and varied in style, they hung together and gave the journey a cinematic scope enlivening elements of the mostly unremarkable surrounding scenery, making those details count. At one point in remote Seaton Carew a large mosaic from Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are seemed as fantastical as the book from which the image was taken. Much like Inland Empire, the journey became a series of short episodes, strung together, yet seemingly independent of each other.

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Watching Inland Empire, listening to David Lynch’s varied musical output, all this was fundamentally a prelude to visiting David Lynch Naming – the catalyst for the days’ event. What was perhaps most formative in terms of the thinking around the Lynch vs. Lynch was however a seeming reluctance to explicitly make those connections. By programming a day of activity experiencing aspects of all his various creative outputs we wanted to make that absence all the more apparent, to address its wilful negation. As was the case with the 2014 exhibition of David Lynch’s photographs at The Photographers’ Gallery, London the curatorial line for the mima exhibition has been similarly careful to suggest – though not evidence or begin to analyse – identifiable similarities in Lynch’s enigmatic use of (visual) language. Implicit in this position is a suggestion that the connections are there to be made by the enlightened viewer – though the institutions curatorial voice is resistant to elaborate or put forward an extended thesis.

Whilst there is a wealth of theorisation and commentary around his films, here in the context of a contemporary art gallery any suggestion as to artistic importance or merits of the work was seemingly circumvented. Where owing to its publicised discussion, one participant was able to offer a detailed breakdown of the various cameras employed to different effect in the filming of Inland Empire, there was no such information available to underpin either the process or intent of his artworks. If the connections between filmmaker and artist are perceived to be there for the Lynch-aware viewer, does this therefore mean there is a knowledge pre-requisite to the show; can the work be viewed disassociated from the personality and cult of its maker?

One argument for the seeming lack of interpretation is the fact that David Lynch is himself notoriously reticent to offer any form of qualification to his work, be it film, art or music. Arguably ‘there is far too much explanation in culture and it’s pretty boring, and the people that own culture feel the need to explain everything to you’. When it comes to looking for that often elusive understanding and resolution in Lynch’s films, fans and critics alike have constructed ideas around a series of so called Lynch-pins – particular traits, themes or uses of filmic traits which posses their own particular symbolism and are ultimately their own coded form of explanation.

Framed or unframed by an a priori understanding, David Lynch Naming raises pertinant questions as to how we should look at his artwork: on what basis do we try to view, understand and ultimately critique the work. For all his films are complex, layered and multifarious the paintings and photographs on show at mima were reductive, and arguably rather underwhelming. Compare his radical and at times highly synthesised employment in colour in his films with the soft focus grey scale pallor of the works in the show show; consider his slow marco-lense fascination with seemingly mundane – though often highly significant – ­objects in his films and then look at the muddy representational form of Lynch’s paintings. 

Whilst the shows theme ‘naming’ may suggest a deep and playful investigation of language and semiotics, in some ways it also diverts our attention away from the actual works. Focusing on the titles, the actual visual language, the thing he is most famous for, is sidelined.

 

Take the personality of Lynch away and we might ask: are we interested in the actual work? Critically, is it that relevant? Lynch may for example have made the 16mm film, The Alphabet (1968) as a student, and whilst this is one of the most interesting work in the show, how does its significance compare to such seminal film works as Hollis Frampton, Zorns Lemma (1970)? In a video interview about the show, curator Brett Littman drew parallels between David Lynch and artists Ed Ruscha and John Balderssari. Given the singularity of David Lynch as a filmmaker, the particular critical space he has been able to carve out for and with his films, to rationalise his art practice by mere comparison to others is seemingly anathema. If the show is about meaning, it also sidesteps any attempt to make greater sense of the work, to take its own meaning on, to make it the subject of discourse: how Lynchian.

One argument nonetheless says

‘Lynch is playing with that inability to pin something down. We all think we know what this is but as soon as I have called it a glass I have closed down it’s meaning in someway, I have closed off all other possibilities. I don’t know, it’s that kind of potential of something but as soon as you identify it it’s not that thing any more … that’s what I find fascinating about Lynch. It’s that his idea is to put different things up and just let the connections happen on their own, rather than say this is this and this is this. I think you’ve got to respect someone that refuses to say what his work is about.’

And if nothing else, ‘he knows exactly what it’s about.’