“I’m very worried about my body.”
This is not a movie review. This is sort of about the objects in David Cronenberg’s movie eXistenZ. This is definitely about my weird relationship to creepy facets of biology, and how that somehow relates to a lot more of contemporary jewelry making than you might imagine.
Any information pertaining to the movie itself will be strictly incidental, I promise.
As a thirtysomething, I’ve officially become nostalgic about cultural flotsam and jetsam that bears the hallmarks of my teen years. For this reason, I have rewatched this most 1999 of movies again, to try to talk about it as a jewelry maker so that I can retroactively legitimize an influence from my formative years that I’m sometimes conflicted with. Let me unpack my love/shame for you.
First, if you doubt that this is the most 1999 of movies, please consider the following information:
• It is set in a world in which video games are ruining reality with meta versions of virtual realities within virtual realities.
• It stars Jennifer Jason Leigh (duh) set to maximum girl-power as the world’s leading video game designer with scene-change defining hair textures to make sure you know when you’ve sunk “deeper” into the game. (Why didn’t Inception make better use of this hair-time continuum?)
• I’m pretty sure Daria was responsible for wardrobe.
• It has a pre-creepy Jude Law playing a dude ingenue. Whatever.
Now, it must be itchingly, burningly obvious that Cronenbergian body horror is firmly up my alley. (Or maybe it is overflowing from a derelict dumpster in a corner of my alley, really stinking up the place, but sort of just part of the terroir at this point.) I have a very personal agenda investigating the flaws in the biological world, and picking at a simplistic idea of an idealized, benign, and “classically” beautiful version of nature. My interest, in particular, is in the inevitable failure of biology, its frailty and fallibility, that runs contrary to the misleading culturally ingrained idea of a “perfect” body. (Or maybe I just rubbed too hard against the friction between second- and third-wave feminism on the trajectory through art school.)
This interest in appropriating, subverting, and reclaiming the body is something I have in common with a lot of other artists and makers in our field. Masumi Kataoka, Masako Onodera, and Lauren Kalman are just a few names that could arguably be placed in this camp, too. Contemporary jewelry has so efficiently outgrown every attempt to define it that it now lies sort of amorphously over the surrounding turf of “intimacy,” “process,” and “preciousness,” where the body is content rather than just context. We invoke it when we add “brooch,” “ring,” or “neckpiece” to a caption, even when a piece is documented in a neutral white void and destined for a museum shelf. Contemporary jewelry is intended to be consumed sensually, even if it is only an imagined and unrequited interaction.
Because of the current formality of display and restrictions with regard to interaction, eXistenZ is my own personal hot fudge sundae of fleshy and turgid practical effects. Hypersexualized biotech protuberances serve as hardware to a video game interface that slurps and glorps in and out of people like a sex toy trade show. The users are tethered by an Eva Hesse-like umbilicus, and the game console looks like an animate Fleshlight—veiny, wiggly, and covered in mucus. A specially designed orifice on the lower back of the user is gingerly daubed with Chapstick before insertion, in what can only be described as “buttplugesque.” However, as the two protagonists sink into layers of games within games, new versions of biotech manifest themselves to show a progression leading to a sort of pocket-sized insertable that splorches straight into those surgically installed sacral sphincters. All of this slurping and plopping was deeply satisfying, in a really terrible scab-picking sort of way. Were gene-splicing my process and lab-grown tissues my medium, I’d like to think I’d come up with something similar, and I know I would not be alone.
INDEX IMAGE: Technicians in the workshop construct various versions of the game pod, eXistenZ, 1999, image courtesy of Entertainment One, photo: Ava V. Gerlitz