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Into The Void: Art And Emptiness In Velvet Buzzsaw
Robert Barry , February 10th, 2019 13:53

In Velvet Buzzsaw, Netflix's new art world satire, tQ's visual arts editor sees the profession in a glass, dimly

This is how we watch films these days. I had decided not to watch Velvet Buzzsaw, the latest much-hyped Netflix Original, this time with added Jake Gyllenhaal. I had seen too many people on social media, regretting the choice to hate-watch it. Apparently it was that bad. But then I saw a meme on Twitter of the aforesaid Gyllenhaal crouched down in apparent distress in a deep blue anechoic chamber, the image closed caption subtitled:

“What did I just hear?”

“Nothing. This is a sound proof room.”

Grudgingly, I accepted I was going to have to watch this film. Velvet Buzzsaw has so far received a theatrical release in precisely one town: Park City, Utah, where the film received its world premiere at the Sundance Festival a few weeks ago. So like most people I watched the picture at home, slumped post-prandial across the sofa, on television. It seemed to suit the format. I refrained from microwaving popcorn.

One of the most immediately noticeable things about Velvet Buzzsaw is that all the art in the film is very bad. Whoever is doing your art, I thought as I was watching, they are doing a very bad job of it. It was only afterwards, checking IMDB, that I see apparently that at least the “graffiti art works” (which were particularly bad, amongst all the bad things in the film) are credited to “Banksy”.

I’m sure at least some part of this is a joke. But I am not a hundred percent sure which part or how much of it. Did Banksy not really do the graffiti art works? Is that the joke? Or did in fact Banksy make the graffiti art works and deliberately make them bad as a joke at the expense of (other) graffiti artists? Or perhaps the joke was on supposedly clueless gallerists and other assorted art world types who we are to presume cannot tell this obviously very bad graffiti art from the good stuff, the real deal (Banksy himself?).

Is the joke by Banksy or at his expense? Or both? Or neither? In none of these situations does the joke become funny. Really bad art is rarely funny (if it was, you would have to doubt its badness).

We may grant that the graffiti art works (whether in fact truly by Banksy himself or his ‘studio’ or by some art department wag) are at least supposed to be bad. But not all the art in the film is supposed to be bad. At least some of the art in the film – the art whose discovery provides this film with its inciting incident – is clearly supposed to be good, to exhibit those certain qualities that are meant to define and delimit what good art is. It is – within the narrative universe of the film – powerful, affecting, captivating, “sublime”, even heart-wrenching, emotionally draining, potentially deadly. (This art is also bad).

The trope of art as a thing that is dangerous, hazardous to one’s health, even fatal is not a new arrival with Velvet Buzzsaw. It would be easy to show that it is at least as old as, and perhaps in some sense even constitutive of, the whole project of modern art. Part of the problem with Velvet Buzzsaw is that it uses the clown-like performance of Jake Gyllenhaal, this Harpo Marx on steroids, to set up the audience’s expectations for a satire on the art world. What we get instead is a reaffirmation of some of the art world’s oldest and hoariest old myths, its most cherished clichés (including that of the art world parody itself).

One of the key lines in the film is delivered by Zawe Ashton’s character, Josephina, some three-quarters of the way through. Confronting the young graffiti artist that had signed to the gallery she worked for about his decision to return to the grassroots collective which had nurtured his work in the first place, she says, “What’s the point of art if no body sees it?” Later, over the end credits, we see John Malkovich’s formerly stymied cynical older artist, Piers, having moved out to his beach house in search of inspiration, drawing endless circular patterns into the wet sand with a stick. The camera pans out to reveal a vast earthwork on a monumental scale, visible to no-one but Piers himself. Here, the film seems to be saying, is the truly creative act: personal, individual, private, unsullied by money or the politics of collective work, and utterly, utterly safe, posing no sort of threat to anyone or anything.

The other key line in the film is delivered twice, once at the very beginning and once almost at the very end: “Have you ever felt invisible?” This is ultimately a movie about what we see and what we don’t, who gets to see and be seen and who remains outside that, with the strong implication that the real power – the true ‘art’ – is always in the hands of the invisible, whether that’s the outsider or underground artist, or the occult forces a work might unleash. But why do we equate the obscure with the true, from whence this equivalence of truth and its concealing?

The meme I had seen on Twitter finally proved deceptive. I had been misled. The scene in the anechoic chamber is not a snoop cocked at the long history of silent or otherwise absent art works – not just Cage’s 4’33’’ but Yves Klein’s Voids and Nam June Paik’s Zen for Film (who is referenced in the film, as “Nom June Peck”) and Rauschenberg’s White Paintings as well as empty galleries by Roman Ondak and Robert Irwin and Laurie Parsons and several others not to mention silent recordings by Andy Warhol, John Lennon, Jarrod Fowler, Sonic Youth, and Afrika Bambaataa. If anything it is quite the reverse.

Here is the scene: Morf Vandewalt (Gylenhaal) is an art critic feared and revered for his imperious judgements, but in the last few days several of his friends and acquaintances have died under mysterious circumstances – at least one of whom, apparently a suicide, immediately after reading Vandewalt’s withering review of his work. Vandewalt arrives at the gallery, apparently late, understandably flustered. The gallerist welcomes him and shows him into a room within a room, all rubberised cones jutting from the walls with yellow tips. He closes the door, leaving Wandewalt in the chamber alone in complete silence. He starts freaking out.

He hears voices, reading all his own most scathing critiques. Soon, he’s sweating, collapsing to the floor. The door opens again. “What did I just hear?” The work hasn’t even started yet. There’s a fault with the computer.

So it’s not a riff on the emperor’s new clothes, a gag about an ‘empty’ work. It does, however, say something about how powerful an experience being in an empty, soundless room can be. This is a point that may prove to be salient not only for the history of artworks – whether silent, empty, invisible or otherwise – but also for the future of cinema.

Velvet Buzzsaw is on Netflix