David Lynch's The Air is on Fire: The Chronicle of an Age

The cinéastes of Paris have always been the first to afford the truly great movements and practitioners of American cinema the recognition that they deserve. From film noir to Samuel Fuller and Nicholas Ray, all have been lauded in the pages of Cahiers du Cinéma and featured in screenings at the Cinémathèque Français, often before receiving similar respect in their homeland. And now, between 3 March and 27 May, the city's Foundation Cartier Pour L'Art Contemporain is continuing this happy trend by hosting an exhibition of the artworks of David Lynch. This exhibition, entitled The Air is on Fire, is the first time that so many of Lynch's works have been put on public display, and it thus gives us unprecedented access to one of the filmic world's most incisive minds.

And access to Lynch's mind is exactly what The Air is on Fire is all about, with even the setting reinforcing this impression. In accordance with Lynch's own designs, the normally light and airy Cartier Foundation has been transformed into an industrial otherworld. Pictures hang from imposing metal girders, and the entire space is pervaded by a disquieting soundtrack quite reminiscent of that to Eraserhead (1977). Visitors to the gallery can even involve themselves more closely in the exhibition by pressing buttons which add new noises to the soundscape. The overall effect is one of complete immersion: upon passing under the purple neon 'David Lynch' sign that marks the entrance to the gallery, both time and location prolapse, and one belongs to Lynch's world.

Aside from this most extraordinary of settings, the most striking initial impression is created by the range of artistic media on display – from drawings to photographs, and from paintings to short films. However, despite this variety of form, several themes are common to all of the works, and recall those in Lynch's films.

For example, take Lynch's concern about malevolent forces impinging upon places of outward beauty and innocence – the Biblical snake in small-town America – which is most apparent in his Blue Velvet (1986) and the television series Twin Peaks (1990-91). This concern is succinctly stated by the large-scale painting Shadow of a Twisted Hand Across My House (1988), which features a house being swamped by a large, dark hand; an ominous 'other' which threatens the comforting patterns of the everyday. As the house is both two-dimensional and childish in composition (a 'stick drawing'), it is clear that it is not only the everyday but also the innocence of youth that is under attack. This idea is developed by another work in the same series – Oww God, Mom, the Dog He Bited Me! (1988) – in which Lynch juxtaposes the title's juvenile syntax with the violent image of a child who has a bloody smear where his head should be. Does Lynch's work, then, lament the loss of childhood? This certainly could be the case when we consider his filmic output, in which it is often those on the cusp of adulthood – and its preoccupations of sex, drugs and violence – who are most imperiled: such as Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) in Blue Velvet and Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) in Twin Peaks.

Given the world's dark impulses, we might assume that widespread psychological trauma is inevitable for humankind. And a plethora of Lychian protagonists – from Henry Spencer (Jack Nance) in Eraserhead, to Nikki Grace (Laura Dern) in Inland Empire (2006) – appear to support this conclusion. To their alienated ranks we might add 'Bob', who features in a number of canvasses (this is not, apparently, the Bob of Twin Peaks – the name is just one which Lynch is fond of). These pictures depict Bob's dreams and twisted imaginings as he tries to comprehend both the world and his place in it. However, as the title of one of the paintings – Bob Finds Himself in a World for which He Has No Understanding (2000) – indicates, his existential quest is fruitless. That there is to be no harmony for Bob is also reflected in way he is put together; composed of resinous daubings and doll parts, Bob is God's vomit rather than His most-blessed creation. Accordingly, then, Bob's interactions with the world are confused and only lead to further suffering – the work Bob Loves Sally Until She is Blue in the Face shows him engaged in demented intercourse with Sally, whose indistinct blue features convey fathomless pain. In fact, the anguished figure of Sally recalls the work of Francis Bacon; an artist whom Lynch cites, in the exhibition catalogue, as his “...all time favourite. A huge influence on me.”

Mirroring Bob's treatment of Sally, the exhibition is saturated with images of women in distress. Take Lynch's series of Distorted Nudes (2004) in which pornographic photographs from the early 20th Century have been digitally eviscerated until the women are left grotesque and limbless. Or the 2004 work Well... I Can Dream, Can't I?, which depicts a naked woman collapsed in a chair, with her legs apart, a gun in her hand and the legend 'Well... I can dream, can't I?' scrawled beside her. However, to conclude from such images that Lynch has misogynistic tendencies ignores the humanism inherent in his work. Just as his images of children in violent situations critique a world in which childish innocence is eroded, so too do his images of women in violent situations critique a world in which misogyny is sadly rife. One suspects that the prone, naked woman's curt “No,” in response to the knife-wielding man's question in the work Do You Want to Know What I Really Think? (2003), represents a more general dismissal of hostile, male attitudes towards women; that is, a dismissal that comes from the artist himself. Lynch, then, is not peddling a modern ill but is instead attacking it, and in this brand of womens' rights campaigning we might identify an under-appreciated political dimension to his work. It would be a commendable task, for some future study, to investigate just how deeply these elements run.

Aside from the above themes, the famous Lynchian motifs are also prevalent throughout the exhibition. There are dogs, insects and luscious-lipped sirens aplenty; and, excitingly for fans of Twin Peaks, the words “Fire Walk With Me” appear on more than one occasion. Cinema itself might also be added as a motif, insofar as many of Lynch's static artworks have cinematic qualities; including dialogue and story, as well as compositions that recall filmic mise en scène rather than anything from the tradition of painting. One senses that Lynch is trying to extend the boundaries and communicative properties of the medium.

One of the highlights of the exhibition is its presentation of over 500 drawings, sketches and notes that Lynch has collected in notebooks since his youth. Although they may appear to be mere doodlings – some on envelopes, napkins and post-it notes – they are nonetheless what Lynch returns to time and again in order to gain inspiration. Further, it is obvious that behind the various sketches lies a irrepressible artistic talent that just yearns to create, and will take any available opportunity to do so. Indeed, we must be glad that the advent of digital technology has now further freed Lynch's creative potential, so that he may make films with something approaching the ease of scribbling on a scrap of paper (as evidenced by the numerous digital shorts that he has recently compiled on his website, as well as by the DV-shot Inland Empire).

And many of the fruits of this digital toil are exhibited in what is perhaps, for the ardent film fan, the treasure of the exhibition: a small movie theatre which has been erected in the gallery's basement for the purpose of screening Lynch's short film output. This theatre has been designed by Lynch to resemble the stage in Eraserhead, and – as all the correct details are present; from a checkered floor to opulent, velvet curtains – there may never be a more perfect venue in which to watch his films. For posterity, here's a complete list of the films screened:

Six Men Getting Sick (1967)
The Alphabet (1968)
The Grandmother (1970)
Out Yonder (2001)
Industrial Soundscapes #1 (2002)
The Darkened Room (2002)
Rabbits (2002)
All 8 episodes of the Dumbland (2002) series
Boat (2003)
Steps (2003)

Time constraints determined that, of these, I only managed to watch The Grandmother and two episodes of Dumbland. Whilst I have seen these films before, the surroundings injected them with a new power and vitality. As this article is not the proper place for full reviews, it will suffice to say that The Grandmother – a claustrophobic fairytale in which a young boy finds escape from his cruel parents in the titular figure – is, in particular, a vital piece of cinema which sublimates numerous Lynchian themes into a series of ethereal images (more detail on Lynch's early short films, including The Grandmother, can be found in the excellent chapter on Eraserhead in Hoberman and Rosenbaum's Midnight Movies).

In the end, what The Air is On Fire so gloriously achieves is to reconnect the viewer with Lynch and his work. For too long now, the adjective 'Lynchian' has been used as a synonym for 'weird' or 'oddball', whilst losing sight of the grand intelligence that underpins these superficial elements of his output. Rather than just being mere exercises in the uncanny, Lynch's films are a natural extrapolation from his work in other media, and their consistent theme is the dehumanising and damaging effect of the modern world. His profound investigations into this topic mean that Lynch should be regarded as a chronicler of an age, and its ills, in the same ilk as the great novelist Theodore Dreiser. Indeed, to extend this comparison, The Air is On Fire is Lynch's An American Tragedy: a masterwork, the truths of which are noxious and almost unpalatable. But what else should we expect? After all, when the air is on fire, it can be difficult to breath.

A sour postscript: why is it that this exhibition is being held in Paris rather than in Lynch's homeland? Could it be that America doesn't afford him the true respect that he deserves? (A question that's still valid in the face of Lynch's four Oscar nominations). In the absence of any extenuating circumstances, the oversight of the American art-world may be unforgivable. But, in the end, maybe we should just be grateful of that country's failings – they do, after all, provide the undercoat for Lynch's art.

Another postscript: although a trip to Paris - and an “in the flesh” encounter with The Air is On Fire - is highly recommended, those who are unable to do so might wish to track down the exhibition's excellent catalogue (available, in English, from amazon.fr). This 456-page book contains reproductions of all of the exhibition's artwork, as well as an extremely insightful interview with Lynch himself (which also features on two enclosed CDs). A selection of the artworks can also be viewed on the Cartier Foundation's website.

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