Graveyard Bound

I am extremely excited to announce a project that at first glance might seem far from my usual sphere: on March 15 Graveyard Bound, the album I have been working on over the past year, will be released.

In fact, music for me has always been a fundamental aspect of the personal investigation that also inspired this blog. Those familiar with my work will find in Graveyard Bound some of the obsessions and passions that have always fueled my research: ecstasy, shadow, sacred violence, melancholy, old-time atmospheres, the marriage of cruelty and beauty, and death.

Graveyard Bound is meant to be a kind of strange blend of swamp blues, psych rock, ethnic sounds, and Gothic Americana. The album was initially conceived, during the pandemic isolation, as an experiment in remote recording, as the musicians (my old musical accomplices since we were teenagers) performed their parts while scattered in different cities across Europe. This resulted in a sound that was imperfect, sometimes shaky, brittle, creaky, but paradoxically more alive than if we had recorded together in the studio. We then mixed at the Production House in Milan, and the final mastering was done through an analog SSL mixer to give the tracks an even more vintage sound. Finally, I could not have hoped for a better album cover than the wonderful illustration signed by the great Swiss artist Thomas Ott.

The album will be released on all major streaming platforms, although by preference I suggest Bandcamp, which, by philosophy and mission, is somewhat its natural habitat, and where it is also possible to consult the lyrics of each track: the album will be available from March 15 by following this link.
On Bandcamp it will also be possible to support my work in two ways: by downloading the digital version of the album in high quality, which grants a bonus track entitled Ring-A-Round The Rosie; or by ordering the limited 12″ edition of the album printed on BioVinyl, an eco-friendly kind of vinyl, with lyrics on the inner sleeve.
With the occasion, I also opened an Instagram profile dedicated exclusively to music (you can follow it by clicking here), so as to keep blogging and music activities separate.

See you on the 15h, then: I am most curious to know what you think. Happy listening!

Links, Curiosities & Mixed Wonders – 28

Here is a new collection of trivia and oddities to start the year off right; enjoy!

  • Let’s begin with an extraordinary case reported in September 1988 in the British Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology:

The patient was a 15-year-old girl employed in a local bar. She was admitted to hospital after a knife fight involving her, a former lover and a new boyfriend. Who exactly stabbed whom was not quite clear but all three participants in the small war were admitted with knife injuries. The girl had some minor lacerations of the left hand and a single stab-wound in the upper abdomen.

The laparotomy revealed two holes in her stomach, resulting from a single stab wound; the stomach was empty and no gastric fluid spillage was noted in the abdomen, so the doctors sutured the wound and the young patient fully recovered within 10 days.
The bad story seemed to be resolved when, precisely 278 days later, the girl came back to the hospital with sharp pains in her abdomen, and as soon as they saw her the doctors immediately understood that the young woman was pregnant and about to give birth. On closer examination, however, there came a surprise: although the uterus was contracting normally and the cervix was almost fully dilated, the patient had no vagina. Between the labia minora, below the urethral meatus, there was only a shallow skin dimple. The baby, a perfectly healthy male, was delivered by cesarean section, but at that point

curiosity could not be contained any longer and the patient was interviewd with the help of a sympathetic nursing sister. The whole story did not become completely clear during that day but, with some subsequent inquiries, the whole saga emerged.
The patient was well aware of the fact that she had no vagina and she had started oral experiments after disappointing attempts at conventional intercourse. Just before she was stabbed in the abdomen she had practised fellatio with her new boyfriend and was caught in the act by her former lover. The fight with knives ensued. [Subsequently] she had been worried about the increase in her abdominal size but could not believe she was pregnant although it had crossed her mind more often as her girth increased and as people around her suggested that she was pregnant. […] The young mother, her family, and the likely father adapted themselves rapidly to the new situation and some cattle changed hands to prove that there were no hard feelings. […] A plausible explanation for this pregnancy is that spermatozoa gained access to the reproductive organs via the injured gastrointestinal tract. It is known that spermatozoa do not survive long in an environment with a low pH, but it is also known that saliva has a high pH and that a starved person does not produce acid under normal circumstances. […] The fact that the son resembled the father excludes an even more miraculous conception.

  • Katharina Detzel (above) was committed to a mental hospital in 1907 for performing abortions and sabotaging a railroad line in political protest. While confined in the asylum, she constructed a life-size doll with male features, using straw from her mattress. The doll provided her with venting and comfort: she punched it when she was angry and danced with it when she felt happy.
  • In Atlantic City until the 1970s there was a show, dangerous and cruel, that was all the rage: diving into the sea from 18 meters high with horses. (Thanks, Roberto!)
  • Flash news: we have two noses.

  • The facial expression these young ladies are making is called ahegao, and many of you may know that it derives from Japanese hentai in which upturned/crossed eyes, stuck-out tongue and flushing cheeks are used to represent the height of sexual arousal. This pose, which is allusive while not being explicitly pornographic, moved from comic books to the Internet in a short time, becoming a widespread phenomenon on social media. Interestingly, tracing the history of the ahegao face reveals that it owes all its fortune to Japanese censorship.
  • Let’s stay in the Land of the Rising Sun: in 1803 some strange, UFO-like vessel ran aground on the shores of Japan. Inside was a beautiful red-haired teenager, dressed in strange clothes and unable to speak Japanese. The inhabitants, convinced that she might be a princess from a distant country, and wanting to avoid trouble with the local authorities, decided… to throw her back into the sea. Truth or legend?
  • An incredible resource for all artists, and more: J.G. Heck’s Iconographic Encyclopedia, published between 1849 and 1851, has been digitized in a new interactive form that includes more than 13,000 spectacular illustrations. (In each section, the “Plates only” button at the top allows you to exclude the text.)

  • Above is one of the small robots appearing in the science fiction film Silent Running (1972), capable of moving in a funny, almost human-like manner. A very thorough article reveals their “secret”: they were basically costumes operated by legless actors. Director Douglas Trumbull, who at the time was accused of being insensitive about employing disabled people, recalls in interviews that the four actors actually had a great time and were handsomely paid for their job.
  • Speaking of cinema, here is some utter genius at work. Starting in the 1930s, director Melton Barker made the same film, The Kidnappers Foil, more than 130 times, using the same script and largely the same shots. The subject was basic: a little girl named Betty Davis is kidnapped on her birthday; the town’s children, attracted by the reward put up by the missing girl’s father, organize several search parties; they finally succeed in rescuing her, and in the finale a big party erupts in which the children perform dances and musical numbers.
    What, then, was Barker’s gimmick? The film was played exclusively by the children residing in the town where he was staying at the time. Parents gladly paid a small fee for their children to be immortalized on film; within a few weeks of the filming being finished, the movie was ready to be shown in local movie theaters, to the delight of all the residents.
    In this way, moving from town to town across the United States, Melton Barker was able to sustain himself for 40 years. In 2012 the few surviving prints of The Kidnappers Foil were added to the National Film Registry for preservation as historically significant; you can see some versions of the film on this website.
  • In Lviv, during the Nazi occupation, many Polish intellectuals managed to avoid concentration camps and receive additional food rations by undertaking a singular job: louse-feeder. (Thanks, Roberto!)

  • The story of the leg of Santa Anna — a Mexican politician, general, dictator, and president — is almost as adventurous as that of its owner. The Generalisimo had been wounded in 1838 by cannon fire during a battle against the French, and had suffered an amputation below his left knee. He had initially buried the leg on his property in Vera Cruz. Once he became president of Mexico again in 1842, he had his leg exhumed and taken, in a luxurious ornate carriage, to Mexico City; there he had prepared an elaborate state funeral for his amputated limb, burying it in a small glass coffin. Two years later, the Santa Anna government was overthrown and a mob of rioters, in addition to destroying the president’s statues, dug up his leg and dragged it through the streets until there was nothing left of it.
    After regaining power, during the Battle of Cerro Gordo in 1847, Santa Anna was attacked by surprise while he was having lunch. Fleeing in a hurry, he left behind his wooden leg: it was collected as a trophy by U.S. infantry soldiers. That is why the prosthesis pictured above is still in the Illinois State Military Museum today.
  • And let’s talk about animals: in Brazil, in the small seaside town of Laguna, residents and dolphins have been joining forces to fish for 140 years. Only there is some doubt that it is the dolphins who have trained the humans.
  • News from last year but which for some reason I find touching: some archaeologists are hunting for the grave of Nancy, an elephantess who escaped from a traveling circus in 1891.
  • And finally, here is a spider doing a cartwheel (via Bestiale):

That’s all, see you next time!

Happy 2024!

In perhaps a somewhat snobbish way, I have always given little thought to established holidays or conventional subdivisions of the continuum into months, days, minutes; yet today, as I find myself in a phase of renewal, I am thankful that my fellow human beings invented New Year’s Eve!
Indeed the concept of moving forward, of changing, of a new beginning that this day symbolizes — all these ideas are especially comforting when one is in a time of transition.
And I really am off to a new start: the year that has just begun promises to be challenging, but dense with initiatives that I am excited about. Among the many projects on the horizon, some of which are already in the works, there is one that is especially close to my heart and which I will announce very shortly.

It’s off again indeed, and off again together: as always, the fundamental stimulus comes to me from the affection and enthusiasm you guys show me daily with messages, comments, e-mails etc., and it is the fantastic community created over the years, bringing together all of us weird and eclectic wonder-seekers, that gives me the real motivation to continue.

And while we are at it, this is not something I say often, however if you find my work interesting and would like to buy me a coffee or support me in a more concrete way, you might consider donating via PayPal. In fact, expenses are always heavy, even just to run this site, which is subject to significant traffic spikes and therefore needs large resources to stay up; any help is appreciated.

That said, I would like to thank you and wish you a very weird 2024: our usual appointment is at the edge of what is commonly known, to discover more strange, disturbing, surprising wonders… you know where to find me!

The fantastic visions of Steven Arnold

It is unfair and inexplicable that the figure of Steven Arnold, an eclectic and highly refined artist and influencer ante litteram, has remained so little known: it is only in recent years that people have begun to recognize his exceptional weight, from his visionary work to his central role in the cultural scene of the 30-year period from the 1960s to the 1990s.

Born on May 18, 1943, in Oakland, California, Steven showed a creative nature early on: as a child he spent hours locked in the attic of his home playing with puppets, for which he constructed elaborate costumes. In a sense he never stopped doing this until the end of his life, although by then, instead of puppets, he now had flesh-and-blood models and spectacular sets that he personally composed.
In high school Steven met Pandora (who was to become his muse, collaborator, and best friend), with whom he spent afternoons in his bedroom losing himself in reveries fueled by joints, mysticism, and playful cross-dressing.

In 1961, Arnold won a scholarship to the San Francisco Art Institute. In the summer of 1963 he made a move to Paris, studying at the École des Beaux-Arts, but soon becoming bored, he moved to Formentera where he stayed for three months in a hippie commune. There he tried LSD for the first time, an experience that changed his life, as he later recounted: “this new drug was so euphoric and visionary, so positive and mind expanding. I ascended to another dimension, one so beautiful and spiritual that I was never the same.”

Upon returning to the United States, he devoted himself to his passion for filmmaking, and from the start the prospects were encouraging: his graduation short film, Messages, Messages, was screened at Cannes and other prestigious festivals
For the premiere in San Francisco in February 1968, Arnold decided that he would go big and, together with his collaborator Michael Wiese, rented the Palace Theatre for one evening; in addition to his short film, the evening included screenings of a number of French films selected by Arnold (including works by Méliès and Man Ray). The initiative was a resounding success, with 2,000 tickets sold, so much so that the theater managers suggested that Arnold curate a weekly film review.

Thus, a month later, the Nocturnal Dream Show was born, the very first example of a midnight movies review in history.
The themed evenings, complete with dress code, that Arnold organized at the Palace were not only a chance to see extremely rare films − such silent masterpieces as Metropolis, Betty Boop cartoons, old surrealist films, early twentieth-century pornography − but they soon became a cult phenomenon and a fixture for the Bay Area’s hippie counterculture.

The Nocturnal Dream Shows were also the moment when Steven Arnold’s ability to act as an “attractor” emerged, as he created crazy and colorful happenings, capable of bringing different worlds together: in the audience, among kids smoking pot or engaging in free love, it was not uncommon to run into actors, artists and writers of the caliber of George Harrison, Ellen Burstyn, Janis Joplin, Truman Capote or Tennessee Williams.

During those years Arnold, while staying out of the spotlight, had a major influence on fashion and visual culture: not only did he design some of the first rock posters for the famous Matrix nightclub (where the “San Francisco sound” was historically born), or invented the look that would be made famous a few years later by Tim Curry in the Rocky Horror Picture Show, but he also gave for the first time the opportunity to perform on a stage to The Cockettes, a drag and psychedelic theater collective that immediately became a cornerstone of the San Francisco underground scene.

Meanwhile, Arnold also continued his directing career, signing in 1971 Luminous Procuress, an experimental and lysergic feature film that once again was acclaimed at the Cannes Film Festival.
Two years later, Arnold met Salvador Dali at the St. Regis Hotel in New York, where the Surrealist painter was residing with his entourage. Dali, who was certainly not known for the generosity of his compliments, exploded into unprecedented enthusiasm when he saw Arnold’s work. He rented the hotel’s huge ballroom to screen Luminous Procuress; the entire New York elite, including Andy Warhol, attended the event.

From that moment on, Arnold became his protégé. He often sat at Dali’s feet like an adept before his guru, or by his side during dinner, and soon the two became inseparable. In the alternate reality they created together, they spent hours devising fantastical garments, dreamlike designs and surreal inventions
The following year Dalí invited him to Spain to work on the decorations of his Theater-Museum in Figueres. After attending the opening, he definitely became a favorite of Dali, who called him the Prince of his Court of Miracles — that is, the parterre of stars who revolved around him, from Amanda Lear to Marianne Faithfull, from Mick Jagger to David Bowie.

It was after his experience with Salvador Dali in the mid-1970s that Steven Arnold found his most congenial medium of expression: photography.
He rented an abandoned pretzel factory in Los Angeles, which he renamed Zanzibar Studios and turned into his laboratory. There he began shooting his extraordinary black-and-white tableau vivants, creating elaborate, baroque sets from the endless props and clothes he had collected over the years.

Steven Arnold’s photographs, to which he ascribed spiritual value and which he approached as meditation exercises, propose a veritable surreal cosmology in which reverence for the divine is diluted by a blunt camp humor. Here angelic and ethereal figures are depicted through a seductive, erotically charged carnality in a playful celebration of fluidity (ahead of its time). It is no coincidence that one of the deities Arnold was most fond of was Guanyin, the “drag” Buddha who is depicted in female form in parts of East Asia.

The density of the visual layout and the striking attention to detail also suggest an essential element of Arnold’s photography: even when he engages in ironic, queer reworking of religious icons, he shows no intent to shock the viewer. On the contrary, what emerges is the search for a language well-suited for his generation, capable of approaching mysticism and the sacred in a joyful and imaginative way. The images on which his pictures are based, in fact, often came to him in his dreams or during meditation; transposing these visions thus became a shamanic, almost priestly act, and at the same time theatrical, as if he was staging the unrepresentable.

From time to time inspired by his dream world, religions and Jungian archetypes, Arnold produced a vast body of photographs, sketches, sculptures and assemblages. At the same time he cultivated extensive social relationships, and his studio soon became a new hub for gatherings, daily parties and aperitifs attended by famous names and emerging artists.
Unfortunately, in 1988, just when he was at the height of his popularity, Arnold received the most dreaded diagnosis, that of AIDS.

In this excerpt from an interview with Ellen Burstyn, his close friend, we see him address the subject with the grace and irony that were his hallmarks.

After his death in 1994, Steven Arnold’s name and work remained relatively unknown to the general public for a long time.
Recently, thanks in part to the work of Vishnu Dass, director of the Steven Arnold Museum and Archives (and author of a documentary about the artist’s eccentric and unconventional life), his importance is beginning to be recognized — not only as a visual artist of great originality, but as a pioneering figure in queer culture as well. As Dass himself stated in an interview, “the things that he was really nurturing and fostering in his studio spaces are what people are fighting for in the culture at large today; and he had already made that a reality within the walls of his studios in the Sixties.”

Here is the wonderful Instagram page of the Steven Arnold Archives.

Upcoming September Events

A five-week course on the representation of death through the ages, a meeting at a curious film festival, a conference about a major archaeological find… here are September’s events!

Starting September 3, and continuing with a date every Saturday, I will teach a 5-week online course for Morbid Anatomy on the iconology of death from antiquity to social networks. It will be a richly illustrated journey spanning three thousand years, tracing the historical variations and semantic richness of allegories of death: from the depictions of the ancient world (Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Etruscans) to the medieval danse macabre, from the “Triumphs of Death” to Flemish vanitas, from dissected corpses in early modern anatomical illustrations to the morbid infatuations of nineteenth-century Romanticism, from surrealist experiments to contemporary artists who include authentic corpses in their works. Find more information and the opportunity to register on the Morbid Anatomy page; the course will be held via Zoom in English.

On Sept. 6, I will be a guest at Garofano Rosso, Italy’s “smallest and coldest” film festival to be held in Forme di Massa d’Albe (AQ). It’s been many years since this tiny hamlet in the heart of the Abruzzo Apennines served as the location for John Houston’s The Bible (1966) and Valerio Zurlini’s The Desert of the Tartars (1976); but, thanks to the good spirits of a group of passionate young folks, once a year Forme gets to “breathe cinema” again, with a surprisingly rich program of free screenings and events. When they invited me, I accepted enthusiastically, because on the one hand such an initiative cannot leave my cinephile soul cold (cinema has been my first love, and was my main job for almost twenty years), and on the other hand this is a moving example of cultural commitment and resistance.

Finally, on September 9, I will take part in a major conference, where the details of an exceptional historical find will be released. Nothing was known about the whereabouts of the remains of the Marquises Pallavicino, one of Italy’s most important feudal families, until a wooden box containing human bones and bearing the names of Gian Lodovico I, Anastasia Torelli, Rolando II and Laura Caterina Landi was discovered in 2020, walled inside the Basilica of Cortemaggiore (PC).

During the meeting (to be held at 9 p.m. at the Eleonora Duse Theater in Cortemaggiore) the results of the archaeological investigations carried out on the remains will be announced, and I will be in prestigious company: speakers include paleopathologist Dario Piombino-Mascali, bioarchaeologist Alessandra Morrone and historian Marco Pellegrini.

Taxiderman

On Friday, June 17, I will be in Padua for a very unique event, an evening devoted entirely to taxidermy and the sociological, psychological and cultural implications of the art of stuffing animals.

At 9 p.m. inside the prestigious Zuckermann Palace there will be a screening of Taxiderman, directed by Rossella Laeng, a documentary focusing on the work of taxidermist Alberto Michelon.

I wrote about him five years ago, in this post: besides being the only taxidermist in Italy to offer “artistic” (i.e., non-naturalistic) taxidermy creations, Alberto also specializes in taxidermy of pets.

I have always found it very moving that different species manage to create a deep relationship with each other, in spite of (or perhaps because of) the coldness of the world; when the affection between a human being and another animal becomes so intense, it is clear that grieving can be difficult and painful. For this reason, on Friday we will also discuss taxidermy in relation to pet grief with various personalities from science and culture: in addition to the meeting with Alberto Michelon and director Rossella Laeng, the evening will therefore include talks by Anna Cordioli (psychoanalyst), Stefania Uccheddu (Head of the Service of Behavioral Medicine, Clinic S. Marco), Gianni Vitale (journalist, President Promovies), and myself. I will talk about the history of taxidermy and its relationship to other types of remains preservation, such as relics.

If you would like to reserve your ticket for the evening, you can do so on Eventbrite. I look forward to seeing you there!

The Death of David Cronenberg

The short film The Death of David Cronenberg, published on September 19, 2021, is only 56 seconds long.
But these 56 seconds are disturbing, touching and unforgettable.

Signed by Cronenberg himself together with his daughter, the photographer Caitlin Cronenberg, it is a stripped-down scene focused on confronting one’s own mortality.

The Death of David Cronenberg is, according to the director himself, “a little metaphorical piece about a person embracing his own death. I embrace it, partially, because I have no choice: this is man’s fate.”

A brief and essential vision that is also intimately personal.
The director’s last years, in fact, were marked by two difficult griefs: in 2020 he lost Denise Cronenberg, his beloved sister and costume designer in most of his films, and three years earlier his wife Carolyn Zeifman had also passed away.
“[She] died in that house, in a bed, and it felt when she died, partly, like I died, and I still feel that. That corpse is my wife to me. […] It is a film about love and the transient aspect of being human.”

This dimension of personal confrontation also emerges from the peculiar genesis of this short film.
It all started with when his daughter Caitlin Cronenberg proposed him to make a short film to be tokenized as NFT.
Thinking of a possible project, the director was reminded of an episode that happened to him on the set of the SLASHER series, produced by Shudder.
As Cronenberg himself recounted, when he was working on the fourth season of the series “there was a moment, when the special effects people said, we’ve got a surprise for you,” Cronenberg said. “I was introduced to my corpse, and it was terrific.”

So, thinking back to that silicone prosthetic body, Cronenberg contacted Toronto’s Black Spot FX in order to borrow it, because “I have unfinished business with this dead version of me.”

Once the body was brought home (well hidden, so as not to alert the neighbors!), it was placed in Caitlin’s childhood bed. Cronenberg wasn’t immediately sure what to do with it: “I left it up there for a couple days and I’d occasionally just go and check it out. It had an emotional resonance for me.”

Therefore, in a sense, the short film accurately reflects the actual situation of the author, who in those days was locked in the house with the simulacrum of a corpse with his own features. A kind of bizarre shock therapy, as Cronenberg jokingly confirms: “To be able to actually kiss your [dead self], there’s no question it’s fantastic. I think everyone should do this. Everyone should have a corpse made by Black Spot FX.”

David Cronenberg’s cinema, in its entirety, proposes a complex artistic-philosophical reflection that is both surreal and materialistic: for the Canadian director, the exploration of the human psyche necessarily passes through the body, whose incessant and unpredictable mutations are the expression of the quivers of identity.
It is therefore not surprising that even his meditation on death and impermanence is rendered, in this very brief but incisive vision, in dramatically concrete, physical terms.

And at the same time the film is about the paradox of not being able to imagine one’s own death: even if I try to imagine what my funeral will be like, I need a hypothetical observer, because no image can exist without a point of view.
Even the death of others is no less elusive, because it is not empirical but on the contrary translates into a failure of the senses. I can depict in my mind the presence of a person but not their disappearance, which is expressed only “by proxy”, that is, in a sensory absence (all those moments in which the presence of the deceased was normal).

Figurative art — pictorial, plastic, photographic — has always been a way to overcome this impasse. As Mirko Orlando writes,

Death can only exist within the open circuit of life […] because its experience does not concern the deceased (those who die) but the community of survivors who mourn (those who survive). Death is an image because it is first of all imagined, because it can only be encountered on the horizon of its reflection; on the threshold of the corpse, of the photochemical or pictorial traces, of the imprecise boundaries of memories or in the labyrinths of the oneiric dimension. Only there can I meet the dead, only in their double, because it is clear that nothing else is allowed to me as long as I am alive.

(M. Orlando, Ripartire dagli addii, 2010)

That is why Cronenberg’s operation is also a hymn to the power of cinema: every artistic work is a representation, and this mise-en-scène makes it possible to manifest the impossible. Thanks to cinema, Cronenberg even allows himself to visualize the most elusive and inconceivable double: his own corpse, his own future “not being there”.
Finally, and it’s an even more subversive idea, he accepts that corpse, kisses it, cuddles it.
In an era in which at the center of every concern is the healthy body, whose failures (old age, illness, death) are not admitted or tolerated, this image is particularly unsettling and — a rare thing in his filmography — truly sweet.

 

Season Two of Bizzarro Bazar is coming!

On March 21, 2021, the Bizzarro Bazar web series will be back on my YouTube channel with 10 new episodes produced in collaboration with the prestigious Civic Museums of Reggio Emilia.
The episodes, as for the first season, will be published every other week.

By now you know what to expect: strange scientific experiments, quirky characters, human wonders, stories bordering on the impossible — in short, all the classic Bizzarro Bazar repertoire.
As usual, the direction and fantastic animations have been curated by Francesco Erba, but this time we shot the live parts in the exceptional historical collections of the Palazzo dei Musei: in each episode, in the Show & Tell section, one of the museum curators will open a display case just for us, and allow us to discover the most emblematic and curious objects and pieces.

Here is a little trailer to lighten the wait, and see you soon!