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There was a moment during my viewing of "Ritual Prototypes for the Afterlife," Dennis Harper's delightfully subversive installation at Lawndale, when it felt like the bottom dropped out of the room. It came during one of the show's two video elements, an interview with a man describing his religious upbringing, how he never really believed in the afterlife but felt obligated due to family pressure. He even wanted very much to believe, but always had a gut feeling that when you're dead, you're dead. "And you wonder if anyone else honestly believes," he says. "It's like when they put those bullshit model boats in the tomb for the journey to the afterlife. How about a real fucking boat?"
They are the words of Tutankhamen, portrayed by Harper as a middle-aged man who happens to be the second-coming version of the boy pharaoh. This brilliant narrative maneuver fleshes out the display of slickly made trompe l'oeil sculptures meant to evoke the interior of a tomb where monumental artifacts and furnishings have been placed to guide a spirit into the afterlife. And it perfectly suits Harper's fictional exploration of Tut's spiritual journey that his tomb would look like a basement storage room at F.A.O. Schwartz.
The tomb is anchored by a massive golden engine. Titled American Idle, the piece resembles the biblical Ark of the Covenant with its outstretched handles used for transport. It symbolizes the engine of American consumerism, but not in an obviously political sense. Here, it may as well be the sculptural image of a god represented by a hieroglyph, a major deity of the religion of American secularism. Its center placement energizes the installation.
Nearby, the Remote Control Killer Bulldozer emits a video projection of its intended victims, most likely UH art students running for their lives through a campus parking lot at night (Harper is a third-year M.F.A. candidate there). The riding-lawn-mower-size sculpture incorporates — like all the pieces on display — materials like cardboard, vinyl, foam and fabrics, but its electrical elements, like the black-light-illuminated mechanics and video projector, instill a funny and sinister "spirit" within the work. The actors run from the dozer like they're being chased by zombies, looking over their shoulders, fake stumbling and feigning silent screams until they're humorously squashed.
A giant, winged motorcycle hangs counterclockwise to the bulldozer. Named Mega Bennu, it's a reference to the Egyptian version of the phoenix, and it's decorated with a red flame motif. Harper has successfully fused biker culture and ancient myth, and the bike's oversized scale amps up the Tut legend to a cartoonish level: Did Tut break his leg and crack his head open jumping the monstrous cycle over the pyramids like an Egyptian Evel Knievel?
While much of "Prototypes" transmits aggression and dominance, passive leisure is represented as well. Lazyboy with Jackals, a silver-lamé upholstered La-Z-Boy chair supported by two statues of the underworld jackal-god Anubis, faces a flat-screen TV playing the Tut interview. One of the dogs even holds a remote control in its mouth. Television, it seems, is essential even in the afterlife. Or maybe the TV screen is a talisman, a viewfinder, and the easy chair is a cockpit. It also doubles as the pharaoh's throne, vacated in death. The appearance of Anubis here also suggests that the massive consumption of entertainment is itself a kind of death.
The video interview serves as a document of the tomb's intended inhabitant. Harper gives an earnest and unflappable performance as the unlikely Tut. To kick it off, the interviewer asks the most obvious of questions, "What was it like to be a boy pharaoh?" Tut's response is hilariously casual: "Well, puberty's a fucked-up time anyway. Imagine you're a king and a god and married to a woman who's been ovulating for two years and your voice hasn't even changed yet. I would have been a seventh grader, for Christ's sake." He reemerged in Cairo, 1967, at age 19, just after Israel took over the Sinai Peninsula. "The Jews had totally kicked Egyptian ass," Tut laments. "Ramses must have been rolling over in his vitrine."
With the blessing of his adopted parents, a Muslim couple in Cairo, he moved to Santa Monica and attended college at UCLA, studying aeronautics. Fast-forwarding, Tut was declared a "suspicious person" after 9/11 due to his religion and knowledge of aviation and taken into custody at a Kansas detention center, where he was interrogated. He regaled the FBI agents with stories of his ancient reign of upper and lower Egypt, his chariot accidents and priesthood training. "I don't know what the FBI thought about my story," he says, "but I'd like to read my file." He's resigned to his "normal" life, but he can't help wondering what's next. "I mean, like, is there life after the afterlife? I tend to doubt it, but, you know, I was wrong before..."
At least one thing will be drastically different when Tut shuffles off again, because Harper has lovingly left the wayward pharaoh a parting gift. There, just counterclockwise from his easy chair, is something real among the amazingly crafted look-alikes adorning his tomb — a real fucking boat.