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Alejandro Jodorowsky: never belonging

August 2015

"A dizzying wealth of details of a peripatetic life in art." Daniel Spicer reports back from the first major museum retrospective of Chilean artist, writer, director and counter cultural magus Alejandro Jodorowsky

Bordeaux’s museum of contemporary art is situated in a former 19th century colonial spice storehouse known as Lainé’s Warehouse. It’s a fortress-like brick edifice, originally founded on suffering and exploitation in the name of cupidity and the acquisition of power, which has been a permanent cathedral to art since 1984. There’s a satisfying alchemical resonance about this transmutation that makes the museum a highly suitable venue for the first major retrospective of the career of Chilean artist Alejandro Jodorowsky. For more than half a century, he’s pursued a brash, hallucinatory artistic vision, which repeatedly invokes the concepts of death, faith, redemption and immortality as basic elements in an obsessive psychological thaumaturgy. Whether working in film, theatre, performance art, comic books or other disciplines, all of Jodorowsky’s work can be seen as an ongoing attempt to understand and deepen his own personal spiritual quest. For this exhibition, Greek architect Andreas Angelidakis has partitioned the museum’s cavernous great nave with sweeping, white walls, creating a series of spaces that focus on different aspects of Jodorowsky’s practice. No attempt is made to present his evolution as an artist in chronological order. Instead, his disparate praxes are grouped in separate areas structured around the major arcana of the Tarot. An oversized deck can be found at the centre of the hall, bearing images from the Tarot of Marseilles, a version which he helped to update in 1993 and which he continues to use in his live readings – part divination, part spoken word performance – one of which he will perform at the museum in October.

The Fool in the Tarot of Marseille. Illustration: Nicolas Conver, 1760


For decades, the symbolism of the Tarot has been a recurring motif in Jodorowsky’s work – particularly in his films. It was a key ingredient in 1973’s The Holy Mountain, the visually striking, psychedelic-surrealist tale of a Christ-like thief’s quest for immortality, aided by a mystical alchemist (portrayed by Jodorowsky himself) and a cabal of astrological avatars. Made at a time when Jodorowsky was exploring Zen asceticism, LSD and floatation tanks, it’s a delirious mix of blasphemous iconography, day-glo absurdism and countercultural skewering of contemporary western culture. The original trailer, shown on a big screen at the heart of the exhibition, also reminds just how important sound was to the film’s aesthetic, with meditative compositions by Don Cherry, sinister drones and liturgical chants creating a brooding, ritualistic atmosphere. In fact, much of the film is composed of physical rituals enacted for the camera – the ceremonial cutting of hair, washing of the body, placing of objects such as swords and silks in strictly proscribed patterns – all of which were so central to the film that the original script on display is little more than a slim, stapled booklet containing the bare minimum of dialogue. There’s a powerful sense that these actions weren’t just performed for the film, they were magical workings integral to Jodorowsky’s own personal quest.

Still from The Holy Mountain

The fact that Jodorowsky could get away with making such an uncompromisingly avant garde feature-length work is largely due to the notoriety he’d enjoyed three years earlier with El Topo, a violent, Zen-influenced acid western in which he plays a Mexican gunfighter who becomes a wandering mendicant searching for enlightenment. It was an underground sensation and the first ever midnight movie, screening for seven months at the Elgin Theatre in Chelsea, Manhattan, largely due to enthusiastic support from John Lennon and Yoko Ono. This friendship is demonstrated by a sweetly naive, handwritten letter from Lennon, asking the “great artist” if he’d consider translating the lyrics of “Imagine” into Spanish. In fact, it was Lennon who persuaded Apple Corps president Allen Klein to distribute El Topo in the US and give Jodorowsky one million dollars towards the making of The Holy Mountain. But not all of his directorial endeavours were so successful, as made clear in the 2013 documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune, which charted his quixotic attempt in the mid-70s to adapt Frank Herbert’s sci-fi novel Dune for the screen. Propelled by enormous self-belief and a messianic conviction that his film would actually serve as a catalyst for humanity’s spiritual evolution, Jodorowsky assembled an incredible cast of collaborators. Mick Jagger, Salvador Dali and Orson Welles would star. Pink Floyd and Magma would provide the soundtrack. Dan O’Bannon was on board to provide special effects, while artists HR Giger, Chris Foss and Jean Giraud (aka French illustrator Moebius) were employed to create extensive concept art and a storyboarded script the size of a phone book – the only copy of which now sits rather forlornly in a glass case in Bordeaux. In the end, of course, the Hollywood moneymen became wary of the maverick director’s inspired ambitions and backed out. Jodorowsky’s Dune became one of the greatest movies never made – even while it went on to influence the look and feel of sci-fi blockbusters for the next few decades (O’Bannon, Foss, Giger and Giraud all collaborated on Ridley Scott’s Alien in 1979).

John DiFool in The Incal

It’s unsurprising, then, that Jodorowsky was drawn to the medium of comic strips where the realisation of his huge ideas wasn’t limited by budget. From 1980, he resumed a working relationship with Moebius and created The Incal, the longrunning sci-fi tale of anti-hero John DiFool (The Fool in Tarot) and his search for fulfilment. With its huge cosmic scale and mystical underpinnings, it was a big hit with a French public already familiar with both the tradition of bandes dessinées strips and Moebius’s own Metal Hurlant underground comic (it was also sufficiently echoed in Luc Besson’s 1997 film The Fifth Element for Jodorowsky and Moebius to launch an unsuccessful law suit). Jodorowsky has since collaborated on numerous other graphic novels – but the exhibition makes clear that his interest in the comic strip predated The Incal: a whole wall of the exhibition is devoted to Fábulas Pánicas, the weekly full-page strip he contributed to the Mexican newspaper El Heraldo de México between 1967–73. Combining ink drawings and psychedelic collage, the strips presented playful mystic fables, tackling themes of esoteric non-conformism and spiritual illumination, and featured a recurring guru figure suggesting a contemporaneous Latin American counterpart to Robert Crumb’s Mr Natural. The strips themselves were a nod to the Mouvement Panique – an artistic movement named after the Greek god Pan, founded in Paris in 1962 by Jodorowsky, Fernando Arrabal and Roland Torpor as a response to the perception that surrealism had become too conservative and respectable.

An instalment of Jodorowsky's Fábulas Pánicas weekly comic strip


The Mouvement Panique’s kinetic, hand drawn manifestos indicate how primed Jodorowsky was for the cultural and artistic explosions of the 1960s – and some of the most fascinating items in this exhibition are the rarely seen documentation of his work in performance art and experimental theatre beginning in the middle of that decade. Melodrama Sacramental was a four-hour happening staged by the Mouvement Panique group at the Festival of Free Expression in Paris in May 1965, to which Jodorowsky contributed a performance called Ephémères. Some exhilarating black and white footage here reveals it to have been a cross between an occult mass and a macabre pop video: Jodorowsky in black leather, brandishing sacrificial chickens and toying with a severed cow’s head while partially clad, honey smeared female dancers gyrate to a live rock group. He’s also seen roughly grabbing one dancer by the breast and ripping the underwear from another – acts indicative of an attitude to women that’s problematic from a 21st century perspective. As in Ephémères, gratuitous female nudity features in both The Holy Mountain and El Topo, while the latter includes a titillating lesbian kiss. Rather than bolstering any artistic vision, these exploitative sequences stem from a post-60s attitude to sexuality that advocated erotic liberation while implicitly reinforcing patriarchy. A 1971 article in the American pornographic weekly tabloid news magazine Screw salaciously declares that El Topo contains “real rape” and quotes Jodorowsky describing a scene where he attacks a female character, snatching her clothing off in an action that, he claims, was spontaneous and undiscussed. In fact, sexual violence recurs throughout Jodorowsky’s oeuvre: it features more than once as a plot device in The Incal series; and, in Jodorowsky’s Dune, he exclaims: “When you make a picture, you must not respect the novel. It’s like getting married... if you respect the woman, you will never have child. You need to open the costume and to rape the bride – and then you will have your picture. I was raping Frank Herbert... but with love.”

But it’s hard to tell how much of his ridiculous macho posturing originates in misogyny. Much of Jodorowsky’s work – and, to an extent, his public persona – concerns itself with toying with the most basic and visceral archetypes: his films bob on a queasy tide of blood, gore and eviscerated animals, and he’s constantly seeking to undermine and challenge the entrenched Catholicism of his South American upbringing through blasphemous images such as the crucified, skinned dogs and stacked plaster casts of Christ in The Holy Mountain. Might it be possible to suggest, then, that his inexcusable portrayals of women can, at least in part, be seen as misguided attempts to jolt the viewer out of complacency, further complicated by the intrinsically sexist attitudes that pervaded even underground culture in the 60s and 70s? The fact that Jodorowsky is not sufficiently self-aware to discern any potential objections to these tactics is indicative of an unassailable self-belief – the very same egotistic drive that almost made the soaring ambitions of Dune a reality. He is – or at least gives the impression of being – utterly absorbed in his own mythos. Perhaps his greatest gift as a communicator is his ability to make the viewer complicit in his vision: to cajole, seduce and trick the public into not just tolerating but ultimately condoning his excesses. Photographs taken in 1967 show Jodorowsky in snazzy mod trousers and Cuban heeled boots smashing a piano to pieces live on a Mexican TV talk show with a devilish gleam in his eye. While it’s impossible to deny the shock value of actions like this and Ephémères, there’s always the sense that Jodorowsky has convinced those around him that moral outrage is of secondary importance to his own cathartic self-expression – even while the inevitable outrage his work creates helps to amplify his aura of self-made magic. That tension came to a head most explosively with the release in 1968 of his first feature-length film Fando Y Lis – a loose adaptation of an Arrabal play of the same name that Jodorowsky had previously directed on the stage. A labour of love, made at the weekends on a tiny budget, the film’s mixture of surreal erotica and sacrilegious imagery sparked death threats and a riot at the 1968 Acapulco Film Festival. It also made him famous.

Now 86, Jodorowsky seems less concerned with bending others to his will. To all appearances, he’s made peace with his quest for personal spiritual meaning – and has turned his attention to helping others expand their consciousness through his own psychotherapeutic practice known as psychomagic. Distilling a lifetime’s studies in Zen, shamanism, tarot and alchemy, his system seeks to dispense healing wisdom. He has also enthusiastically embraced Twitter, regularly issuing gnomic pronouncements on consciousness, art and spirituality. It’s no surprise to find him engaged in this most emblematic of 21st century pursuits. One comes away from this engrossing exhibition with a sense of multiple lives lived in parallel timestreams. It projects a dizzying wealth of details of a peripatetic life in art: running a theatre troupe in Chile in the late 1940s; working with mime master Marcel Marceau in Paris in the 1950s; hanging out with English surrealist Leonora Carrington in Mexico in the 1960s. Always other, never quite belonging – even from his very earliest days growing up the son of Ukrainian immigrants in Chile – Alejandro Jodorowsky remains a controversial and inspirational artistic figure, a magician outside of time.

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