La Petite Mort
Compulsion is an experience forged by LA director and photographer, Alex Prager. Shown simultaneously in three galleries the 2012 series juggles the concepts of mortality, tragedy, and human nature’s morbid desire to bare witness to such calamities. The series features surreal imagery of natural disaster and violence coupled with extreme closeups of heavily dramatized eyes and is paired with the incredible short film La Petite Mort (directed by Prager, starring Judith Godreche, and narrated by Gary Oldman. This series is a nod to our own compliance to view catastrophe willingly. The imageries of disaster feel as though they were cut from a scene from a classic noir drama, leading up to the noir-stylized short film that tells a story of just this.
The short film opens with beautiful running shots of the countryside. Oldman narrates, explaining the title of the film which directly translates from french to mean “the little death” and is in reference to the female orgasam. Prager explains her choice of title-
“They say that orgasm is the one time in life you are closest to death because all your senses but one shut down” Prager, Alex (April 6th, 2012) Alex Prager: La Petite Mort
The film progresses to unveil an incredibly intimate moment (shown from the perspective of our protagonist), a suicide by train. In her fleeting moments a cat walks along the tracks, proving her not be alone. As the train approaches the focus cuts between shots of the advancing train and closeups of our protagonist's face. She is struck and descends through the murky waters of limbo. The transition into the beyond is projected with a sense of sexualized joy, cuts of her nude body paired with a look of orgasmic pleasure on her face. She swims freely through the beyond, independent of her worldly burdens. As she emerges on the other side, inexplicably dry, she is met by a crowd gathering on the shore. Another note to the lack of privacy encountered throughout an incredibly personal moment. She slowly rises from the waters and is met by the ever-judgemental stares of the strangers on the water. The intensity of these stares are highlighted by Prager’s close up shots of the faces on the shore. As our protagonist wades through the sea judgement she is watched. She stops as a man approaches. They share a moment, leading viewers to believe the two have known each other from before. And just as our protagonist advances to the man, she collapses. The crowd encircles her, constantly viewing her struggle, as the camera shifts into a bird's eye view. As the shot pans outwards, the camera rotates. And the crowd shifts into nonexistence, revealing the train and the conductor running to assess our protagonists condition. Gary Oldman ends the film with more narration, in which he compares death and love, calling them different means to the same end.
Prager draws on our innate desire to view a strangers vulnerabilities, the shots of tragedy seem so raw and relative that they thrust the viewers into the spectator's seat. Her film does just the same, but also partners the viewers with multiple other spectators to a tremendous tragedy… thus furthering the point of our constant pull towards tragedies. These calamitous tableaux are heavily inspired by the media but aren’t a nod to any specific occurrences, rather how they are portrayed and we exhibit them. Prager unfurls this concept further-
“I did not want to draw from specific events, but it was a way for me to deal with the hopelessness I was feeling about the world. Creating a parallel universe where tragedies happen but with a sense of lightness as .”Prager, Alex (April 6th, 2012) Alex Prager: La Petite Mort
This lightness she speaks of can be heavily felt through the surrealism of the depictions, making these nods to realistic tragedy dreamy.This airiness doesn’t take away from Prager’s sensationalism. Her picture’s impregnate the viewer's mind with dramatization. As we plunge into these worlds pocked with disasters we have no part in and are partnered with distant protagonists, the emotions of bystanding a tragedy are very much injected into viewer. With each image, each little calamity, one musters up their own narrative to accompany the sensations endowed by Prager. Her short film does something similar, without the viewers needing to scribe their own narrative. Viewers of La Petite Mort are thrust into tragedy, the end of a life. The viewer becomes the eyes in her photographs and view her disaster that is made much less personal by the ever constant viewers of her demise. This lightness is further explored as abstraction in La Petite Mort. Prager continues to invoke surrealism by allowing the viewer to follow the protagonist through the waters of the afterlife. She did so rather than cutting short at her tragedy and showing who was watching it happen. But her use of surrealism doesn't distract from the concept. Even whilst delving into the abstract of limbo, Prager continues to maintain a focus to the ogling of onlookers. This draws out a notion that this desire to watch is so embedded in our nature that it continues to live on after death.
Prager’s work as a cinematographer flows effortlessly into her photography. Her aesthetic on screen blends beautifully into work behind a camera. Prager's photographs feel as though they are stills from her short films. Her cinematic style of photography allows for this submersive effect. Prager’s photography silently envelops you in much deeper narrative. Roxana Marcoci, MoMA curator, has noted upon Prager’s vivid approach to photography in regards to Compulsion. Of Compulsion Marcoci said,
“it reminds me of silent movies — there is something pregnant, about to happen, a mix of desire and angst” Marcoci, Roxana (April 20th, 2012) Alex Prager "Compulsion" in Los Angeles, NYC, and London
Prager’s otherworldly cinematography and imagery gives the viewers a staunch look at their own instinctive behavior. Alex Prager asks, why do we feel drawn to tragedy? How do the mishaps of the lives of others become a spectator sport? Prager doesn’t come across as biased on the concept, never making a point to say that this is a flaw of human nature. Rather she is just observing how we observe the world and painting it out for us in an ultimately aesthetically pleasing and emotionally charged manner. After repeated viewing of La Petite Mort one must contemplate the idea as a flaw. The tortured suicide victim is presented as troubled and mournful throughout the film, except in the brief moments where she is alone. When she swims through limbo, free the eyes of the world, she smiles blissfully. In that fleeting scene, the protagonist is joyful. Also, the critical light in which her watchers are portrayed has a much deeper insinuation for the collective viewing itself. This all must be a nod to the negativity that our instinctive viewing of the disasters in the personal lives of others projects. This instinct to watch another life unravel must have a dark implication on the greater concept of humanity.Who doesn’t know many good people who just can’t help but to watch car accident or an act of violence as if it were a fantastical soap opera. One must wonder if this is what our need for art derives from, an instinct for drama. As we our drawn into real life tragedy we create our own fictional spectacles as to remove the reality from the tragedy.
Prager’s surrealism that encompases Compulsion as a whole undoubtedly nods toward the works of artist, composer, and director David Lynch. It is due to both artists knack for creating a timeless space. Prager is looking at modern tragedies portrayed by the media and reestablishes them with antique costuming and set design. She utilizes fashion of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, using props (such as houses and cars) of the same style and paints them against a modern LA backdrop. David Lynch utilized a similar technique in his cult classic Twin Peaks. The show takes place in the time it was filmed, the late 1980s, but evokes a style from the 1950’s and 1960’s (just like Prager). This blending of now and then creates a sort of muffled view of when these pieces are from which creates a dreamy layer to the respective pieces. The whole of Compulsion also has a sort of ring of Weegee to it. Weegee, the famed photographer and photojournalist, was well known for his encapturement of the drama of crime scenes. Even his artistic endeavors had a raw feeling of “hot off the press” news. Prager’s thematic choices as well as her way of making the viewer a witness of sorts really has a glimmer of Weegee, that differs really in Prager’s heavy usage of color. The drama and almost fervency is still very much there. This blend of inspirations has led to lovely conceptual conglomeration that begs a viewer to look deeper into the idea of being a viewer.
Compulsion in its entirety (therefore including La Petite Mort) was viewable throughout 2012 at the following exhibitions:
“Compulsion”, Foam Museum, Amsterdam, Netherlands
“Compulsion”, M+B Gallery, Los Angeles, CA
“Compulsion”, Yancey Richardson Gallery, New York, NY
“Compulsion”, Michael Hoppen Gallery, London