The blog of author Dennis Cooper


Regina José Galindo Tierra, 2013
‘In 2012, José Efraín Ríos Montt, the former President of Guatemala, was prosecuted on charges of genocide, terrorism, and torture; Regina José Galindo’s video is a haunting reinterpretation of the atrocities recounted during his trial. Tierra begins with the artist standing naked in a verdant field, the tranquility of which is shattered by an earth-moving machine. Here, Galindo alludes to the incident in which innocent citizens were murdered and cold-heartedly buried in a bulldozer-dug mass grave. The stark contrast between the machine’s huge, armored bulk and the artist’s vulnerable body captures the injustice of Montt’s regime, while the abyss that grows around her serves as a poignant symbol of the despair and alienation born of political violence in general, and Montt’s post-conviction acquittal in particular.’


Yusuke Asai yamatane, 2014
‘Japanese artist Yusuke Asai uses nothing but natural pigments and water to create his intricate large-scale murals that he calls “earth painting”. The materials of his works are almost always collected on-site, or site-specific, made using a variety of different textures and types of local mud, dirt and dust. Each piece begins with applying masking tape to walls, then drawing shapes of plants and animals over it to create infinitely swirling images. Asai rejects commonly used art supplies that are manufactured in favor of mud, a sediment where microscopic organisms make their home, for its special connection to nature.’



Claes Oldenburg Placid Civic Monument, 1967
‘The piece, one the earliest examples of so-called earthworks sculpture, was a six by six by three foot ditch (conceived as a kind of negative-space sculpture) excavated as part of an exhibit entitled ‘Sculpture in Environment,’ for which a number of different artists were asked to create public art in various locations (of their choosing) around New York City; in this case, behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art, near the Obelisk. Oldenburg hired two off-duty gravediggers, for $50 each, who dug the hole while he filmed–a few hours later, the hole was was re-filled.’


Richard Long Chicago Mud Circle, 1996
Mud on wall


Robert Rauschenberg Mud Muse, 1968–1971
‘In Robert Rauschenberg’s fifty-year-old artwork “Mud Muse” (1968–1971) sonic vibrations create random bubbles in a large, open, vat filled with synthetic sludge.’


Shiraga Kazuo Challenging Mud, 1955
‘How might an artist react meaningfully in the aftermath of Japan’s defeat, and its near total destruction, at the close of the Second World War? Kazuo Shiraga’s 1955 performance work, Challenging Mud, proposed a rethinking of the boundaries and definitions of art making to clear a path forward. Shiraga performed his body/mud composition in the front courtyard of Tokyo’s Ohara Hall three times over the run of the first Gutai Art Exhibition. The photographs that survive record the different effects of each iteration of the performance. Each time Shiraga molded, smeared, and grappled with a different combination of cement, kabetsuchi, and aggregates such as sand and gravel. Somewhere between painting, sculpting, and wrestling, Kazuo’s radical actions defied categorical boundaries.’


Sen Uesaki, Daishiro Mori & Grand Openings Challenging Mud as Archive, 2011
‘After Shiraga Kazuo’s performance-painting, Challenging Mud.

Shiraga executed Challenging Mud on October 19, 1955, for the opening of 1st Gutai Art Exhibition, in the front yard of the Ohara Kaikan in Tokyo.

I challenged mud.
After a series of e-mail exchanges with Ei Arakawa,
who told me, on July 15, 2011, that he would soon present a 13-day performance with his group, Grand Openings, with daily changing programs.

I challenged mud.
After I confessed to him that I didn’t have a formal dress to wear for Grand Openings’ “Formal Dress Day” (7/27).
He wrote, “then please come also 23rd when sen is doing a challenging mud. you could bring a change of clothes. only historians and archivists will be allowed to challenge mud.”
To this, I innocently responded: “that sounds cool.”

I challenged mud.
After I finally understood that he and Sen Uesaki intended to create a “metaphor” of archiving using Challenging Mud.
That Sen would play a metaphorical role of “gravedigger” (!?).
What’s a historian have to do with “metaphor”?
This historian is all about facts, if not just facts. But metaphor is not her forte.

I challenged mud.
After the artist finally figured out that the historian got to do what she got to do.
A wise move.
Only an artist would think of putting a historian in the mud pit.
A historian would put an artist in the mud pit.

I challenged mud.
After we decided to base our attempt on Shiraga’s 1st set, out of three sets he executed that day.
The 1st set was least challenging, it was a “fake.”[ii]
Because the mud was hardening and became slippery, as the artist waited around for a press person to arrive. It rained, it got colder, and journalist Jean Launois came late.
So, the artist had to “fake.”
He “dug it up with my knees, punched it with fists, and grasped it by fingers.”

I challenged mud.
After Ming Tiampo decided to join our attempt by playing the role of photographer.
She is another historian. She happened to be in town to work on a forthcoming Gutai show at the Guggenheim.
Without the presence of the press, our attempt would have been incomplete.
Gutai’s performative works were either press events or onstage presentations.
Without the effort of self-documentation, we would have been disloyal to Gutai’s tradition.
So, Ming would play the double role of a press photographer and a documenting member.
She requested the use of a ladder. A wise move.

I challenged mud.
After I decided my outfit.
Shiraga wore only a pair of white shorts. Otherwise, he was bare.
Because of the impurity of his mud, his body was heavily cut and bruised.
In the 2nd and 3rd sets, he “pushed it with my shoulder, rather than using my hands; I gave a final flourish to it, by twisting my body.”
No wonder, he got cuts and bruises.
Safety was a big concern for me, even if I would follow the tamest 1st set.
Ei agreed: “We don’t have to hurt ourselves in [our] version.”
To protect my body, I acquired a pair of gray yoga pants, a half-sleeved black T-shirt, and a box of latex gloves. I would be well protected.

I challenged mud.
After I got my historical facts straight.
To the best of my knowledge, it would be the first ever serious attempt, whether by the artist himself or somebody else, since Shiraga executed three sets in 1955.[iii]
There was no instruction left, no recipe made for doing it again. Only his recollections and documentary photographs.
Looking at a photo of his 1st set, I visualized myself getting down on my knees, supporting my body with two hands also stuck in the mud, and shifting the mud with one of my knees.

I challenged mud.
After I arrived at MoMA at the appointed time, feeling somewhat scared. Trepidation or anxiety may be a more dignified word, but “scared” honestly expresses what I felt.
A shallow wood box was already there, at the end of the Sculpture Garden, just outside the glass partition. Chairs for the panel discussion (to follow my act) were arranged next to it. That was my stage.
The 8-foot square box looked smallish. Back then, one critic described the mud work he saw outside the Ohara Kaikan to be as large as three tatami-mats.
Bags of cement piled on one side, bags of garden soil piled on the other side of the box.

I challenged mud.
After Ei told me “Cement is toxic. Would you like to have vinegar for cleaning afterward?”
His words amplified my apprehension, also reminding me that I forgot to bring a pair of socks with me. We sent a member (or an associate or a volunteer?) of the group to get a pair, along with vinegar.

I challenged mud.
After we mixed soil and cement.
But, why cement?
Because Shiraga was not simply demonstrating an act of challenging mud,
he was creating a “painting” with mud.
That is to say, he painted with mud.
And he wanted his mud painting to last for 10 days, remain on view for the duration of the exhibition.
The mud, or kabetsuchi (wall mud), alone would have cracked.
Indeed, the second “painting,” made without cement cracked after a few days.
(Certainly, he was experimenting on that day; after the hardened mud for the 1st set, he apparently did the 2nd set without cement.)

I challenged mud.
After Ei and Jay spent more than half an hour creating the mud in the sweltering summer heat.
Shiraga brought in a small truck load of wall mud, about one ton (1000 kg) or so.
He mixed some 10 bags of cement in, the ratio being 3 parts mud and 1 part cement.
It took Shiraga (and his helpers, I imagine) a great deal of time to manually mix it.
We began by dry-mixing 3 bags of soil and 1 bag of cement, added more bags of soil, perhaps another 3 or 4, then poured in water bit by bit.
The sight of twigs and pebbles in “garden soil” horrified me, making me think of cuts and bruises I might get.

I challenged mud.
After we got what I thought would be an ideal consistency of mud.
We looked at the documentary photographs to get a sense of Shiraga’s mud.
I made a test-mixture in a cup.
Perhaps much thicker than pancake dough, a tad heavier than muffin dough, but not as dense as bread dough.

I challenged mud.
After the audience gathered around the box and Ei began the proceedings, introducing me to them.
I began by giving a talk. It’s a hands-on “demonstration lecture,” rather than “slide lecture.”
I explained the basics of Shiraga, a Gutai member who painted with his feet.
His foot painting embodied his concept that his “act” made his painting.
Challenging Mud extended his act/concept of painting from his feet to his whole body.
In 1955, the 2nd and 3rd sets he executed were more violent than the 1st “fake” set.
He dived into the mud, twisting in the mud and using his whole body to move the mud, to create his mud painting.
He struggled with mud until he was completely exhausted.

I challenged mud.
After clarifying that I was neither “re-staging” nor “re-enacting” Shiraga’s painting act.
I was merely making a “historical investigation” of Shiraga’s painting act.
Shiraga was a man’s man. He was a jock, practicing jūdō and sumō at school.
Back then, he was in his early thirties, he was an athletic, energetic male.
I am a middle-aged art historian, a female of delicate constitution.

I challenged mud.
After I first tested the mud’s consistency, explaining how he mixed his mud.
I poke my feet into the mud.
It felt wet.
More talk.
And I finally got down on four in the mud.
I punched the mud, moved it with my knees, grasped it and pushed it with both my hands, just as I imagined he had done.
I kept talking, as Ei stuck the microphone at me.
I kept my eye on the composition, spreading the mud like Shiraga had done in different directions to make a polygon shape.

I challenged mud.
After a while, I stopped, asking how much time had elapsed.
I was told: Only 3 minutes!
Shiraga continued 15 to 20 minutes before he was done.
Who could possibly compete with him?
Not me.
Ming urged me to continue, now perching atop the ladder.
With a change of her camera angle, I gave another round of punching, kneeing, pushing . . . playing for the camera.

I challenged mud.
Afterward, as Ming pointed out the historical accuracy would have demanded that I change into regular clothes and have myself photographed next to my “mud painting.”
That’s what Shiraga did, and the shot became a Gutai postcard.
But that was an afterthought for me. I hadn’t thought of afterward, except for how to clean myself.’


Cveto Marsic Bath in Salty Mud, 2021
Oil on canvas


Paul Seawright Mounds, 2002
‘In 2002 IWM commissioned Paul Seawright to respond to the war in Afghanistan, which had started the previous October. The resulting photographs of minefields show a seemingly empty landscape, which in reality is both lethal and inaccessible.’


Neil Leifer Joe Namath In The Mud, 1974


Boyle Family Studies of Brown Mudcracks with Tire Tracks and Coal Dust, 1974
‘Boyle Family works simulating muddied land used resin, fibreglass and other binding materials. The effect was hyper real, a situation that took photorealist painting in the tactile direction of sculpture.’


Jennifer Allora & Guillermo Calzadilla Hope Hippo, 2005
Mud, whistle, daily newspaper, and live person


Yan Bing Wind – Aridity, 2010
Electric Fan, Mud


Allan Kaprow Trading Dirt, 1982-5
‘Kaprow produced the extended piece, Trading Dirt, when studying at the Zen Center of San Diego. He began by trading the soil in his garden for the “Buddhist dirt” of the center. This was then traded with various types of dirt collected by Kaprow. This sequence of events went on sporadically for three years, each exchange accompanied by an anecdote, recorded on film. Kaprow presents dirt as a metaphor that only gains meaning as it is exchanged or “traded.” This occurred in 1983, long after Kaprow had replaced the Happening with the Activity.’

Allan Kaprow – Trading Dirt story


Marcos Grigorian Strain, 1991
mud, metal strip, straw and glue on burlap laid down on board


Li Binyuan Freedom Farming, 2014
‘In the countryside of China, land is a heavy issue. Each plot of land has its own destiny and character, and behind it is the people’s destiny. In 1999, when my father passed away in an accident, the land that he had cultivated was handed down to me. I was at a loss, and avoided returning to my hometown, ashamed to face the reality. But the problem was not solved because of my detachment, and my sense of identity gradually disappeared.

‘In 2014, I decided to use one of the plots of land to produce a work, to re-examine my relationship to my birthplace, which felt both strange and amiable. Finally, I made my peace through the fatigue that came from the constant falls into the field and the mud.

‘The name of the work, Freedom Farming, comes from the land certificate issued by the village committee, and from the sense of salvation that came from the performative act itself. Freedom Farming is a work about the dialogue between me and my father, and my present reality. I attempt to find a balance between the three, or save some things that are already lost through this behavior; also I want to confirm my sense of identity, of belonging, via this path. As for me, every jump of mine is a departure, and each fall is a return. Regardless of each departure or return, there’s always something missing.’


Helmut Smits Dead Pixel in Google Earth, 2009
burned square, the size of one pixel from an altitude of 1 km.


Alastair Mackie Mud Hut, 2010
mud, straw, and horse manure


Ugy Sugiarto Various, 2009
acrylic on canvas

Immortal Fighting

Don’t Let Me Drown


Xuhong Shang Horizon, 1995
wooden deck, painted baseboard, mud, branch bark, plant


Ashby Lee Collinson Episode XVI: Princess Dies – The Crowning, 2011
Airing on Portland Community Media: 5/15/11 10:30 pm Sun — Channel 22, 5/21/11 12:00 am Sat — Channel 11, 5/27/11 11:00 pm Fri — Channel 23


James Croak Dirt Baby, 1988
cast mud


Dineo Seshee Bopape Mabu, Mubu, Mmu, 2017
Soil, mud, ceramics, herbs, crystals, coal, ash created with a clenched fist.


Chris Burden Exposing the Foundation of the Museum, 1986
‘The installation, known as the Exposing the Foundation of the Museum, comprises three trenches next to the exterior walls. Visitors descend the excavation or tunnel to witness the concrete footing.’


Urs Fischer You, 2007
You was an eight-foot deep crater that measured approximately 11,6 x 9,1 m (38 x 30 ft.), extending almost to the walls of the gallery. According to New York Magazine, the pit took ten days to build and approximately $250,000. The same report shows that it was dug using jackhammers to remove the concrete floor. The workers used a backhoe to clear the tons of debris around the area. A sign at the door warned: THE INSTALLATION IS PHYSICALLY DANGEROUS AND INHERENTLY INVOLVES THE RISK OF SERIOUS INJURY OR DEATH.’


Rabyn Blake Mudpool, 1976
‘Splatter. Plop. Plop. Plop. A dribble of thick liquid spatters down into a growing mound of silver sludge. Then the scene changes and we see insects, a toad, and other small life-forms sitting patiently as their ecosystem awakens. The ground begins to move as human bodies slowly start churning liquid earth into a slurry of dirt that coats their skins. This is how Rabyn Blake’s revolutionary video artwork Mudpool (1976) begins.

‘The work is as sensual as it is strange. As the eight-minute black-and-white video progresses, we see figures emerging out of a primordial soup, then resubmerging their naked bodies in the silky mud. A reclining man sits up in the sunken pool, syrupy mud pouring down over his face and through his long hair and beard. The camera pans closer, closer, as corporeal forms roll and tumble, their movements and shapes evocative of concrete mixers, classical reliefs, lovers in bed, slow-motion mud wrestling. We can feel the suction as the thick liquid blanket sleeves over their trunks and limbs. It is strange in its uncanny familiarity; it feels both timeless and ancient. We are watching Mother Earth devour bodies and return them to their origins.

‘Understanding the context of Mudpool has been, for me, like picking through the tufts of a floor carpet, searching for small crumbs that escaped the oblivion of time—the great existential vacuum cleaner. Very few of Blake’s artworks are extant. Next to nothing is archived online, and the community of people who knew her is fading away. The lack of information plagues much early video work, and of course most performative and participatory happenings that were experiential and pre-internet. It is also no surprise that Blake’s work has not received greater acknowledgement in what was (and is still) a male-dominated field.’


Andrew Birk Life Shroud, 2017
‘Andrew Birk presents a series of Life Shrouds, an exercise of dirt-on-denim pieces made with the imprint of his own body. Dirt is pigment and denim is canvas; dirt is body and denim is labour. Stripping down art history’s canons and praising the unrefined, Birk uses wearable, industrial cloth, to cover himself covered in mud. As in a death shroud, body and dirt become one thing in a cycle of both scientific and religious undertones. Beyond the anthropocentric and constructed distinction between artificial and natural, human beings appear as an undivided species within a larger system of entities, living in a world of structures – biological, social, linguistic. Seen as accumulations of materials formed and solidified through time, historical narratives then become geological, and humans, made from synthetic processes and constantly provoking new ones, like rocks and plants and bacteria, become a planetary force.’


Jack Woods Equinox, 1970
‘Four friends are attacked by a demon while on a picnic, due to possession of a tome of mystic information.’


Petrit Halilaj Kostërrc, 2011
Kostërrc, the work—which filled an entire gallery, leaving its gallerists to hover in the lane just outside—comprised a perfect wave of dirt about to break. At its crest was a hint of grass, like tufts of green-blue hair. The earthy smell of the soil (60 tons of it) and the sod was oddly gratifying. The soil was excavated from the hill in Kosovo where the artist was born, then brought to Switzerland on a truck.’


Richard Bartle MUD, 1978
‘MUD was created in 1978 by Roy Trubshaw at Essex University on a DEC PDP-10 in the UK. Richard Bartle, a fellow Essex student, contributed much work on the game database, introducing many of the locations and puzzles that survive to this day. Later that year Roy Trubshaw graduated from Essex University, handing over MUD to Richard Bartle, who continued developing the game. That same year, MUD1 became the first Internet multiplayer online role-playing game as Essex University connected its internal network to the ARPAnet. In 1983, Essex University allowed remote access to its DEC-10 via British Telecom’s Packet Switch Stream network between 2 am and 7 am each night. MUD became popular with players around the world, and several magazines wrote articles on this new trend.’




p.s. Hey. ** David Ehrenstein, Gilliam’s version is an homage to Zeman’s. ** Stephen M, Hi, Stephen. Thanks much for the suggestions. That’s where I’ll go. Hope all’s great with you. ** _Black_Acrylic, Zeman seems to be the animation equivalent of the writers’ writer, hugely influential in the field but not so known outside of it. Strange that. I was with some friends on Saturday, and things got a little dull, so I put on Play Therapy, and awkward silence was replaced with bliss-faced wiggling and nodding, and you saved yet another day! ** Yards-a Thorns, Hi there. Intriguing and excellent name. Thank you, my total pleasure. Yes, super shocking about the Oslo incident. Huge hopes that it was an isolated madness. Sleep is precious, just ask my friends in the USA. I’m so sorry you’re having to go through that. Stay imaginative and optimistic, it’s very important. xo. ** Billy, Hi, Billy. Yes, I’ve been really intrigued by Dall.e mini and what it’s capable of. Thank you for the nudge. I’ll go wade in and see what happens. You doing great, I hope? ** Bill, There’s some truly gorgeous stuff visually in his films. Still mind-blowing in places, even now. I don’t imagine the Charles Busch film will play here, although it might get screened perhaps. I’ll peel my eyes and look online if nothing else. It’s truly terrifying about the Supreme Court. Boy, if that shit doesn’t finally wake people over there the fuck up, I don’t know what will. Here in France the govt. is reacting by proposing to enshrine abortion rights in the constitution. ** Impossible Princess, Yes, please do let me know how you get on with the Princess. Mm, I don’t remember any weekend twinks. Well, across the metro cars, which is good enough. I’m happy you’re getting your mojo back, needless to say. It’s your greatest weapon. I was sure I’d done a Mishima post, but I just did a search of the blog’s archives and came up empty. Weird. I will do one of some sort soon. Mm, I think my favorite is still ‘Confessions of a Mask’. Kind of a boring choice, but … I liked the ‘Sea of Fertility’ novels a lot when I read them ages ago. And ‘The Black Lizard’. Off the top my head. Kisses back from the mere DC. ** Misanthrope, Wow, that sounds kind of exciting to me, but I’ve never had a desk job, so what the fuck do I know. How was it? ** Jeff J, Hi, Jeff. Very happy that post was of use. I can watch the Criterion Channel with VPN but the connection is really, really slow, so it’s kind of a big chore to watch things on there, but I do, of course. What is the translation problem with ‘SL’, do you know? That they cant get the rights to the original translation or they don’t like it or their new translation isn’t good enough or … ? You probably don’t know. I should just ask Hedi. Novels just get slow sometimes. I figure they need to for some reasons. As long as it’s growing, you know? Nice about the Julien Calendar gig. It’s been ages. A fair number of people with good taste like ‘Memoria’, but I still think it’s a misfire. See what you think. ** Right. I’m giving you some conceptual mud to play in conceptually today, so to speak. See you tomorrow.

Karel Zeman Day


‘Like a psychedelic, eastern European Ray Harryhausen, Karel Zeman’s unique films create super-stylised environments and vivid fantasy worlds, using stop frame animation or combining stop frame creatures and live action actors. Not so much attempting to create a Harryhausen type effect of realism as invent whole new phantasmagorical universes, Zeman’s films are acknowledged as influential on groundbreaking contemporary directors such as Terry Gilliam, Jan Švankmajer, Tim Burton and many more. But the difference is that far from trying to create an impression of uniqueness, Zeman didn’t seem to think he was doing anything that weird at all, and the type of eccentricity and whimsy that seemed to come naturally to Zeman from within himself was perhaps adapted more as a self conscious, stylistic decision by others.

‘Born in Moravia, Zeman worked as a window dresser and poster designer and studying at business school. Following an early interest in Czech puppet theatre he moved to Paris to study commercial art and work in advertising. Returning to Czechoslovakia, Zeman continued in commercials until offered a job in the animation studio run by Hermina Tyrlova, one of the rare breed of leading early 20th century female animators and often called the ‘Mother of Czech Animation’. Zeman and Tyrlova then collaborated on Vanocni Sen (Christmas Dream, 1946) which won the award for best animated film at Cannes.

‘Soon after this in Zeman started his series of popular short children’s comic films featuring the character Mr Prokouk, but it was this extraordinary 1948 short Insparace (Inspiration), an ‘art film’ using miniature posed glass models and sets, which more defined his desire to push the envelope of stop frame and special effects to create unique dreamlike imaginary universes.

‘Later Zeman created his first feature Kral Lavra (King Lavra) in 1950 followed by his first live action/ animation film, Cesta du Praveku (Journey into History), a genre for which he would become world renowned. It was Zeman’s next film Vynalez Zkaky (The Fabulous World of Jules Verne, 1958) which brought wide international acclaim and which many consider his masterpiece. Based on Verne’s novel Facing the Flag and designed to look like the kind of illustrations that would have featured in the original publication, the sets and backgrounds in this Victorian style give the feel of a toy cardboard puppet show from that era except in this case containing real actors. A favourite on television in the 1960s the film is now rarely seen, and like the rest of Zeman’s beautiful work, is criminally neglected

‘Zeman followed this with other Jules Verne adaptations such as Na Komete (Journey by Comet) and the whimsical fantasy Baron Prasil (The Fabulous Baron Munchausen), seemingly influencial on Terry Gilliam’s later version of the tale; indeed, a lot of Zeman’s work seemed to influence Gilliam’s whimsical style. His later work includes a version of Sinbad (Pohadky Tisice A Jedne Noci, 1974) and the fantasy story of love conquering evil, Krabat (1977).’ — Stephen Cavalier





Karel Zeman Museum
Karel Zeman @ IMDb
Three Fantastic Journeys by Karel Zeman
Karel Zeman @ MUBI
The Faboulos World of Karel Zeman
Karel Zeman: Genius, who was ahead of his time
The world of Karel Zeman’s fantasy: where animation and real-life meet
100 Greatest Animated Shorts / Inspiration / Karel Zeman
Karel Zeman vfx inventor



The Special Effects of Karel Zeman: Movie Making Animation

Film director Karel Zeman shows off his impeccable practice FX skills



At work


Dreams of Jules Verne: Karel Zeman’s Invention of Destruction (Vynález zkázy)
by Wheeler Winston Dixon

Like so many others in the United States, I was first exposed to Karel Zeman’s exotic adventure film Vynález zkázy (Invention of Destruction, 1958), when it was released in the West in a dubbed and retitled as The Fabulous World of Jules Verne in 1961. Zeman was one of the greatest of all Czech animators and special effects artists, and used a process unique in Vynález zkázy combining 19th century pictorial steel engravings with live action photography. This created a fantastic vision of what can be identified today as a steampunk past, where elaborate mechanical devices, hot air balloons, oddly constructed airplanes, submarines, and other infernal machines were brought to life in a manner at once poetic and yet deeply sinister.

Jules Verne (1928-1905) was in many ways one of the most forward thinking of all imaginative popular writers, and his works were both commercially and critically successful. Films such as De la Terre à la Lune (From the Earth to The Moon, 1865, famously made into an early film by Georges Méliès in 1902), Vingt Mille Lieues sous les mers (Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea, 1869-1870), Le Tour du monde en quatre-vingts jours (Around the World in Eighty Days, 1872), and L’Île mystérieuse (Mysterious Island, 1874-75) consolidated his reputation as a prolific and prophetic futurist. Verne’s works have been filmed countless times, either as straight adaptations or updated versions, but Zeman’s film stands alone as perhaps the most faithful of all filmic versions of Verne on the screen. It embraces not only his then-fanciful (and now all too real) vision of the future, but also remains faithful to the iconic images of Verne’s own era.

As Alex Barrett notes, Vynález zkázy

“. . .sets about recreating the look of the woodcut and steel-engraved images illustrating the published texts: here, etching lines are painted onto sets and superimposed over shots of the clashing sea to give them an authentic, hand-drawn look. Furthermore, the film combines all manner of tricks and effects – double exposures, painted animation, cut-out animation, stop-motion animation, puppets, miniatures, models, stylized matte-paintings, and who knows what else – with its live-action footage to create a seamless blend of startling, crisp, black-and-white material . . . The film’s faithful recreation of the feel and look of Victorian illustrations . . . gives the film a tactile texture that would be impossible to create in our current CGI-dominated era. In fact, the film harks back to the days of Méliès and shares with the early pioneer a clear sense of wide-eyed wonder for the possibilities of cinematic fantasy.”

As the film’s title implies, the narrative for Vynález zkázy was cobbled together from various stories by Jules Verne, but for the most part finds its inspiration in Verne’s little known novel Face au drapeau (Facing The Flag, first published in 1879). This book predicted a future in which super powers would compete for weapons of mass destruction, and technology would be turned towards destructive ends. The film’s narrative runs along those lines; wealthy industrialist Artigas (Miloslav Holub) owns and operates a killer submarine that roams the oceans from its headquarters inside a huge volcano. It looks for boats to sink for treasure, reminiscent of Captain Nemo’s exploits in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

As the film opens, Artigas kidnaps the distinguished scientist Professor Roche (Arnošt Navrátil) and his assistant Simon Hart (Lubor Tokoš), giving them unlimited access to the latest equipment to create an explosive device with which Artigas can rule the world. Hart is suspicious, but Roche – an impractical idealist oblivious to Artigas’s real aims – persists in working for the power-mad would-be dictator. Roche’s daughter Jana (Jana Zatloukalová) is taken hostage when Artigas’s submarine rams the Amelie (a ship on which she is a passenger), and Hart and Jana fall in love. Hart comes up with a plan to get news to the outside world, and eventually foils Artigas’s plans.

Though released as a children’s film in its English-language version, Vynález zkázy was originally marketed as a prestige art film. It screened at Expo 58 in Brussels, and won the Grand Prix at the Brussels International Film Festival. André Bazin gave the film a rave review in Cahiers du cinema, and Alain Resnais named it one of the ten best films of 1958. What gave the film its surreal and almost transcendent quality was Zeman’s life long love of Verne, and his agility and skill in creating striking visual effects to bring Verne’s stories to life.

As Zeman himself noted in a short film about Vynález zkázy, “Jules Verne was a dreamer. He was a dedicated follower of technology, but he saw it through his own eyes, and the eyes of his time. But with his vast imagination, he created a whole world of magical things imbued with a delightful naiveté, which charms us even today.” His daughter Ludmila adds, “my father continued in this Vernean tradition. As a child, I remember I had all the books with those beautiful engravings. I really can’t visualize the story any other way”.

An entrancing combination of stop-motion animation, period engravings, and a whimsical sense of humor pervades the film. The flying machines are fantastic contraptions, and one even gets a glimpse of an early attempt at a motion picture camera which Artigas captures, which displays the fanciful newsreels, all accompanied by a haunting score by Zdeněk Liška. The addition by this distinguished Czech composer suits the flavor of the film, by turns forceful, melancholic, or nostalgic as the mood requires.

Perhaps the most commercially successful Czech film ever released in the West, in its Americanized version as The Fabulous World of Jules Verne was hailed by Pauline Kael as a “wonderful giddy science fantasy [which] sustains the Victorian tone, with its delight in the magic of science, that makes Verne seem so playfully archaic”. Zeman’s other films are equally marvelous in their use of period special effects and 19th century technology. But it is perhaps in Vynález zkázy that Zeman created his finest and most accessible film, now in the pantheon of the greatest hybrid animation/live action films ever made. Vynález zkázy is an imaginative delight, and a stunning personal achievement. Once seen, never forgotten.


13 of Karel Zeman’s 33 films

Rêve de Noël (1946)
‘Christmas has arrived. As a little girl and her parents enter the room, the little girl finds all kinds of toys under the Christmas Tree. She immediately throws her old doll aside and starts playing with her new dolls. But that night she has a dream. Or isn’t it a dream…’ — IMDb


Inspirace (1948)
‘Apparently made as the result of a wager Zeman accepted that he wouldn’t be able to make a stop motion film using glass, most of the figures in Inspiration are seemingly reheated and reshaped for every frame of movement to create remarkably fluid figures in a unique stop frame world. Bookended by live action sequences, Inspiration is mainly a series of animated vignettes set inside a universe contained within a drop of water. Beginning with lovingly filmed semi abstract technicolour images of light and colours refracting, reflecting and blurring through glass and water, (putting me in mind of a music video director I worked with who used to move pieces of broken glass about right in front of the camera lens for that trippy psychedelic effect) we see an artist who’s gaze settles of raindrops on his window as he stares out in search of inspiration. Whether the artists (or indeed Zeman’s) mind has been expanded by some particularly potent Czech absinthe or such like we can only speculate but he seems to achieve a moment of enlightenment as, in a series of films within films, he imagines worlds within worlds contained in the water droplets.’ — Stephen Cavalier


King Lavra (1950)
‘A half-hour stop-motion puppetoon by Karel Zeman, King Lavra (Kral Lavra, 1950) was based on a fairy tale poem by Karel HavlÌcek Borovsky. It is deceptively “cute,” set in a pre-machine age puppet town, starting off with the mild adventures of a cart driver & his donkey. When the donkey is parted from the driver, it begins braying, & all the mules in the city follow suit, until the cacophony awakens King Lavra asleep in his throne, whose ears are unusually atuned specifically to the sound of jackasses.’ — Paghat the Ratgirl


M. Prokouk inventeur (1954)
‘After a hard day at work, Mr. Prokouk decides to invent a machine to ease his labor. But inventing is work too, and Mr. Prokouk spends more time dreaming about inventions than actually inventing anything. Can he find an easy solution?’ — IMDb


A Journey to the Beginning of Time (1955)
‘A beguiling mix of natural history and science fiction, this early feature by Karel Zeman follows four schoolboys on an awe-inspiring expedition back through time, where they behold landscapes and creatures that have long since vanished from the earth. Hewing closely to the scientific knowledge of its era, Journey to the Beginning of Time brings its prehistoric beasts alive through a number of innovative techniques—including stop-motion, puppetry, and life-size models—creating an atmosphere of pure wonderment.’ — The Criterion Collection


Invention for Destruction (1958)
‘The most successful Czechoslovak film in history, which became a global phenomenon in 1958. In New York alone it was screened simultaneously in 96 cinemas. This fantasy adventure won a number of prestigious awards, including the Grand Prix at EXPO 58 in Brussels.

‘This is the first of Zeman’s films to be inspired by Jules Verne, in which the director tries out a new style of art direction, which he was later to develop even further. The story-book sets, striking design and innovative music of Zdeněk Liška – all contribute to the unique appearance of this thrilling story with its antiwar subtext. The black and white narrative is deeply influenced by the classic engravings of Édouard Riou and Léon Bennett – the original illustrators of Verne’s novels.’ — Muzeum Karla Zemana


The Fabulous Baron Munchausen (1962)
‘Of all the takes on the oft-filmed debonair teller of outlandish heroic tales introduced to the literary world in Rudolf Erich Raspe’s Baron Munchausen’s Narrative of his Marvellous Travels and Campaigns in Russia (1785), Karel Zeman’s remains the most novel, formally and narratively. With its imagery tinted like Victorian postcards and with colour applied with Expressionistic gusto, it’s surely the most beautiful, too, as it melds live-action with cut-out and other forms of animation, rhyming all awhile with a dreamlike Zdeněk Liška score.

‘Zeman tookGottfried August Bürger and Gustave Doré’s interpretations of Raspe’s Munchausen stories, in text and engravings respectively, as springboards for a febrile re-imagining of the Munchausen mythos in which he populated his film with not one Munchausen figure but, ultimately, two.

‘A further point of distinction is Zeman’s idea to link the long bygone times of the source material with contemporary events. Avowedly to differentiate his film from the well-known WWII-era, German Münchhausen (The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Josef von Báky, 1943), Zeman’s idea was “linking a modern man with the past, using the Moon-flight”. While an actual moon landing would still be several years away, Russian Yuri Gagarin sensationally become the first human to enter outer space contemporaneously with the production of this film.

‘Further inspiration was drawn from two key figures with whom Zeman is often associated: Georges Méliès and Jules Verne, both no strangers to lunar stories themselves.’ — Cerise Howard





A Jester’s Tale (1964)
‘After three feature length triumphs mixing live-action with animation, Karel Zeman took a departure from sci-fi and fantasy missions implausible and instead engaged mockingly with terrible historical fact. With A Jester’s Tale, Zeman presented an entertaining spoof of the Thirty Years’ War, initially a Catholic-Protestant conflict which began in Prague and preoccupied much of Europe between 1618 and 1648, spilling over into the Ottoman Empire.

‘In order to realise this project, Zeman collaborated with a key player in the nascent Czechoslovak New Wave, Pavel Juráček, who would share screenwriting credits with him. While Zeman’s previous films had their satirical elements, the greater bite in this film is in part attributable to his one-off collaboration with this fellow Czech filmmaker of protean talents but a full generation younger and, it would transpire, on an inexorable collision course with the authorities.’ — Cerise Howard


The Stolen Airship (1966)
The Stolen Airship is a nice boy’s adventure yarn with satiric undertones, which shines by its flawless atmosphere and seamless mix of live action and animation. Zeman achieved this by hand-colouring the whole movie – as a result, the live-action sequences have a beautiful pictorial atmosphere which blends excellently with the painted backgrounds and animated sequences, often giving the impression of colour lithographs and coloured engravings. Which fits the general mood of the movie exceedingly well, there are few movies that capture the Jules Verne atmosphere like this one.’ — IndustriousAngel




On the Comet (1970)
‘In 1970, Zeman made his last expedition into the world of the unrestrained imagination of Jules Verne. he movie was inspired by Verne´s novel “Off On a Comet”, and it marked the culmination of Zeman´s creative period in which he combined live action and animation. After a collision between a comet and planet Earth, part of a French colony ends up living on the surface of the comet wandering thru outer space. The colonists face the dangers of an approaching apocalypse. The director makes the point that the greatest threat to the world is its people, always fighting for power among themselves. The film won awards in Venice, Tehran and Paris.’ — Karel Zeman Museum





A Thousand and One Nights (1974)
‘For a children’s film, this is absolutely wild. Pulling stories from Arabian Nights and Sinbad The Sailor, Karel Zeman’s A Thousand And One Nights is a series of adventurous vignettes following a single protagonist encountering evil sultans, monsters, and magic. Produced using paper cutouts, the animation looks fantastic – I can’t even comprehend how painstaking of a job it was to create this film. Many of the action sequences play around with animation speeds, and there is Zeman’s distinct attention to detail. I can’t help but feel that this animated gem inspired the likes of Disney’s Aladdin and even Richard William’s fantastic The Thief and The Cobbler in some regard. I can safely say that this is a beautiful, underrated piece of animation history, and more people should seek it out.’ — Jack @ Letterboxd


The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (1978)
‘A beautiful Czech folktale told through Karel Zeman’s simplistic but lovely animation that looks like a woodcut illustration brought to life. It tells of an evil sorcerer who practices black magic at his black mill and employs 12 boys at all times to work the mill and help in his evil schemes. But at the end of each year, he challenges the eldest to a duel, kills them, and brings in a new boy. This story’s boy is Krabat, who is more resourceful than the other boys and discovers the secret to defeating the sorcerer. The tale is new to me, except in the minor resemblance to the Mickey Mouse version we all know, and it’s a great story. The whole ambience of the film is magical and strangely hypnotic. The animation is charming in how Zeman utilizes the limitations of the format to make them into strengths. I haven’t long been on my discovery of foreign animation but there is some truly incredible stuff out there that I feel has always been suppressed by Disney’s American monopoly and American isolationism. It’s exciting to find this wealth of animated masterpieces that I never dreamed existed.’ — Michael Shawn



The Tale of John and Mary (1980)
‘Karel Zeman’s final film, The Tale of John and Mary, is hypnotic and gorgeous stuff. Though certainly not on the scale of his greats, the animation is impressive with its blend of different techniques and snippets of live action. It has a certain oddball charm that can only be found in Eastern European animated films for children. Its characters are deeply creepy, even its protagonist, and there’s the occasional moment of delightfully inappropriateness (full frontal nudity, a horse being gorily shot down by arrows, romance between a boy and a swan). Definitely a must for Zeman fans, but don’t start with this one if you’re yet to see his work.’ — Dave Jackson


Watch the entirety here




p.s. Hey. ** _Black_Acrylic, Yay, in the nick of time! Everyone, All of us, especially you in the suddenly and shockingly beleaguered USA, need some adrenaline and joy right now, and no one provides like _Black_Acrylic and his PlayTherapy sound fest, i.e. ‘The new episode of Play Therapy is online here via Tak Tent Radio! Broadcasting direct from Leeds, Ben ‘Jack Your Body’ Robinson brings you Italo, German Synth-pop and even Swiss Darkwave too.’ Treat yourselves! Seriously! Can not wait. ** David Ehrenstein, He was and always shall be, yes. ** Impossible Princess, Ha ha, hi. Yes, ‘Impossible Princess’ is really good. His short fiction collections are across the board. ‘Fascination’, the compilation of early and newer works that Semiotext(e) put out, might be the best entrance? His poetry books are great too. I love them all, especially ‘Action Kylie!’. **  brendan, Oh, slurp city. Thank you, magic man! I wrote to you, and, yes, if you’re not nodding out, Sunday’s good. Hit me up. Easiest flight possible. Love, me. ** Conrad, Hi, Conrad! I don’t believe Kevin’s work has been translated into French yet. You were at the Morgan Fischer screening? We keep being at the same events and I don’t see you. My eyes must be weirding out on me. The art I saw and especially liked and that I think is still up is … Morgan Fischer’s show @ Galerie Mitterand, Luc Tuymans’ show @ Zwirner, Charles Gaines’ show @ Max Hetzler, and Laura Henno’s video installation @ Palais de Tokyo (although the rest of the show there kind of sucks). You have a great weekend too! ** Steve Erickson, The last couple of days in the USA have been absolutely horrendous. Kevin’s early novel ‘Bedrooms Have Windows’ and ‘Bachelors Get Lonely’ are in the Semiotext(e) book ‘Fascination’ from 2018. And I just saw on Facebook this morning that they’re going to republish ‘Shy’, but they didn’t say when. I’ll try Chrisman, of course. ** Jeff J, Hi, Jeff! I think you might have seen this already, but Semiotext(e) is indeed going to republish ‘Shy’, but they didn’t give a date. No, I haven’t read that Keith Waldrop novel, and I didn’t even know he wrote a novel until right now. Huh, I’ll definitely track that down, thanks. I know Ulrike Ottinger’s work, but I haven’t seen ‘Paris Calligrammes’. If it’s on Criterion, I’ll go catch it. Cool. I have those Wire demos because they were included in the reissues of ‘Chairs Missing’ and ‘154’ several years ago, and, yes, they’re extraordinary, I agree. Film fundraising … err, we’re in a big push to get the funding by August 1st. I’m praying we get there. It’s possible, and we kind of need to or we’re fucked. So, we’ll see. It’s hard, quite hard, but it’s doable if we get very lucky. How are you? How’s writing and etc., etc.? ** Misanthrope, I’ve got your back when a pen is in your hand and otherwise. Or, wait, when your fingers are on the keyboard and otherwise. Buck up, buddy, it’s the truth. ** Bill, Same with my copy of ‘Shy’ even though it’s as crumbly as a very dry leaf. The new Peter Strickland … is it called ‘Flux Gourmet’? I didn’t know about it until just now. So, no, but obviously I’m curious. I’ll skip the trailer then. Great weekend to you, buddy. ** John Newton, Your friend is one lucky dog so far. Kevin and Dodie kept Kevin’s cancer pretty quiet. I never took LSD with Kevin, no. Or MDA, MDMA/ecstasy. I don’t think we even drank alcohol together. Mm, I can’t remember what cigarettes he smoked. ‘Desiree’ is terrific. It’s quite short, a chapbook. When I first moved over here, I was editing a big ‘Kevin Killian Reader’ book for the publisher Carroll & Graf, but they went out of business, and the book never happened. But, as a result, I have all of Kevin’s books here with me, which is nice. Cool dad story. My dad dated and almost married Mary Martin, most famous for playing Peter Pan, so she was almost my mother or, rather, I almost never existed. Excellent weekend to you! ** Okay. I thought I would give you a weekend to feast on the pioneering and giantly influential animation auteur Karel Zeman. Lots of fun up there in the post if you’re in the mood. See you on Monday.

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