There is something about electronic music that lends itself to cinematic interpretation. Since the advent of the music video, ambient sound and visual imagery have proven especially copacetic. Modes of production, the use of collage and montage and the conceit of total experience span across genres, as the long list of collaborations between artists in their respective fields goes both ways: One is reminded of Wendy Carlos’ futuristically classical scoring for Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, Michael Gondry’s train window video direction for the Chemical Brothers’ Star Guitar, Giorgio Moroder’s controversial musical re-edit of Fritz Lang’s silent Metropolis — even Björk’s extended composition for Matthew Barney’s feature length Drawing Restraint 9. It comes as no surprise, then, that David Lynch should collaborate with the subversive DJ Danger Mouse (aka Brian Burton) and reclusive Sparklehorse (Mark Linkous).
The culmination of the trio’s efforts, Dark Night of the Soul: New Photographs by David Lynch, on view at Michael Kohn Gallery in Los Angeles through July 11th, has already garnered significant media attention. In fact, it may be one of the most blogged-about “mysterious” summer collaborations, because of a top-heavy cast and ensuing production hiccups. A phrase attributed to the sixteenth century Carmelite monk St. John of the Cross, used to describe a crisis moment of particular spiritual desolation, Dark Night of the Soul began as a contemplative musical project between Danger Mouse and Sparklehorse back in 2004. The ever-surreal (and sometimes-morbid) filmmaker David Lynch was later recruited to do some inspirational graphics. Lynch composed a series of one hundred photographs after listening to the album, in addition to contributing vocals on two tracks (Nina Persson, Iggy Pop, Julian Casablancas, Suzanne Vega and several others also sing along). A book was also published by powerHouse, and packaged with the album. (Due to a dispute with Danger Mouse’s label, EMI, the CD-Rs issuedare actually blank, resulting in a disappointing divorce of Lynch’s imagery from its musical precursor.)
Sound and image are united at Michael Kohn Gallery, providing a rare opportunity to view the show as the artists originally intended. It’s a shame then, that the enigmatic tension feels forced: Fifty of Lynch’s photographs span two gray-carpeted rooms at eye level and speakers mounted above blast the “Sparklemouse” tracks, while a weirdly didactic (and unnecessary) system of blue lights shifts to reflect the picture-song relationship as the album plays on a loop. The acoustics of the space do little to balance Dark Night of the Soul’s tinny sound with Lynch’s bold imagery, however. A master of existential introspection, the most striking feature of Lynch’s work is the lush quality of its dark areas — and not just in metaphoric terms: Untitled (Grim Augury #2) casts in shadow a suburban secret shared, as stadium-like lighting casts eerily green grass and a man’s dungarees in strong relief. The next number (Grim Augury #3) closes in on previously imperceptible woman in white ,a thick trickle of blood running from her elbow to her wrist.
Though the images are still, the photographic moments Lynch chooses to extend maintain a film-like feeling. In a series of three photographs, Untitled (Daddy’s Gone #2, 3, 4), the scene is set in an empty bedroom. Next, the camera zooms in on a handfull of too-red and too-blue pill capsules spilling onto the bureau. Finally, a power strip is pulled from beneath the floral bed skirt. A strong narrative arc of suspense builds through each cluster of photographs, where the influence of Danger Mouse and Sparklehorse becomes slowly palpable. (The pieces are grouped by song title — “Insane Lullaby,” “The Man Who Played God,” et cetera.) But the pace of viewing within the gallery space is too quick. Lynch’s clear vision proves difficult to augment (acoustically, visually, and otherwise) through his potent images of desolation. Prints may be purchased individually, or in their entirety in a limited-edition book; as for the album, though officially unavailable, it may be streamed over the Internet (via National Public Radio) and rouses with repeat plays. One suspects that a pair of oversized, noise-canceling headphones and the privacy of an unmade bed may prove the ultimate environment for perusing a unified and ultimately, more personal Dark Night of the Soul.
[All images courtesy the artist and Michael Kohn Gallery. David Lynch’s next cross-genre collaboration is the music video for Moby’s “Shot in the Back of the Head,” from the forthcoming album Wait for Me, which will be released on June 30th.]