In The Door (2019), her newest video animation, Tala Madani takes less than three minutes to tell a charged, satirical tale brimming with formal ideas and visual experiments. Viewers familiar with her paintings and previous videos will recognize a number of continuing themes: power, sex, violence, and the stark reality of the body itself are observed with a ribald sense of humor, as self-consciously twisted narratives are acted out with slapstick choreography. These defining features of Madani’s work, particularly her animations, are informed by her affinity for a varied group of underground cartoons, graphic novels, and cult movies.
The action of the video focuses on a figure—perhaps a baby, or a grown man, or some combination of the two—who watches a primal scene from the eponymous doorway. A man and a woman—presumably the figure’s parents—engage in an exchange whose comedy never fully mitigates the trouble that ensues between them. On the one hand, the viewer observes these events from the point of view of the baby, who might imagine that the act of sex, even under normal circumstances, is a strange and upsetting spectacle. On the other, however, Madani knowingly invites us to consider the pervasive nature of destructive relationships. The father character is bent on inflicting as much pain as possible; the mother fights back to the point, literally, of overkill; and the baby seems to want to bid farewell to it all, even though he stares down the brutal fact of his own origins. The soundtrack, filled with local sounds that underplay the chaos of the struggle, emphasizes that The Door can be read literally or metaphorically, but in either case it doesn’t let its protagonists—or its viewers—off the hook.
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In a 1969 interview with Digby Diehl, pioneering horror movie director Roger Corman describes how the cinematic representation of architectural tropes can evoke psychological trauma, and thus generate image sequences that play off their audiences’ deep-seated fears:
I think the actual movement down [a] hall is another kind of fear-attraction combination. It’s like a young boy dying to find out—“dying” is the right word I think—about sex. He’s drawn irresistibly to it, yet at the same time, he’s frightened because he knows it’s going to change his life…. There’s a theory that mystery stories are always an attempt to solve that primal secret. Very often what’s going on down the hall, behind the door, has with it the question, “What is father doing to mother?”
If these words have bearing on the drama that unfolds in The Door, they also reveal, more broadly, that Corman had a preternatural sense of what makes people tick. This extends to his understanding of the creative process, which also has a libidinal dimension. Corman’s acidic 1959 film A Bucket of Blood remains one of the most hilariously accurate cinematic depictions of what it means to be an artist. It tells the story of a hapless man who produces a series of sculptures by accidentally killing first his cat and then an undercover police officer; after murdering more people for the sake of his “art,” the man, played by Dick Miller, provides the material for his final work by killing himself.
Campy, funny, and still somehow capable of getting to the messy core of artmaking, A Bucket of Blood has much in common with paintings and videos throughout Madani’s oeuvre. She underlines the association, for instance, between bodily functions and processes of creation, which often have sinister undertones. The 2015 painting Tree, like The Door, is about voyeurism and the dashing of illusions: a baby watches from a crib as a man, dressed as Santa Claus, urinates through a boxed present onto a small Christmas tree.
But perhaps even more importantly, A Bucket of Blood is drenched in satire, a mode that also characterizes the pointedness and emotional range of Madani’s production. The seeming intensity of her images finds a persistent counter in their comic touches; and while the work is funny, its jokes are covered in barbs that cut into the recesses of the mind. Prompting laughter becomes an economical way to deliver complex, uncomfortable information, and to address pressing issues head-on while maintaining space for expressive freedom. As such, Madani’s satirical bent pushes her to increase her formal experimentation and to expand her thematic range, making her images flexible and responsive. Her characters personify this process, frequently in an exaggerated—and yes, satirical—manner, falling back on their own bodies and bodily fluids to make their mark.
For all of these reasons, it can also be generative to trace the connections between Madani’s project and the narrative strategies and visual qualities of comics and cartoons. The comic genre, which developed in newspapers and magazines with regular publication schedules, necessitated a degree of speed that in turn informed the look and feel of its images. For Madani, the desire to see her ideas on canvas quickly means she too has had to develop techniques that facilitate rapid translation. This has had the added benefit of allowing her work to speak to and about the history of art without falling under the weight of nostalgia, which can be a particular problem when it comes to painting. Form and style are therefore the natural, practical outgrowths of an attitude of urgency.
If the result is a disarmingly straightforward visual syntax, Madani’s ideas themselves are nuanced and provocative in ways that are difficult to pin down. Comics too can present challenging information and complex characters that reveal hidden truths about our world. The acclaimed Watchmen series (1986–1987), for example, makes use of the full spectrum of the medium’s possibilities—including saturated color and pages filled with multiple information-rich panels—to explore entrenched moral and political issues on a large scale.
While comic books and cartoons are decidedly two-dimensional mediums in which flat shapes are combined to achieve surprising depth, there are also notable instances in which cartoonists have juxtaposed figures from their drawn universes with people and settings from the “real” world. Over the course of her career, Madani has availed herself of a range of such techniques to make her own animations. She has produced “moving paintings,” working directly on canvas and altering painted images for each frame; she has used film negatives as a background, so that animated action can take place in photographed spaces; and she has employed green screens, allowing painted or drawn characters, once digitally animated, to interact with cinematic images.
Productive comparisons can therefore be made between Madani’s work and films like Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), where the expansive—and potentially explosive—crossover between the animated and real worlds comes to the forefront, and the needs and desires of rendered creatures become prisms through which we better understand our own. The cigar-chomping, woman-ogling Baby Herman character is a prime example, and can be seen in relation to the many knowing babies in Madani’s paintings and videos who are more than willing to get their hands dirty.
Another important influence are the films of Ralph Bakshi, whose classic 1973 animation/live-action hybrid Heavy Traffic depicts a psychedelic, nightmarish, and comedic version of New York street life as seen through the eyes of a cartoonist. Lewd, provocative, and radically inventive, Heavy Traffic is full of virtuosic sequences that are as remarkable for their technical prowess as they are for their biting social commentary and raucous energy. Like The Door, Bakshi’s work contains scenes that probe the depths of the psyche by presenting desire, revulsion, violence, and passion as inseparable parts of a multifaceted condition.
Madani herself has experimented with the merger of animation and live action in videos like Sex Ed by God (2017), which was featured in the 2017 Whitney Biennial, and whose narrative takes place in what appears to be a darkened classroom illuminated solely by the throw of a projector on a screen. This setting—and the projected light—are composed of photographs, while the people who perform in it are the creation of Madani’s hand. A child and a man observe the image of a woman with a lifted skirt while a pair of disembodied lips offers some kind of narration. The sound too is taken from the world and, like the lips, it is quasi-abstract, at least until the work reaches its denouement and the projected woman grows larger and larger; eventually she reaches out of the screen, grabbing the man and child and dragging them, kicking and screaming, back into her projected world before inserting them into her vagina. Finally, she crumples up the entire classroom in her outstretched hand; the live-action world is completely subsumed by the animated one, and the ultimate instructor is the movie-within-a-movie’s matriarch figure.
Unexpected plot turns aside, Sex Ed by God also surprises by virtue of its spatial complexity. Madani collapses inside and outside, plays with extremes of containment and erasure, and removes the barriers, both physical and metaphysical, that separate observer and observed. The Door raises the stakes in this regard, especially since it includes the first instance of camera movement to appear in any of her videos.
When The Door begins, we see an interior hallway, and as we proceed towards the door, it is as if we are stepping into the space of a dream or a memory, or even back in time. The uncanny admixture of curiosity and dread described by Corman is palpable. As the hand-drawn, digitally animated baby enters the frame a few seconds later, it becomes clear that several degrees of watching are involved, and that what we are seeing might be the representation of an adult watching his infant self engage with an early trauma. The door looms as a threshold, a last layer of psychic resistance, and an opening into what will turn out to be a vital, if violent, life-and-death occasion.
Doors, of course, have made prominent appearances throughout the history of art, in paintings as well as films. For surrealists like Giorgio de Chirico and René Magritte, they could symbolize portals into the unconscious. In late works, de Chirico painted opened interior doors in rooms that are worlds unto themselves, full of strange objects arranged in groupings that are somehow ominous and humorous at once. And in paintings by Magritte, doors stand between incongruent spaces, accentuating the drama and symbolism that results through their juxtaposition.
Both of these painters, like Madani, were aware of the important role that humor plays in a dive into the imagery of the unconscious, where strangeness, absurdity, and embarrassment exist alongside revelations, insights, and unfathomable occurrences. The visuals in The Door certainly acknowledge this, as the man and woman in the bedroom resort to increasingly farcical ways to harm one another, and the baby smokes a cigarette. So does the soundtrack, which, with its lo-fi recordings of pots and pans banging, glass breaking, and soft things being swatted and slapped, consists of one gag after another. Madani unflinchingly looks at the troubling power dynamics at play in many relationships, not to mention society and nature at large; at the same time, she retains a place for the laughter that accompanies so many attempts to confront the tragic. Unsure of how else to respond, people laugh. This is the same kind of irreverence and painful awareness of the body and its role as a social organism that fuels edgy, button-pressing comedy like Larry David’s HBO series Curb Your Enthusiasm (2000–present), clips from which Madani sometimes uses to introduce her work in lectures.
As The Door reaches its finale, and with both the man and the woman dead, the baby holds a funny graveside ritual, complete with the tossing of a bouquet of flowers pulled from his own backside. If the video depicts a reckoning with the past from within someone’s own mind, the baby’s actions indicate that he now wishes to say, “Good riddance!” to the damages wrought by his parents. Given the enormity of what he has just witnessed, whether or not he will be able to do so remains unknown. Is his nonchalance merely an attempt to protect himself? Once doors like these are opened, they’re not easily closed again.
In 2021, Tala Madani (b. 1981, Tehran; lives and works in Los Angeles) will be the subject of a major mid-career survey exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. Other recent solo exhibitions include shows at Secession, Vienna (2019); Mori Art Museum, Tokyo (2019); Portikus, Frankfurt (2019); La Panacée, Centre de Culture Contemporaine, Montpellier, France (2017); MIT List Visual Arts Center, Cambridge, Massachusetts and Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis (2016); Centro Andaluz de Arte Contemporáneo, Seville, Spain (2015); and Nottingham Contemporary, England (2015). Recent group exhibitions include The Seventh Continent, 16th Istanbul Biennial (2019); Dirty Protest: Selections from the Hammer Contemporary Collection, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles (2019); On Vulnerability and Doubt, Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA), Melbourne (2019); ARKIPEL Homoludens, 6th Jakarta International Documentary and Experimental Film Festival (2018); Whitney Biennial 2017, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Los Angeles - A Fiction, Astrup Fearnley Museet, Oslo (2016), traveled to Musée d’art Contemporain de Lyon, France (2017); and Invisible Adversaries, Marieluise Hessel Collection, Hessel Museum of Art, Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, New York (2016).
To learn more about Tala Madani, please view these articles from Flash Art, Cultured, ArtReview, Artforum, TheNewYorker.com, and Frieze, as well as Nicolas Bourriaud's catalogue essay accompanying her 2017 exhibition at La Panacée.
Studio photography by Elon Schoenholz
Installation view: Tala Madani, Shit Moms, September 7 – October 19, 2019, David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles, Photo by Jeff McLane
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