About Airplanes 
Catalogue essay for Matte Rochford, Archive ARI, Sydney, 2015

The Wind Rises (2013) by Hayao Miyazaki is an anime film about the life of Japanese engineer Jiro Horikoshi that pays a great deal of attention to the protagonist’s obsession with aviation. Reportedly the last effort from Studio Ghibli’s director, The Wind Rises unforgivingly reflects Miyazaki’s fixation with airplanes and their engineering. Indeed, as the struggle of the Japanese to compete with the German’s steel technology unfolds through the lens of two introverted engineers one can only presume that this is what the ‘film industry’ refers to as a low selling concept (which, like most forms of rejection, is a mark of quality indeed). Nevertheless, some spectacular scenes do take place in the anime and they often involve airplanes falling to the ground, playing with the marriage between crashes and the moving image to stimulate an emotional response from the audience.

Plane crashes are a trope of spectacle disasters. An airplane falling to the ground at high speed is without a doubt an alluring large-scale event. Firstly, the shape and scale of the plane tends to evoke an anthropomorphic shape of mythical proportions. This illusion is accentuated by the damage undertaken by the plane, for example, one YouTube video shows a commercial airplane dramatically loosing its cockpit as it hits the ground – making it seem as if the plane was being decapitated1. The shock of the event, in my view, escalates as one begins to realise that hundreds of lives are about to end violently in a matter of minutes. This sense of terror unleashes a tremendous thrill when mediated by the moving image. Provoking an emotional response that is easily commoditized, as in the The Wind Rises, where plane crashes operate as a space of fantasy and arousal.

The opening scene of the film is indicative of this mode of representation as it involves a dream sequence in which the protagonist is piloting a bird like aircraft across his hometown. The dreamer, however, is unfortunately short sighted in his waking life and the opening serves the purpose of establishing the unattainability of his dream: becoming a pilot. This is underscored by the representation of the plane, which exhibits a rubbery consistency rather than the hard edge rendering most commonly associated with war themes. Thus, the ‘bubble gum’ airplane appears to be floating rather than flying, suggesting an ethereal state of sorts. Yet, when an accident occurs in the character’s dream the airplane quickly shifts to a more realistic form of representation – shedding away its blobby morphology in favour of a solid materiality. This is a perceptual shift that also occurs in view of recorded crashes, where the airplane is equal parts an object of desire and horror. In fact, one can’t help to marvel at the beauty of the disaster – particularly the explosion and the destruction that follows – but also fear its effects. It is not surprising then that filmmakers and artists feel compelled to represent and examine disasters.

Such is the case of ‘Airway’, the group show about airplanes curated by Francesca Heinz and featuring Matte, Greer and Julia Rochford. Although the exhibition presents a broad collection of plane imagery – either collected or recorded by the artists, there is a focus on plane accidents. Like Hayao Miyazaki, the Rochford siblings appear obsessed with aircraft and the place of flight in

visual culture as well as the appeal of disasters. Although plane crash videos are generally considered media ‘junk’, they operate under a complex system of voyeurism and consumption in screen culture.

Indeed, disaster imagery is often caught up in a process of emotionality and consumption. The sense of horror activated by plane crashes replicates the experience of disasters and thus provides a form of entertainment. The production of terror is thus of capital interest and it is a target for mass mediatisation. The representation of disasters, wether recorded on video or reproduced through other pictorial means, touches on the production and consumption of fear. The title of this show, ‘Airway’, is fitting as it evokes aviation aesthetics but also the passage of air that brings breadth to the mouth in a scream of terror.

1 “Plane Crashes Caught on Camera”, last accessed 22 July, 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7nt33U4EMnI