Unnatural Hunger: the copy, the vampire and postcolonial anxieties, Island Island, Melbourne
In the 2005 conference Contemporary Painting In Context, Peter Weibel refers to painting as a ‘vampire’ whose survival depends on the consumption of contemporary media.1 For Weibel, the corpse of painting carries on ‘living’ by stealing the vitality of more recent and vigorous mediums, such as cinema and photography. Painting’s malevolent bite, as Weibel implies, is in the act of copying, where it self-actualizes by sinking its fangs into the zeitgeist—like a vampire seeking to preserve its precarious link to life. Like the undead, painting also self-replicates, which, for example, is clearly indicated by the widespread persistence of stale abstract paintings in contemporary art (hand me a crucifix and a wooden stake, please). In fact for the painter David Reed, abstract painting replicates the experience of a vampire gazing at its non-reflection, as it denies a figurative point of identification.2 Painting is ancient, decayed and devoid of a reflection, like a cadaver that feeds on the substance of the living.
Jeffrey Weinstock also exposes cinema as vampiric in his book Undead Cinema, where he comments on the medium’s tendency to ‘vamp’ subjects. For Weinstock, the camera turns representation into a curse by confining performers to a space in-between life and death, where images of the dead appear to be alive.3 Cinema is also widely known for voraciously appropriating other mediums and disciplines, ranging from theatre to literature to painting to comics. In his Coffin Trust Lecture, Christopher Frayling explains how film productions incorporate cross disciplinary quotations by gathering ‘bibles’ holding a myriad of pictures from disparate sources.4 For instance, he convincingly traces the visual design of the vampire in F. W. Murnau’s film Nosferatu (1922) to a Bauhaus costume by Oskar Schlemmer, as well as Henry Fuseli’s painting The Nightmare (1781). As Frayling argues, the first bears an eerie boldness and a costume that resembles bat wings in a manner like Nosferatu, while the latter features a nocturnal monster. The parasitical attributes of the copy, which are essential to the history of cinema, evidence the exploitative nature of the medium. Both painting and cinema, as modes of practice, survive and proliferate through a vampiric copying.
In extending on authors such as Frayling and Weibel’s comparison of copying to bloodsucking, this text engages with the idea of the copy as a form of vampirism, and proposes a triangulation between postcolonial anxieties, the copy and the vampire. In white Australian art, where the postmodern copy once stood as an antipodean expression of national identity, (such as Paul Taylor’s exhibition 1982 Popism for instance), questions around the problematics of a vampiric art world and artistic practices emerge with phantasmagorical ‘urgency’ (a word I cynically employ to appeal to the art world’s sensibilities). Like Jonathan Harker5—who stares at the horrors of the Carpathian Mountains from Dracula’s decrepit castle—we stand at a point in history where concepts such as ‘the copy’ have been extensively re-evaluated (with a grimace) by post-colonial discourse and the de-colonial turn. The impulse to (badly) mimic art from the metropolis, sibling colonies and colleagues remains somewhat of a prevalent gesture in Australian art. Here, the art of the copy is a macabre parasite that consumes, exhausts and self-replicates.
The Satanic Rites of Dracula
We may begin to set up the racial coding of the vampire through director Todd Browning’s adaptation of Dracula. Released in 1931, this feature casts Bela Lugosi as Dracula to bring Bram Stoker’s tediously familiar narrative to the screen: Count Dracula arrives in Britain from Transylvania after buying real-state to cause terror and spread disease. Lugosi, who was an immigrant from Hungary, employs a range of foreign mannerisms (a thick accent most prominently) to perform the role of a covert monster who is equally fearsome and seductive. If one reads the original novel Dracula or watches one of its multiple screen adaptations, it is painfully reminiscent of contemporary news reports that vilify foreigners for acquiring property. Indeed, read in the context of racial relations, Count Dracula resembles a ‘cashed up’ Hungarian that buys a home in the UK and offends local sensibilities by seducing a white woman with his alien charm. Since this story is composed of third person accounts (diaries, telegrams, letters) that refuse to accommodate Dracula’s perspective, it is possible to read the novel as a xenophobic account of the Count’s racial features, customs, intentions, and romantic attributes. Several motifs circulating in the novel and its adaptations encourage this interpretation, including descriptions of Dracula.
The design of Lugosi’s character in Browning’s Dracula reinforces this xenophobic reading by borrowing aspects of the ‘Latin Lover’ stereotype to personify a monstrous foreigner that manipulates victims through seduction. According to Dale Hudson in his book Vampires, Race and Transnational Hollywoods, this version of Dracula borrows from melodramas such as The Sheik (1921), which stars the Italian actor Rudolph Valentino –arguably the first Latin Lover in Hollywood’s history.6 Hudson compares these films and comments that both Valentino and Lugosi carry white women back to their lair in similar iconic scenes. The slicked back hair and tuxedo worn by Lugosi in Dracula is also a style reminiscent of the Latin Lover stereotype of the early 20th century, typified by Rudolph Valentino and Ramon Novarro. Hudson interprets this semblance as marking “the transition in the United States from the recruitment of immigrants needed to “settle” in the frontiers to the regulation of borders”7. Lugosi’s characterization of Dracula, which established many of the conventions associated with the character on screen (such as the long cape, pendant and high collar), can thus be read as a ‘gothification’ of the Latin Lover and the multitude of anxieties this stereotype conveys. As an ‘other’, the vampire is repeatedly represented as belonging to a foreign place (such as the French Lestat in Interview With The Vampire (1994)), a primitive era (the medieval Vladislav in What We Do In The Shadows(2014)) and a different race (the ‘hybrid’ protagonist of Blade (1998)).
Hollywood did not racialize Dracula, however, it merely updated its xenophobic phantasmagoria by fitting the racial mould of the vampire to a modern phenomenon. Stephen Arata explains in The Occidental Tourist: “Dracula” and the Anxiety of Reverse Colonization that in the minds of British readers of the 19th century, Transylvania was a place of perpetual invasion, standing for racial turmoil and political instability.8 Arata points out that the character of Dracula is Roumanian, a fact he contextualizes by arguing that they were a ‘race’ feared for their ability to assimilate others during marriage.9Similar to vampires, Roumanians were said to proliferate by negating the identity of their marital partners and passing on a ‘Roumanian-ness’ to their kin instead. This racist assessment bears an obvious correlation with the undead, who multiply by ‘turning’ their victims (liquidating their humanity). Therefore, the terror of Dracula, according to Arata, is reliant on anxieties of reverse colonization: the idea that those who lie outside the borders of the empire will invade its centre. This is one of the reasons why Stoker turned to Transylvania to engage Victorian readers, and Todd Browning’s Dracula later referenced the Latin Lover stereotype to relate with American audiences.
The vampire can thus be read as a carrier of imperial guilt and anxiety, mirroring various aspects of colonization. Firstly, the vampire multiplies like the metropolis, which replicates itself through colonies that reproduce copies of systems, places, and customs. Secondly, the vampire often holds the ambition of invading an empire (such as Britain) and conquering the world. Thirdly, the vampire proliferates through sexual eugenics, not unlike a settler privileging their genes. Lastly, the vampire drains its subjects of life, just as colonial systems exhaust human resources, land, and culture. As Álvaro García Marín explains in Our Vampires, (Not Ourselves), the undead bring back repudiated aspects of the self—such as the horrors of colonial expansion—and compulsively reincorporate them: the bloodsucker is a corpse that returns from the land of the dead, carrying with it unresolved ‘primitive’ forces such as sex, death, and violence—all of which belong to the colonial project.10 This could account for the popularity of the vampire figure in Western culture, which serves like a mirror that reflects postcolonial anxieties. The copy, which is how both the vampire and the colony grow in power, may hold the same appeal by resonating with imperial processes.
Blood for Dracula
Within the history of white Australian art, the copy has functioned as an expression of national identity. We may look back to the 80s, when curator Paul Taylor premised his 1982 exhibition Popism on this notion. Shown in Melbourne at the NGV, Popism included works by artists dealing with appropriation and the copy, such as Imants Tillers, Juan Davila, Maria Kozic, Jenny Watson, Howard Arkley, among others. The show, which was later re-appraised by Monash University during a symposium in 2012, included a cringe worthy manifesto titled ‘POPISM—THE ART OF WHITE ABORIGINES’. This text, which borrows its title from a painting by Tillers, makes cultural insensitivity statements, like a Qantas advertisement bearing an unacknowledged First Nations design.11 One of the manifesto’s declarations reads “POPISM, like the aboriginal nomads, can therefore find a metaphor for itself in its existence on the surface and edges of the existing landscape”12. Artist Richard Bell denounces these attitudes as a “desire by non-Aboriginal artists to overcome the aforementioned provincialism problem”13 —the provincialism problem being the idea that the global art world centres denigrate the production of those in peripheral countries. Bell is condemning a position in which the settler leeches onto the culture that precedes it to define itself by though appropriation.
Bell execrates the copy more widely, as it has enabled the likes of Britain and the US to continue exploiting those it invades. In his text Bell’s Theorem, Bell cites Picasso as an example of a revered Western artist who copied African masks, subjugating the original African authors as makers of artefacts. Bell has opposed the bloodsucking nature of the Western copy in other instances, including the work of Tillers. Tillers, who is of Latvian descent, has been known for appropriating sacred imagery without seeking permission or following any form of cultural protocol.14 In response, Bell has produced paintings that hilariously appropriate Tillers’ style while bearing slogans such as his iconic ‘Aboriginal art it’s a white thing’ in the work Imants Tillers (painted by Richard Bell) Bell’s Theorem (2002-2016). Since then, he has also denounced artists Lucas Grogan and Del Kathryn Barton for blatantly appropriating Aboriginal art in what may be seen as a semiotic, colonial act.15For Bell, lifting cultural elements with a sense of entitlement is a form of colonialism.
Within the context of cultural appropriation, the copy arises as a primordial example of vampirism. We may return to Weibel’s argument that painting is a corpse that feeds on the living to understand how Western artists may consume cultures with less visibility. This is how the copy truly works as a vampire: by devouring the vitality of works that are less visible in the contemporary art world, such as Picasso appropriating the aesthetics of African masks, draining the African artists of authorship, or Jackson Pollock mimicking First Nations practices with the drip. While these Western artists have been canonized in art history, their sources continue in relative anonymity, hindering the recognition of non-Western art practices. White Australian art becomes a vampire when it steals life from the references it devours, using the copy as a means of proliferation. Like the vampire, we may consider that white Australian art gravitates towards the copy as means of alleviating postcolonial anxieties.
From Dusk Till Dawn
Today, cultural appropriation is generally frowned upon in mainstream Australian art, which to me signals a similarly ‘progressive’ trajectory to that of the vampire: like Edward Cullen in the Twilight (2008 - 2012) saga (an ethical vampire who refuses to drink human blood), Australian art has also shifted its consumption habits. Now it feeds on progressive discourses rather than exotic forms, exemplified locally by the multitude of talks and panel discussions dealing with diversity. This ‘ethical’ feeding remains a phenomenon of consumption and multiplication, where the right attitudes and virtues expand without much variation. The Australian art world seems to demand a standard position from non-Westerners; the trauma carrier, the noble conceptual, and the ‘spicy’ maverick. Many exhibitions are so self-consciously curated to include artists from all over the world that one gets a sense that the curator, director, and staff bear a ‘Brangelina’16 complex. On the surface the art world is increasingly becoming more ethical; however, it continues to consume those who partake in the activities of its coven. It is a ravenous corpse that adapts to the times.
Petersen, A.R. et al., (2010). Contemporary painting in context / edited by Anne Ring Petersen ; with Mikkel Bogh, Hans Dam Christensen, Peter Nørgaard Larsen., Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, University of Copenhagen. ↩
George, S (2013), 'He make in the mirror no reflect': undead aesthetics and mechanical reproduction -'Dorian Gray', 'Dracula', and David Reed's 'vampire painting'. in S George & B Hughes (eds), Open Graves, Open Minds: Representations of Vampires and the Undead from the Enlightenment to the Present Day. University of Manchester Press, Manchester, pp. 56-78, Bram Stoker Centenary Symposium, The Keats House Hampstead, 2012, Hampstead, United Kingdom, 13/04/12 ↩
Weinstock, J. A. (2012). The vampire film: undead cinema. London, Wallflower. ↩
A real estate agent that becomes imprisoned by Dracula in his castle. ↩
Hudson, D. (2017) “Filmography,” in Vampires, Race, and Transnational Hollywoods. Edinburgh University Press, pp. 240–244. ↩
Arata, S. (1996) “The Occidental tourist: Stoker and reverse colonization,” in Fictions of Loss in the Victorian Fin de Siècle: Identity and Empire. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 107–132. ↩
Marín, Á. (2015). Our Vampires, (not) Ourselves. In Race in the Vampire Narrative, Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill ↩
This is a metaphor sarcastically referencing Qantas visual identity. ↩
Butler, R., (1996). What is appropriation?: an anthology of critical writings on Australian art in the '80s and '90s / edited by Rex Butler., Sydney, NSW: Power Publications and IMA. ↩
Barham, K., (2014). ‘Aboriginal Art: It’s a white thing’, available at < https://www.eyelinepublishing.com/write-about-art-5/article/aboriginal-art-its-white-thing> ↩
Wolf, S. & Richard B., (2013). Richard Bell: an ostrich will bury its head in the sand, available at <https://theartlife.com.au/2013/richard-bell-an-ostrich-will-bury-its-head-in-the-sand/. ↩
Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie famously adopted children from around the world. ↩