Distinction and Conjunction in the Films of Kahlil Joseph

Curator's Note

In Kahlil Joseph’s short film Wildcat (2013), the concrete and the ephemeral are not merely contiguous, but also roughly commensurate. The film is an experimental documentary concerning a long-running black rodeo in the town of Grayson, Oklahoma, which, while still vibrant, is haunted by the specter of its recently deceased cofounder, “Aunt” Janet Celestine. Wildcat depicts the quotidian activities of cowboys and rodeo audiences while simultaneously trafficking in phantom images of loss and remembrance: the past is in the present and hurtles toward the future. Likewise, the film’s score experiments with conjoined abstractions by employing previously unreleased jazz music by Alice Coltrane as the raw material for new remixes and production tweaks by her nephew, Flying Lotus. In this way, the film’s score obfuscates the distinctions between the improvised (Coltrane) and the composed (FlyLo), and between the living/present (FlyLo) and the dead/past (Coltrane). This sort of imaginative conjunction of conventionally opposed concepts—life and death, inside and outside, pleasure and pain, past and present and future—is a hallmark of Joseph’s remarkable work. While distinct, such profound categories tend to bleed (sometimes literally) into one another in Kahlil’s films, thereby querying the very solidity upon which their distinctions rest.

Examples of conceptual imbrication and mystification abound in Joseph’s art, with the most prominent example found in the award-winning short film for Flying Lotus’s Until the Quiet Comes (2012). Among many other things, the film blurs the bounds between life and death through its striking depiction of a recently murdered young black man who spontaneously reanimates and dances his way into a waiting low-rider. The installation piece m.A.A.d. carries similar implications, with nearly immobile black men hanging, inverted, like bats on storefronts and street lights. Amidst these uncanny and mildly sinister suspensions is the vague suggestion of movement. Are these men dead? Are they sleeping? Are they preparing to emerge from a chrysalis stage, metamorphosing from one sort of life to another? (It is unclear, of course, but an immediately preceding shot of a lynching scene is highly suggestive.) Finally, the video for FKA Twigs’s song, Video Girl (2014), clouds the divisions between pleasure and pain, inside and outside, as well as (yet again) life and death. In a striking and surreal audiovisual revenge fantasy, Twigs’s character bears witness to the state execution of a white supremacist. She alternates between the observation and execution sides of a penitentiary one-way mirror, variously crying, straddling, caressing, and harassing the dying Aryan Brotherhood member. At points, the image of a black man (one presumes him to be the diegetic white supremacist’s victim) flashes onscreen, oozing what might be blood from his mouth. Because these particular frames are shot in monochrome, the ooze’s “true” chromaticism is indiscernible, but it appears liquid black. Thus, Kahlil Joseph’s diverse and expansive oeuvre suggests that fluidity is a necessary component for aesthetic and conceptual work in the 21st century.

Comments

Sarah Jane Cervenak's picture

conjunction's secret passageway

Chip, really liked your post and its particular attention to Joseph’s artful navigation, traversal and unsettling of a variety of oppositions: life/death; participant/spectator; composition and unanticipated innovation. I was also thinking about the way these oppositions engender a set of elsewheres, undisclosed locales where the song or motorbike, or departure from the sheltering barn might lead…and how the shuttling back and forth between frames alongside the labrynthian shifts in mood, tone, and sound might protect the one travelling into the storm outside.

Charles P. Linscott's picture

Further Down the Conjunctive Passageway

Hi Sarah! This is a marvelously poetic comment. I love the notion of a “set of elsewheres” that may provide a form of shelter. It seems to me that Joseph’s films often work to depict these sorts of mysterious “other places”—whether those are subtly veiled within familiar locales or quite plainly otherworldly. As you note, these passageways are filmic as well, so they are tied to the (often surprising) shifts in style and form that make his work quite special. It also appears as though he revels in the productive ambiguity of these secret conjunctive passages: when asked, he is loathe to provide any concrete atlas through his audiovisual labyrinth. Much like the filmmakers he often cites (Malick, Kubrick), Joseph tends to prefer to let his audiences do the traveling themselves.

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