Tuesday, 23 October 2007

My Essay about Brother's Quay

Ravensbourne College of Design and Communication

Foundation Degree CVA

1st individual report

2nd October 2006

Level 1, Year 1, Term 1

Contextual Studies

CVA 102

Project Leader: Freddie Gaffney

The Epic of Gilgamesh
by Brothers Quay

“We want to make a world that is seen through a dirty plane of glass.”
– The Brothers Quay

Essay written by: Anja Tolar

London, November 2006


Up: “Dramolet” and “The Comb”, down: “Are We Still Married” and “Anamorphosis”

Based on my personal experience (study of painting on Fine Arts Academy of Ljubljana, and Master Degree study of Photography and other related media) beside my Slovan cultural origins, this short synopsis represents and continues theses and ideas developed in my Diploma’s thesis about psychological portrait in painting and my Master thesis about the impact of socially concerned photography.

I started to pay an attention to the work of enigmatic identical twins, Stephen and Timothy Quay, after some of their animated films were represented to my class and evoked strong negative reactions. Consuming their work with admiration I felt isolated. Nobody liked them, but everybody spoke about them. The mechanics of this phenomena interests me.

American by birth and English by adoption (studied on Royal College of Art, London), they turned from illustrators into one of most accomplished animation artists of recent years. Their inspiration emerges from an eccentric mixture of fantastic décor18 and grotesque puppetry captured into a claustrophobic, hermetically preserved marginal Freudian microcosms, controlled by ingenious alchemy of unconscious dream world of metaphor and seemingly more associative than narrative visual poetry.14

Historical inspiration and narrative frame

Up: “Nocturna Artificialia”, down: “Cabinet Jana Švankmajera”

The Quays often base their animations on the work of other writers and artists. Predominately taking their influence from East European art and literature, their films have been adaptations of texts by Schulz, Walser, Kafka and Carroll. Visually, their imagery is a hybrid constructed from the depths of art history: Ernst, Bacon, Arcimboldo, Fragonard, Bosch and Escher all make fleeting appearances within their work.
Unnameable Little Broom or Little Songs of the Chief of Hunar Louse (Being a Largely Disguised Reduction of the Epic of Gilgamesh), Tableau II (1985), relates more to predecessor animation films as The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer, from which it borrows few main visual motifs and progresses them into a series of complex constructions: the use of drawers and tables as devices and as mechanisms, the transformation of meaning within an object through juxtaposition and the influence of Surrealism to create a psychosexual drama.19
The Quays kept the original frame of the story in which the toddler King of Sumeria, Gilgamesh, in order to defeat his rival, wild man of the steppes- Enkidu, sends him a prostitute as a trap. Inspired by a drawing of a mad Swiss painter Anton Muller, They recreated the main character into a flat puppet with both eyes in the middle of fade face, riding a bicycle. An angel/insect like phantom, glued with feathers , mandibles, bird cartilage3 and shell eyes- became Enkidu.
The second title This Unnameable Little Broom has more personal connotations for the creators and refers to “the pretty bureaucrat (in the London visa office, who was trying to deport them due to a lapsed visa) who feels it is his duty to sweep everything clean” 3. To make this implication a little more obvious, 'hunar louse' is a reference to the Office of Immigration and Passport Control based in Lunar House, Croydon. This Unnameable Little Broom could be seen to reflect a paranoia of the Institution or of an outside force attempting to corrupt the established order. As a theme, losing control reoccurs subtly throughout the Quays' work.19

The “metaphysics of Obscenity” -meanings
Up: “in absentia”, down: “Phantom Museum”

the Quays describe Gilgamesh's kingdom as one that is “an entirely hermetic universe literally suspended out of time in a black void” 3 The pale yellow shadow-mottled walls are inscribed with calligraphic text and its seemingly vast expanse is randomly broken up by square holes from which medical hooks occasionally project. A table – a mechanism and a trap – concealing female genitalia within one of its drawers, stands at the centre of Gilgamesh's domain.19 High above this space are strung high-tension wires, vibrating in the wind, one caught with a broken tennis racquet, a private icon used in previous works. They express the whole idea of pathological symbolism (Enkidu’s catapult to electrocution adulates orgasm).
As a symbolic construction, Gilgamesh's world is one of evil and deceit, simultaneously encoded with psychosexual tension and personal resonance for the Quays. The medical hooks, the rusting scissors, the razor sharp high-tension wires and the sound of a chainsaw all imply a castration theme, emphasised not just by the violent mechanical trap that Gilgamesh sets but also by the sequence in which he places two eggs on a slicing wicket, positioning them where his own testicles should be.3 Such brutal and sexually violent imagery would continue to reoccur in the brothers' films, most notably in Street of Crocodiles, where organic materials are organised into representations of male genitals, pierced with a hundred tailor's pins.19
Impact on Audiences

Up: “Street of Crocodile” and “Look What the Cat Drug In”, down: “Epic of Gilgamesh”

To bring their puppets to life, the brothers work painstakingly frame after frame of static postures, building them up into the semblance of motion.6 With their experimental techniques of extreme camera angles, fast 180-degree reversals, uncomfortable view points, whip-pans, extreme close-ups, symbolic usage of music (childlike for Gilgamesh), suggestive sound effects ( saw - his mutilation) and mysterious lightning they create, inside the film, the illusion of an active, anonymus power and dramatise the viewer’s role.6

Although it is hardly enough to attract the very conscious, rational and critically-minded modern adult, the puppet- “human being as if” 10, with it’s archaic powers of suggestion, still offers specific aesthetic experience and, by arousing the perpetual child dormant in every adult, also has moral significance.

Viewers will find the echoes of their own experience in this hermetic, cryptic, seductive little film, whose conflict is between infantile and adult sexuality- mutually exclusive epistemologies.3


The work of Brothers Quay clearly reflects the constantly alternating spirit of postmodernity. The pasticchio of different influences, mixture of traditional and modern technical approaches, variety of different meanings, interaction between legitime and legalised , alienation of a being and reistic objectification of the world are all signs that echo a new era in artistic expression, a byproduct of commodity culture and post-industrial society at the turn of the century.

Although obviously not a mainstream adult animation, with its technical excellence and intriguing puppet imagery, has immediate impact on viewers any kind. The metaphors in their films could be thought about in many contexts: poverty, hunger, madness, solitude, plurality of margins. 12 The multifaceted mode of expression haven’t only earned admiration of animation directors, film students, visual artists, literary scholars, philosophers, but also projected itself into works of child animation, like Toy Story and lately, as they “signed the contract with the devil”5 and produced video clips, stage décors, advertisements, and dance videos, also gained respect of wider, non-artistically educated public.


1. The Brothers Quay Collection. Ten Astonishing Short Films. DVD,1984-1993.

2. HAMES, Peter, Dark Alchemy. The Films of Jan Svankmajer, Flicks Books, Wiltshire 1995.

3. WEINER, Steve, The Quay Brothers’ The Epic of Gilgamesh and the ‘metaphysics of obscenity’, in J. Pilling (ed.), A Reader in Animation Studies, London, John Libbey & Company, 1997, p. 25–37.

4. ROMNEY, Jonathan, Life is a Dream, Sight and Sound, December 1995, p.12-15.

5. GOODEVE, Nichols Thyrza, Dream Team: Thyrza Nichols Goodeve Talks with the Brothers Quay. Brothers Quay, Artforum, April 1996, XXXIV, No. 8, p. 83-85, 118, 126.

6. ROMNEY, Jonathan, The Same Dark Drift, Sight and Sound, March 1992, p. 24-27.

7. FELPERIN, Leslie, Institute Benjamenta, or This Dream People Call Human Life, Sight and Sound, December 1995, p. 46.

8. SADL, Zdenka, Usoda custev v zahodni civilizaciji (The Destiny of Emotions in Western Civilistaion), Sophia, Ljubljana 1999.

9. BUSSEL, Jan, The Puppet Theatre, Faber and Faber limited, London 19 6…, str. 13-21 and 132-140.

10. V.I.D.M., The Puppet Theatre of the Modern World, George G. Harrap & Co. Ltd, London 1967., p. 35-41.

“What happens in the shadow, in the grey regions, also interests us – all that is elusive and fugitive, all that can be said in those beautiful half tones, or in whispers, in deep shade.”
– The Brothers Quay

Web Resources:

11. Tribute to Raymond Durgnat by The Brothers Quay

12. Through a Glass Darkly: Interview with the Quay Brothers by André Habib http://www.sensesofcinema.com/contents/01/19/quay.html

13. Zeitgeist Films The Brothers Quay

15. The Quay Brothers: Choreographed Chiaroscuro, Enigmatic and Sublime by Suzanne Buchan
also: BUCHAN, Suzanne H., “The Quay Brothers: Choreographed Chiaroscuro, Enigmatic and Sublime”, Film Quarterly, Spring 1998, pp. 2–15.

17. Believemedia

18. Brothers Quay: In Absentia

19. Senses of cinema, Stephen and Timothy Quay by James Rose

20. Nova fantazija iz tvornice braće Quay

21. Braća Q - mračna čarolija
also: ATKINSON, Michael, “The Night Countries of the Brothers Quay”, Film Comment, 30, September/October 1994, pp. 36–44.

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