Dormitorium Phantasmagoria

The Encyclopedic Worlds of the Brothers Quay

Brothers Quay
Film Still from “Street of Crocodiles” (1986)

Seeing “Quay Brothers: On Deciphering the Pharmacist’s Prescription for Lip-Reading Puppets” on view at the Museum of Modern Art is like walking into an alternate realm saturated with visceral media and puppeteer-esqu vitrines resplendent with sensational curiosity. The darkened corridors housing the Brothers Quay visual narrative of the hardworking twins tour de force to animation stardom acts out as a psychoanalytic labyrinthine journey, unearthing biographical ephemera and art historical inspiration foundational to the Brothers diverse career. Book jacket design, magazine layouts, illustration, music videos, material animation, costume and theatrical stage design; the Brothers expenditures compass a total-art intervention into media culture for decades. Art world influences are just as expansive, notably including Rudolf Freund illustrations for “Scientific American,” Polish radical 1960s graphic poster design and the animation films of Polish director Walerian Borowczyk and Czech animator Jan Švankmajer. These media influences curatorially lead to the pinnacle of the Brothers Quay career: stop-motion films.

Before viewing the films (on view at the end of Part 2 of the exhibition), viewers maze through set-design vitrines arranged with puppet-esqu actors of notable Brothers Quay stop-motion films. Beyond the glass within their respective worlds the piecemeal creations composed out of materials including tattered doll appendages and recycled fabrics became the Quay’s starring sentient autorobots in filmic action. No longer working, all props, characters and set decor are retired into the Brothers Quay Dormitorium (on view in Part 1 of the exhibition), becoming artworks in themselves transplanted to preserved infamy in this 21st Century Wunderkammer.

More than 10 movies are on view in Part 1 of the MoMA exhibition, including “The Cabinet of Jan Svankmayer” (1984), “Street of Crocodiles” (1986) and “MASKA” (2010). Replete with sci-fi characterization and film noir intrigue, the Brothers threadbare figurines intermingle in non sequitur vignette plots, calling viewers to decipher the unfolding mysteries. Interesting to note, the Brothers films are visual adaptations of written narratives (for example, “Street of Crocodiles” is adapted from Polish author Bruno Schulz’s 1934 novel of the same name). Acting as set designers, directors and screenwriters, the auteurs re-interpret folklores and fairy tales by breathing anthropomorphism into the inanimate child-like ephemera once lost with age but now transposed into surreal curiosity cabinets in-motion ready to be eternally explored.

Brothers Quay
Set Design for “Street of Crocodiles” (1986)

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