The Agency of Objects in the Work of Jan Švankmajer

One of my favorite media arts is animation. Although in recent years I have stopped producing content in this format, the medium, its aesthetics, and its language continue to be very important in my art practice, and continue to nurture my imagination and creativity. Last night, while searching for a short film we could watch on Netflix, I found a version of Lewis Carrol‘s Alice in Wonderland I have never seen before and that was made by one of the most intriguing and skilful animators I have known, Jan Švankmajer. I had the opportunity of watching the work of this Czech director, animator, puppeteer, sculpture and painter, while doing my master thesis about animation and the slapstick tradition and totally was connected to the complex imagery, aesthetics, and symbolism of his films. However, by that time, I was able to only watch several of his short films, usually of seven or five minutes. Alice (1988), in contrast is a feature length film of almost 90 minutes, that is equally mysterious, beautiful, and uncanny as Švankmajer’s shorts. Its length, however, make it perhaps more puzzling for the viewer. The story is, of course, a well known one, but the plot has been tweaked a little bit, with several omissions from the original book. Likewise, the symbols, metaphors, and dialogue have been re-interpreted by Švankmajer in a way that is both beautiful and grotesque. More importantly, the story of Alice is not told as a fairy tale (ala Disney or Hollywood), but instead Švankmajer explores the amoral and ambiguous side of the original Carrol’s work. This morning, I could not stop thinking about some of the sequences and compositions of the film, and I though that what I dreamed last night was shaped by some of the cinematography and scenarios of it. Or maybe I was just more conscious about the imagery of my own dreams. I was glad to have been reminded by Švankmajer’s surrealist language of the powerful agency of objects.

Fortunately for us, there are still several video copies of Švankmajer’s films in the YouTube’s cabinet of curiosities. I just found a couple of samples that remind us of the great potential of animation and stop motion for expressing dreamlike states, nonsense situations, and other non-rational logics in which objects are always having curious agencies.

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