By Christopher Reiger, Co-founder & Managing Director of BAASICS
Attorney Josh Warren is fascinated by semantics, particularly as they relate to legal proceedings. Curiously, the noun that he finds most interesting is…zombie. Warren is so obsessed with zombies that he launched a ZombieLaw blog and published Zombie Law: Zombies in the Federal Courts (2013). On his blog’s “About” page, he explains:
“Zombies are real in the same way Santa Claus is real, or the electron is real, or autism is real. They are words, constructions of language that serve language functions, and we can study how they are used in language (with social, cultural, and cognitive implications).”
Arguably, zombies are more akin to Santa Claus than to electrons or autism, but Warren’s point is clear: words and names have concrete consequences, even when they describe invented concepts or creatures.
Zombie is “a word that is defined by its use,” artist George Pfau told Selene and me when we sat down for a chat in his spacious and brightly lit West Oakland studio. He’d just pulled a copy of Zombie Law off his studio bookshelf to share with us. Like Warren, Pfau is preoccupied by the role of zombies in contemporary culture. Unlike most zombie-loving artists, however, his work bears little resemblance to the fanboy images an Internet search for “zombie art” supplies.
During a 2010 winter artist residency at the Vermont Studio Center in northern Vermont, Pfau decided to create a “snowy scene.” Instead of painting the winter landscape outside his studio window, he painted a still from the movie “Dead Snow,” a 2009 Norwegian movie about Nazi zombies. Inspired by 19th century painters like Georges Seurat or Camille Pissarro, Pfau used an Impressionistic (or Pointillist), wet-on-wet oil paint technique. In the course of painting, he realized that, pictured in this mode, the zombies exist within a “space of questioning.” Their figures “oozed into their surroundings,” on the verge of being recognizable, yet remaining indistinct.
This painting, “Landscape (Dead Snow),” was the first piece in what would become Pfau’s “zombiescapes” series, a body of work consisting of landscape paintings as well as large-scale photographs that document details of the same paintings. The photographs are taken at such close range that the oil paint appears as an abstract mess; it’s hard to recognize the images as humanoid forms. But that’s Pfau’s point: the prints emphasize the zombies’ “grotesque body and their in-betweenness.”
“Zooming [allows] viewers to pull way out and see masses of figures blending together as a unified collective, and then zoom all the way in to the raw guts of each individual. In the ‘zombiescapes,’ you can even see some dandruff and eyelashes that got embedded in the paint. I tend to see the difference between a zombie and a human as about the same as the difference between a human and another human.”
I’m the sort of viewer who scrutinizes a painting, whether abstract or representational, at close range (inches, if security will allow it), before I step back, then forward again, then back. I especially enjoy examining how representational paintings break down into abstraction on close inspection. Not everyone approaches a painting in this way, but Pfau’s photographs make this relationship readily apparent, providing viewers of all backgrounds with the visual cues necessary to comprehend the project’s conceptual thrust. At the same time, I appreciate Merchant’s straightforward and on-point description of Pfau’s landscape paintings; they’re what you’d get “if Monet were doing George Romero‘s storyboards.”
But Pfau’s take on zombies is anything but straightforward. As he asserted when we met, “zombie” is a “word defined by use,” and Pfau is especially interested in what our use of the word says about us. Take, for example, the recent Watsky and Chinaka Hodge video for “Kill a Hipster” (embedded below). Like much of Watsky’s work, it’s a smart, winking take on a complicated issue — in this case, gentrification, specifically that of the Bay Area. The chorus of the song is testament to the helplessness and frustration experienced by many displaced or stressed longtime residents of gentrifying neighborhoods.
“Rent’s up; that shit’s no good.
Starbucks where the skate rink stood.
‘It’s a fixture.’ It does no good. (I know)
Kill a hipster! Save your hood!
Wrote Congress. It did no good.
Read scripture. It did no good.
You can take a picture or knock on wood…
Kill a hipster! Save your hood!”
Read literally — wow! — these are intense lyrics, funny, sure, but darkly so…even menacing. The video, set in West Oakland, a hotbed of rapid, fraught gentrification (and the location of countless artist studios, including Pfau’s), features Watsky and Hodge at war with hipster zombies. In this context, the chorus’ call to kill hipsters is rendered palatable. About halfway through the video, an exasperated Watsky exclaims, “There’s hipsters moving into the song. Every time we get something cool, you fucking take over!”
But Watsky’s a self-aware artist, and he recognizes that he is himself a hipster in the eyes of many; he is one of those taking over. Appropriately, then, before the video’s end, he has become a zombie, too. Staggering toward the camera, he raps, “Look in the mirror and it’s clear I’ve become one of ‘em. Kill me, please, if I’m one of ‘em!” The video ends when Hodge stabs Watsky in the back of the head with a sharpened drum stick. Another hipster zombie bites the dust.
When I emailed Pfau to bring the video to his attention, he responded in an interesting way, first acknowledging how much he likes Watsky, but then writing:
“It seems unlikely, or not politically correct, that the ‘non-hipsters’ would actually bring violence to the hipsters if they were living, sentient beings [instead of zombies]. …In most cases, I tend to side with the zombies, underdogs who revel in grotesque, in-between, inside-out-ness. So yeah, I don’t want to kill them, or hipsters, or anyone else.”
He makes a good point. Had Watsky produced a video in which he and Hodge stabbed or decapitated everyday hipsters — rather than lurching, moaning hipster monsters — viewers would have been squeamish, to say the least.
Pfau’s appreciation of zombies as grotesque reflections of ourselves runs counter to the pop cultural acceptability of labeling others as zombies. When we refer to Black Friday consumers or the followers of a cult leader as zombies, we implicitly distinguish ourselves from that labeled group; we deny our own zombie status. “People email me horrible things,” Pfau told us, “like a cannibalistic attack on the freeway in Miami” that was dubbed the “zombie face-eater” story by the media. But no zombies were involved in that attack; humans were. Pfau insists that “zombies are us.” They are our messy corporeality and our insatiable appetites. Indeed, as with most monsters, we are them and they are us.
I get the impression that Pfau appreciates any perspective that understands the zombie as something more than a lumbering, infectious baddie. Zombie movies and fiction are just a “big conversation about the self and the loss of self,” he said in his studio. “Zombies thrive on contradiction. Are they dead or alive? Brain dead? Or is the soul in the brain? Are they a collective horde or individual actors?” Pfau loves zombies because he is asking the “big” zombie questions and, as he stresses, the big zombie questions are really the big human questions.
On July 14, as part of the “Unreal, Infectious” segment of the BAASICS.5: Monsters program, Pfau will share more about zombies with us. (If you can’t make the main program, Pfau will also present as part of our satellite partnership with Helix, in Los Altos, on Friday, 7/18, from 6-8pm.)