Maya Deren and Sun Ra

Martina Kudlácek made In the Mirror of Maya Deren way back in 2002, and the documentary is somewhat dull, in comparison to other biographies of other artists, See How to Draw a Bunny about Ray Johnson, Crumb about R. Crumb, In the Realms of the Unreal about Henry Darger, No Restraint about Matthew Barney, AND the A Joyful Noise about Sun Ra (more on him in a moment), but one’s first thought about this documentary might be that it is rare and worthwhile to see a female artist mythologized/have her personal mythology recognized, to see the eyes of her old friends (and those that wish they were her friends) glaze over into that reverie that human beings enter when they are transferring memories of an individual into the compact memes of myth. Furthermore, to do this not in the way that people talk about their mythologically maternal mothers, or mythologically beautiful yet nasty first wives, but rather with the respect and unconditional admiration (which transcends judgment and truth) that rarely applies to women, or is caught on camera applying to women. Then one might realize that, Feminism aside, Deren is given this kind of transcendent awe for traditional, mainstream cultural reasons; she was powerful spiritually and emotionally (in this documentary Brakhage swears he saw her pick up and throw a refrigerator, he is even more convinced of her death by Voodoo [“externalized practical powers outside her art caused her death”] in his “Film at Wit’s End” in which he biographies 5 avant-garde filmmakers including Deren), was addicted to speed and amphetamines, was a voodoo priestess who had been ordained in Haiti and practiced faithfully, we know she married a much younger man, was a scholar and a lecturer who published books (and is very quotable), and that she made films on very very low budgets, using only her family, friends, her own living spaces, and the natural world, that visualized doxa regarding the human subconscious and dreamsense, illustrated how it felt to be a woman in the 1940’s, and established video/film as a visual arts medium.

Initial satisfaction in seeing this mythologization and canonization of a female artist aside, much has been written about how U.S. American culture particularly immortalizes artists who live in a self-made hurricane of a specific, subjective narrative, individuals who seems to have little empathy on a private, one-on-one level, but hold boundless compassion and love for general humanity, etc, live their lives in a very strange and religious way, etc. It’s the shaman phenomenon, the Joseph Beuys personal-history-as-art thing. But to a certain extent I wonder if this is just a way of analyzing artists, and is less a pedestal-placing, less a framework of respect and legitimization, and more of a perception of artists as unconscious art-objects in and of themselves, as a way of minimizing the idea that there are alternative perceptions of reality, some of them which may be very well thought out and articulate Weltanschauung.

Witness, Sun Ra, the composer, film-maker, musician, poet, and philosopher, father of afrofuturism. PPL composer Brian McCorkle (who just put What Color Is Your Machine Gun up online) points out that a lot of young white kids (mostly men, let me jump on the i-hate-hipsters bandwagon, while being one) like Sun Ra of course because his music is absolutely stunning, while at the same time he and his theories can be safely perceived as kind of absurd, thus allowing “these kids” to keep the history and influence (or even the existence) of multiple threads of cultural shift (whether they are defined racially, socially, etc) at a disregarded distance, reduced to an aesthetic flavor and a kind of madness that doesn’t apply to them.

In any case, I wonder if there is a way of being more honest about artists like Deren and Sun Ra, who do something incredible for both their art forms and for perception of human existence, a way to see the latter as a contribution that may serve their artistic practice but ultimately meant to give us more than a narrative about madness or lack of consciousness-in-the-“real”-world.

In tomorrow’s world, men will not need artificial instruments such as jets and space ships. In the world of tomorrow, the new man will ‘think’ the place he wants to go, then his mind will take him there. — Sun Ra, 1956

Maya Deren’s At Land
Sun Ra’s Magic Sun


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