Kenneth Anger (1927–2023) was a pioneer of avant-garde film and video art. His iconic short films are characterized by a mystical-symbolic visual language and phantasmagorical-sensual opulence that underscores the medium’s transgressive potential. Anger’s work fundamentally shaped the aesthetics of 1960s and 1970s subcultures, the visual lexicon of pop and music videos and queer iconography. The artist considered his life an artwork in its own right and frequently wove elements of myth, fact and fiction into his biography. His works can be understood as an integrative part of this life-as-artwork.
Anger’s keen perfectionism led him to assume all the usual filmmaking roles himself from the very beginning: In an unusual synthesis he handled all of the camera work, set design, costume design, film development and editing and acts as director, producer and actor in one. Even his earliest productions show the themes and artistic strategies that define his oeuvre. His experimental montage technique eschews spoken dialogue. Though possessed of certain narrative traits, its real power lies in a specific kind of suggestion. Anger’s first work, the 14-minute Fireworks (1947), was so provocative that the young artist was hauled to court on obscenity charges. Subject matter in the short film includes homosexual cruising, sailor fetish, sexual violence and gore. Its black-and-white images appear governed by an archetypal dream logic: phallic fireworks explode, the protagonist’s guts are crudely cut open to reveal a compass in his viscera and a sailor walks through a shot with a Christmas tree on his head. His 38-minute Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954) sees this dream logic tip completely into a surreal Technicolor color frenzy. The result is a sexually charged, orgiastic mixture of myth and ecstasy somewhere between period film set, opera stage, Kabuki theater and nightclub.