Moth Wings and Donkey Ears

When Aryen Hoekstra’s brother told the Guelph-based artist about a moth joke he’d heard on the Conan O’Brien show, he could have had no idea that he would be able to tease out of it a range of associations encompassing the theory of humour, anthropomorphism, experimental film and the psychiatrist’s couch. The joke opens with the line, “a moth walks into a podiatrist’s office,” and while we may not have gone so far as to fall on the floor, we’re already laughing. Before the joke ends 79 lines later, we have heard a sad tale about the rupture of family, workplace depression and suicide–all the psychological ills to which man and moth are prey, and then some. Hoekstra presents the text of the joke on hand-drawn 35-mm scale pieces of acetate, which he then projects between two flickering images of moth wings. These images are from Stan Brakhage’s Mothlight (1963), a milestone in structuralist filmmaking. Hoekstra’s film is called Mothlight/Moth Joke. He lets us know what its material is and everyone is in on the quotation.

While it may be tempting to give away the punch line, that would mean attempting to explain why it is funny, and that terrain is treacherous enough to have levelled even Dr. Freud. Hoekstra, for his part, knows what he likes. “I was interested in jokes that attribute human characteristics to animals but where the punchline delivers the inescapability of the animal’s essence. In this joke, the character of the moth is so rich. Even in the depths of his despair, there is still someone worse off than him. The moth earnestly tells the doctor, “Sometimes I feel like a spider barely hanging on to my web.”

Hoekstra’s sense of structure and tone is flawless. The drawn text involved what he calls “a negotiation of legibility,” which meant that he had to paint the slides between four and ten times to get them right. “If it was too expressive, it was weird, and then you had to keep the opacity consistent because it shows up even more when projected.”

If Brakhage was a point of inspiration for his moth film, when he turned to a video loop about a donkey it was in homage to Robert Bresson’s 1966 classic, Au hasard Balthasar. Called Twitch, Hoekstra shot video footage at the Donkey Sanctuary of Canada outside of Guelph and ended up using only a three second loop of the animal’s ear flickering. “I find it really easy to look at for a long time because donkeys are such soothing animals to be around.”

Hoekstra’s fascination is with early film and it responds to those critics who argue that we are living in a post-film period. His interest is in what we can learn from revisiting the material qualities of film in a fully technological age. “I think the way we perceive images has sped up, and analogue technology is slowing things down. It involves our sense of time and the way that film has structured so much of our experience of history in the last century. So I’m intrigued by the ‘end of film’ idea. When things are over, it’s a really exciting time to go back into them.”

Volume 31, Number 2: Arnaud Maggs

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #122, published May 2012.

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