TIFF’s First Major Original Exhibition Traces David Cronenberg’s Evolution

"David Cronenberg: Evolution" traces the development of Canada's master of body horror.

  • TIFF Bell Lightbox (350 King Street West)
    • Friday, November 1–Sunday, January 19
  • $15, $12 students, $5 Tuesdays

It’s not every day that a media tour opens with the injunction not to photograph “the sex blob,” but so began TIFF’s preview of “David Cronenberg: Evolution,” the organization’s first large-scale touring exhibition (for now, it’s stationed at the TIFF Bell Lightbox’s HSBC Gallery). It’s an exhaustive, stunning look at some of the wildest, most perverse creations of a pioneer of the body-horror genre—who also happens to be Canada’s most internationally renowned filmmaker.

The exhibition, co-curators Piers Handling and Noah Cowan explained, was a long time coming. It’s the natural extension of a symbiotic relationship dating back at least to 1983’s The Shape of Rage, Handling’s collection of academic essays on Cronenberg’s films, and TIFF’s selection of Dead Ringers as the festival opener in 1988. Since those glory days, Cronenberg has opened his garage, basement, and scrap heap up to TIFF, offering everything from detailed production notes to the Ducati motorcycle engine that became the model for the matter-teleporting pods in The Fly.

The title of the exhibition, Cowan noted, came out of an effort to trace a connective thread through Cronenberg’s filmography; namely, his preoccupation with human evolution, and humanity’s alternately wistful, anxious, and horrified anticipation of what comes next. It also served as a handy metaphor for the curators’ attempt—through the use of objects related to his work—to follow the filmmaker’s own progress as an artist.

It’s the latter sense of evolution that gives a natural shape to the exhibition, which is divided into three major sections that represent thematic phases of Cronenberg’s career. The first, entitled “Who Is My Creator?” and spanning films from The Brood to Scanners, addresses Cronenberg’s early obsession with scientific experimentation and the grisly ends of various doctor figures’ work on unwilling patients.

If the gory hallmark of this early phase is, as Cowan pointed out, “a lot of gushing liquids,” what defines Cronenberg’s next chapter is his exploration of the body’s encounter with technological innovations, and his characters’ increasing sense of themselves as experimental subjects. The second phase of the exhibition—called “Who Am I?”—features some of Cronenberg’s most beloved films, among them The Fly, Videodrome, and Dead Ringers. It’s also the most visually impressive section of the exhibition, stacked with totems from the filmmaker’s most visceral, imaginatively fruitful period.

We were most struck by a pair of artifacts that were seemingly born to be exhibited. The first is the set of surgical instruments from Dead Ringers (partially inspired by a book on medieval medicine), which are neatly arrayed in an eerie glass case, lest they be stolen, as they are by Jeremy Irons’s desperate gynecologist Bev in the film.

The second is a display case featuring the ears and nose that peel off the mutating body of Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) in the later stages of The Fly positioned near miniature models of the fully mutated “Brundlefly” creature and a full-sized replica of the teleportation pod. In this curatorial attempt to preserve poor Brundle’s prosthetic appendages, fans of the film will surely recognize a tribute to his efforts to record his bodily changes—especially given Brundle’s sad quip that he’s storing his old body parts in the medicine cabinet, saving them for what he calls the “Brundle Museum of Natural History.” That museum is roughly what we get here.

Naked Lunch, Cronenberg’s most popular work among William S. Burroughs enthusiasts—and recreational drug users, if we’re being honest—gets its own room, modelled after Interzone, the off-kilter Moroccan dreamspace of the film’s signature set pieces. Two of the obvious attractions from what’s arguably the filmmaker’s most impeccably designed work are the infamous mutant Clark Nova typewriter and the overgrown “case officer” beetle that grants Peter Weller’s Burroughs top-secret instructions from, of all places, its talking sphincter.

The centrepiece of the room, and possibly of the whole show, though, is a full-sized replica of the “Mugwump,” a humanoid, lizardlike creature that stands over six feet tall next to a makeshift bar, just as he does in one of the more surreal moments in the film. He’s joined by a more horizontal fellow Mugwump in a glass case.

While the second phase of the exhibition has most of the tactile stuff, the third—called “Who Are We?”— will appeal to those more interested in costuming. The segment devoted to Cronenberg’s 2011 period piece A Dangerous Method is clearly the star here, with costumes worn by Viggo Mortensen’s Sigmund Freud, Michael Fassbender’s Carl Jung, and Keira Knightley’s Sabina Spielrein, among others. (Though we also got a kick out of seeing the hair clippers from Cosmopolis, the most modest prop in the whole exhibition, but probably also the one every Robert Pattinson fan will obsess over.) More importantly, this phase features a trio of Cronenberg’s shorts, including his terrific Camera and a new film commissioned exclusively for the exhibition, which is so fresh it hadn’t been completed in time for the media preview.

“David Cronenberg: Evolution” is a key component of The Cronenberg Project, a massive, cross-media undertaking that includes a complete film retrospective and a digital experience called Body/Mind/Change. For more information, visit TIFF’s website.

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