Saturday 1 May 2010

The Purple Death Strikes Siegen

On Saturday May 8, at around 4.00 in the afternoon I will be giving a talk at the Siegen Museum for Contemporary Art as part of ‘Heroes Ubermenschen, Superheroes: An Interdisciplinary Symposium on the Aesthetics and Politicization of Extraordinary Humans’.
My lecture is called ‘The Purple Death: Or Further Notes on Camp and the Heroic Rise of the Lowbrow’ and is featured in ‘Panel IX’: the closing session of the conference.

Released in 1940, the last Flash Gordon movie serial, Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe, began with a chapter simply entitled ‘The Purple Death’. This was a terrifying pandemic from outer space that claimed people in their thousands, the only symptom being a purple spot that would appear on the victim’s forehead: a disconcerting prospect for a film shot entirely in black and white. Originating as a newspaper comic strip in 1934, Flash Gordon’s cinematic universe is one where mythic forces operate behind the flimsiest of scenery: something which the underground filmmakers and theatre directors of the 1960s were quick to appreciate. Twenty years after the Purple Death’s initial outbreak, Andy Warhol spoke of his epic black-and-white portrait of the Empire State building as ‘an eight hour hard Flash Gordon riding into space’, the Playhouse of the Ridiculous’s production of The Conquest of the Universe featured a cast of ‘beautiful women and deviates’; Susan Sontag compiled her ‘Notes on Camp’; and Wallace Berman’s portrait of Kenneth Anger depicted the homoerotic director of Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome as Flash Gordon. Hard-edged, detached and ironic, this new ‘underground’ sensibility mocked both the moral myths and heroic transcendence of Flash Gordon even as it embraced the tawdry second-hand glamour of their representation. Meanwhile the Purple Death continues to ravage the planet. Except the usual strangeness and poetry.

If you’re on the streets of Siegen on Saturday afternoon, please be sure to drop by and say hello. Documentation of this event will be made available just as soon as the latest outbreak is over.

See also: The Purple Death: further reading and resources

Pictured above from top to bottom: Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe; Marjorie Cameron Shows the Great God Pan her happy face in Kenneth Anger's Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome

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