David Cronenberg exhibition puts body horror in the flesh

What happens when a surreal on-screen world takes a museum form? Sometimes it can get stodgy. Other times it can bring to life what had previously existed only on the screen or in our minds.

On Friday, one such experiment takes flight in Toronto with the opening of “The Cronenberg Project,” the Toronto International Film Festival organization’s sprawling ode to David Cronenberg, the body horror pioneer and all-around genre maestro. Spread out at several spaces in the city and headquartered at its Bell Lightbox, where the flagship “Cronenberg: Evolution” is mounted, the exhibition aims to honor the director’s legacy and give a strong flavor of all things Cronenberg.

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At a preview in Toronto in September with TIFF Chief Executive Piers Handling and Bell Lightbox chief Noah Cowan, organizers walked the Los Angeles Times through the exhibition, expressing their belief that it can go beyond a more traditional installation into experiential territory.

“The idea is for an immersive experience that can put you on a set of a Cronenberg movie,” Handling said.


“And in his mind,” Cowan added. “If that’s possible.”

There’s a Cronenberg video game and the full-size pod from “The Fly.” There are numerous prop artifacts from his sets, twisted as you’d imagine (the gynecological instruments from “Dead Ringers,” the tattoo kit from “Eastern Promises,” the James Spader knee brace from “Crash”). There’s even a room devoted to “Naked Lunch,” Cronenberg’s famous adaptation of the William Burroughs novel, that includes a life-size Mugwump. A new short also accompanies the exhibition, as do a host of interactive elements.

The Globe and Mail dubbed the entire kit-and-caboodle, a “part exhibition/retrospective/symposia/futuristic romp/art show/online experience/book launch and short film.”

The exhibition will run through Jan. 19 and then hit the road, making stops at various museums around the world. (No L.A. location scheduled, but don’t be surprised if that changes.)

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“Evolution” is arranged according to three basic periods in the director’s work as conceived by Handling, a Cronenberg scholar of sorts. There’s the early period that runs from his first short in 1969 to his breakout “Videodrome” in 1983, dubbed with the spiritual tag “Who Is My Creator?”; a middle period that picks up after “Videodrome” and continues through 1999’s virtual-reality explorations “eXistenZ,” under the more individualistic banner “Who Am I?”; and a third chapter described as “Who Are We?” that runs through last year’s more sociologically minded “Cosmopolis.”

It’s a taxonomy Handling came up with, he said, as he studied the filmmaker’s work, and he believes it represents a neat evolution for a man who himself is often interested in Darwinian ideas.

The goal is to capture not just Cronenberg’s work but his philosophy. “For us it’s important people have an element of contemplation and confrontation as they walk through the space,” Cowan said.

Handling had asked Cronenberg as far back as two decades ago if he could begin contributing materials, many of which had been in his Toronto house. Though Cronenberg’s artifacts were not as meticulously organized as that of other directors, Handling noted wryly, he did have a pretty deep collection. So did past and present Cronenberg crew members around the world, from whom curators also collected objects.

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Now in his 70s, Cronenberg keeps working. He recently shot his first movie in the U.S. with “Maps to the Stars,” a look at child celebrity and family dynamics in Hollywood that stars Julianne Moore and Robert Pattinson. He’s been in postproduction with a 2014 release expected.

So how does the director view this living ode to himself? With a certain amount of ... detachment.

“I’m not sure how I look back at all of these works,” he told The Times. “I try not to.”

But he said it’s hard to completely avoid the specter of his work, even long before the work was mounted in this way.

“People will come up to me and say they met the love of their lives watching ‘The Fly,’” he said. “That’s an interesting experience.”

Does that happen with all of his work? Did any couples go on a first date at a screening of, say, “Dead Ringers” and found it stirred romance? “It hasn’t happened yet,” Cronenberg quipped. “But I’m sure those people are out there.”


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