Laura McLean-Ferris

Intense Proximity


‘I’ve looked at this painting twice in the flesh,i so to speak, and continue to enjoy the otherworldly translucency of the image – its pale liquidity and elegance, as well as its strange iconicity as a thing of beauty. Even though the faces and bodies of the gods and goddesses are painted using dark lines, this somehow heightens the figures’ sketchy fragility and the threat that the vision – a mirage, really – of Venus innocently arriving on her shell, may disappear. Aged 11, I bought two prints – a detail of Venus’s face and a reproduction of the full painting – and I painted my bedroom walls in the shades of marine greens from the painting, and the ceiling in the pink of small blossom flowers. This was a way of getting as close as possible to this image.’


‘The comedy is given texture via one or two brief moments of velvet sadness – mostly related to Ferris’s unhappy, shy friend Cameron.ii A montage scene filmed at the Art Institute of Chicago features Cameron looking at Georges Seurat’s famous pointillist painting A Sunday on La Grande Jatte (1884–86), soundtracked with an instrumental cover of The Smiths’ ‘Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want’, by Dream Academy. As Cameron stares at one of the characters in the painting, a small girl in a hat and a white dress, the film depicts closer and closer shots of the painting’s detail, to the extent that the girl’s face breaks up into coloured smudges of paint, as though the child in the painting and Cameron are disintegrating, a reflection of Cameron’s fears that, as John Hughes described it, “The more you look at him, the less you see. There isn’t anything there. That’s him.”’iii


A man sees a photograph of a woman from another era.iv Almost hysteric in its sentimentality, we here witness a character’s intense connection with an image, portrayed in an enormous swell of crescendo tied to the climax in Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. In this case, the force of the character’s desire for the image allows him to travel back in time, using self-hypnosis, to the moment at which the photograph of the woman was taken. I particularly like the way in which the light blinds Christopher Reeve’s character as he approaches the image, signalling a kind of dissolving vision – as though the content of the image is too bright. The film ends with the character’s death, when the hypnosis wears off and he is forced back to his own time, and he dies of a kind of catatonic sadness, refusing to eat. Here we see that to get too close to an image means giving up one’s own body.


A convict castaway on an island sees an image of a woman, and mistakes it for something living.v She is a recording, and this is a kind of hologram of the last day of her life, which is repeated on a loop every day, forever. The scanning process killed her: the cost of becoming an image caused her death. But at this moment the castaway doesn’t understand – she appears to look at him, to sit with him on the beach in a moment of silent companionship. On realising the truth, the castaway eventually decides to undergo the same recording process so that he can insert himself into this moment, and to sit with her on the beach forever, living as a recording. After undergoing the process, his material body begins to fall apart. The film ends as he peels away parts of his own face in a fleshy mess, tears streaming down his cheeks. Here, again, the body is sacrificed to the

  • This is an excerpt from an essay I was commissioned to write for The Independent about the Google Museums Project, which allows viewers to zoom in on images to incredibly fine detail. I am talking about Sandro Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus (1483–85), with which I had an intense crush-like relationship in my pre-teen years, which now seems faintly embarrassing. The essay was never printed, as another section of the paper ran a similar piece. I had also just returned from Japan where I was involved in the Tōhoku earthquake, which I now see gave me a tendency to write as though everything was very fragile and about to disappear, as in this passage.
  • From later in the aforementioned unpublished essay. In the spirit of appealing to a wide audience, which I often tried to do when writing for The Independent, I used one of my favourite examples of art on film, from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986).
  • John Hughes, director’s commentary on the DVD release of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Paramount Pictures (1999).
  • From Somewhere in Time (1980), dir. Jeannot Szwarc, starring Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour. Unlike the other scenes referred to here, this is the first time I have ever written about this one. I recall being very taken aback by this film when I saw it as a child. I wonder whether it was the first time I saw a romance so wilfully tragic, and had some trouble understanding the scene in which Reeve dies from doing nothing.
  • L’invenzione di Morel (1974), dir. Emidio Greco. Based on the novel La invención de Morel (1940) by the Argentinean writer Adolfo Bioy Casares, a friend and collaborator of Jorge Luis Borges, which was in turn based on H.G. Wells’s novel The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896). I referred to this film in an essay entitled ‘Dissolution’ in Art Monthly (October 2011), in which I also explained that the first time I saw clips of it was at a talk given by Mark Leckey and Tom McCarthy at Chisenhale Gallery that same year
  • It’s notable that the technology portrayed in these films – painting, photograph, human scanner, runs in directly the opposite direction to the date in which the films were made.

Laura McLean-Ferris is an independent writer and curator. She contributes regularly to ArtReview, Art Monthly, Frieze and Mousse. She also collaborates with artist Leslie Kulesh on Total Vitality, a project that explores changing conceptions of health, wellbeing and physicality in a highly technologised age.