Identical twins Stephen and Timothy Quay are masters of dust. They’re a lot of other things, too: accomplished filmmakers, innovative puppeteers, adaptors and calligraphers and collectors and fans. But it’s their organization and implementation of dust that first catches the eye. The Quay Brothers, subjects of a gallery exhibition and film retrospective at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art through Jan. 7, 2013, use dust the way film noir directors used shadows—as landscapes, indicators, even characters. In the hermetic worlds of their films, luxurious blankets of dust arrive from nowhere, dormant for centuries, gathering at psychologically fraught moments to scatter and rearrange into vague yet provocative new positions. Coils of hair do this, too. So do screws. Inanimate objects in Quay films are never inanimate—they’re seconds, or centuries, away from quivering. They wait and then shake up the scenery.
The Quay Brothers’ source material—for their work is almost always an adaptation of a story or novel, or a documentary of a life—might seem dusty, too. The uncanny valley of their puppets and playthings is the murky Eastern European landscapes of Kafka, whose story “Ein Brudermord” they adapted into an early stop-animation short. The mid-century science fiction of Stanislaw Lem reappears in 2009’s almost lurid, vivid adaptation of his short story “Maska.” The Polish writer and artist Bruno Schultz inspired the Quay Brothers’ masterpiece, the 1986 35mm short Street of Crocodiles, hailed by Terry Gilliam as one of the ten best animated films of all time. Their debut feature, 1996’s Institute Benjamenta, or This Dream People Call Human Life, embodies Swiss writer Robert Walser’s novel Jakob von Guten in an eerie, unsettling investigation of what differentiates a man from a machine.
Though the Quays recently converted to digital, their work still uses longstanding techniques of stop-motion animation to revitalize even older crafts of puppetry, doll making, and calligraphy. The twins work almost entirely by themselves: one positions the puppets, the other holds the camera. It would seem monkish if the results weren’t so often charming, sexy and just deeply odd.
Screens throughout MoMA’s labyrinthine exhibition display the Quays’ films along examples of their advertising work, including make-the-rent spots for Fox Sports, Rice Krispies, and insecticide; fascinating music videos for Michigan’s ripe-for-rediscovery His Name Is Alive; and BBC documentaries on the twin’s favorite artists. Examples of their book covers hang beside models of their film sets and other studio ephemera. The show is organized more or less chronologically, though it begins with a new piece, Hopscotch, in which images from their career are projected beside a grove of birch trees. An accompanying film series offers viewers the chance to explore the works in their entirety, in many cases from newly commissioned prints.
Perhaps because of their slightly exotic interests, or simply due to the lack of extensive American exposure, the twins—born in Pennsylvania and based in London—are often mistaken for 19th-century Eastern Europeans. They’re also often mistaken for each other; they do little to dissipate any confusion. Instead, they offer opportunities to observe that alchemical process whereby the inexplicable becomes recognizable. Their brand of Americana is like David Lynch without the jocular menace, or Tim Burton scrubbed free of pop gloss. The MoMA show offers up a moment to blow off the dust, so to speak, and see the Quays as American masters.
(PHOTOS: Willem de Kooning at MoMA)