Cosmic forces seem to be unleashed in the opening minutes of “La Quinta del Sordo”, a new film by French artist Philippe Parreno currently showing at the Prado Museum in Madrid. Amid an eerie ambient soundtrack, played through headphones, the planets and stars seem to be in motion. A sinister organic form – is it a giant sun-devouring creature? – comes out of darkness. Spots of light flicker across the screen in super slow motion and appear to explode.
And then, suddenly, the camera pans to the real subject of Parreno’s film, the famous “Black Paintings” by Spanish master Francisco Goya. (The auditorium is in a room next to the paintings themselves.) It features one of the series’ best-known figures: a witch, taken in three-quarter profile, who turns away with a terrified expression something she witnessed. The camera continues to weave its way through the painting, focusing on the remaining wild faces in the crowd in extreme, disorienting close-ups.
“La Quinta del Sordo” (“The House of the Deaf”) is named after Goya’s country house just outside Madrid where the artist, who had himself lost his hearing, retired in 1819, at the height of his fame. Shortly after moving in, Goya began his last disturbing and mysterious works, painted in oils directly on the walls. The precise motivation and intentions behind the 14 Black Paintings remain obscure, but they are among the Prado’s most visited works, and their stark subject matter has led them to be seen as an eccentric foreshadowing of modern art.
“I was inspired by darkness when I was a teenager,” Parreno said when we met in Madrid. “They were a little occult, a little weird. They were incomplete, in a way, which was a big part of the attraction.
Parreno is today hailed as one of the most original and cerebral contemporary artists whose best-known work, the 2006 film Zidane: a portrait of the 21st century (co-directed with Douglas Gordon), about French footballer Zinedine Zidane, continues to delight art-loving audiences, and some football fans too, around the world. But her teenage engagement to the Old Master remained hidden in her mind.
His 40-minute film on Goya is, like Zidane, a technical feat. While the sports legend’s portrait used 17 cameras to track his every move during a match, Parreno this time focuses his lens on the stillest subjects, recording in infinitesimal detail the surfaces of Goya’s dark paintings. .
When I ask him questions about the spatial opening of the film, he brings me back to earth. The “planets” and “stars” are actually ashes, floating from a piece of burnt wood, used to recreate the atmosphere of Goya’s workplace. The camera speed – 500,000 frames per second – seems to stop time and means nothing looks normal or familiar. “It freezes the moment,” Parreno says. I forget to ask him about the sun-eating monster; it could be the hind leg of a flea.
Parreno admits that “La Quinta del Sordo” is a “complex” work. It was conceived as a coda for a 2021 exhibition on Goya held at the Fondation Beyeler in Basel. His first idea was to recreate in 3D Goya’s house, demolished in 1909, long after the paintings had been removed. “But I quickly realized it was going to be a bit shitty,” he says disarmingly.
Instead, using high resolution technology, he aimed to “film the space between the paintings”, creating a sort of dialogue between the works. “We knew where the paintings were and which were facing each other.” Rather than throwing away the 3D model of the house, which he created for his original plan, Parreno used it to form an acoustic profile of his spaces and hallways, as well as the paintings themselves. “The Prado gave us 3D scans of the paintings, and we ‘recorded’ the textures of the paint, like a needle on vinyl,” he says, giving a sense of the sensual aspiration of his work. “In a way, the painting speaks to you.”
Parreno describes the three nights of filming at the Prado as “insane”. “We were there with the paintings, listening to a weird soundtrack, getting really, really high,” he says. “There were characters [in the paintings] that I had never really seen before — this weird clown. . . they’re all screaming, but you can’t hear them. As if they had breathed their last.
I ask him if he came close to Goya’s state of mind when he was working on the Black Paintings. “He seemed to be possessed. This guy, he painted in chapels and cathedrals. He painted kings and priests. And then he comes to this house and paints graffiti: he painted directly on the wall, not on frescoes. He never wanted the paintings to be there without the house being there.
The preoccupation with space is a frequent theme in Parreno’s work and has led to surprising reconfigurations of prestigious cultural institutions such as the Tate Modern in London and the Palais de Tokyo in Paris. As part of a commission for the Museum of Modern Art in New York, his “Echo” installation included a multi-part automaton moving through the museum in response to live data taken from its surroundings.
He says he conceives of some of his works as “biomechanical creatures”, giving life to institutions made up largely of the works of deceased people. “They’re quasi-sentient,” he says. But you are their creator, I say. He corrects me: “I am the creator of an environment in which things can develop without me being there.”
He aims to recreate something of that spirit in Goya’s film – not so much by bringing old paintings to life as by allowing the space in which they were created to assert its ghostly, occult presence. He points to another influence on his work, produced at the same time as the Black Paintings: Mary Shelley’s Frankensteinpublished in 1818.
Parreno worked on a film of the novel and finds inspiration in its central theme: “The monster has a dilemma: how can you be, without being born? It’s a nice line, and it brings to mind today’s debate about artificial intelligence. And then also at that time, you had this extreme weather. There was a brutal heat wave [in 1818] in which many cultures died. And they talked about climate change.
There is an ominous subtext to his words, which he gently enunciates. “It’s a time that has a lot of parallels to the times we live in.”
Prado Museum, Madrid, to September 4, museodelprado.es