Roddy Bogawa

Roddy Bogawa on his MoMA film exhibition

Roddy Bogawa,  I Was Born, But…, 2004, 16 mm, color, sound, 90 minutes. Photo: Moyra Davey.

MoMA’s film exhibition “Roddy Bogawa: If Films Could Smell” tracks twenty-five years in the life of the Japanese-American artist, who was born in 1962. The Los Angeles–bred punk rocker turned filmmaker has made a wide variety of films with topics ranging from the elusive story of a conflicted family (1991’s Some Divine Wind) to showcasing extreme self-portraiture (2003’s Talking Shit About Myself). The series runs September 18–23, 2013.

THE TITLE OF THIS SURVEY comes from a few sources, one being the Clash song “If Music Could Talk” and the other being Proust, who famously wrote about smell activating memory. I was thinking about what it would be like if films had a smell. Literally, they do: You can hold a roll of film to your nose after getting it back to the lab and it has this organic smell—nothing at all like a hard drive. Technology is changing everything now, memory included.

The day after Joey Ramone died, I took a camera with me to CBGB to document the things kids were leaving in his memory. While I was shooting someone’s handwritten note, the smells of decades’ worth of piss, blood, and puke started wafting into my nose and I started sobbing. I knew I could smell the movie right there. I wondered if I could evoke these emotions for other people.

I work a lot with landscape in my films. In that film, I Was Born, But…, I decided to shoot the clubs where I spent my teenage years watching punk bands. I captured whatever was at the address—a still-functioning club, a Petco, an abandoned lot. I didn’t go into any of the buildings, filming the exteriors with the street noises. When the film had its premiere, people were telling me that they were thinking about the failures of the hippie movement and tearing up. I like when a film can activate something in its audience like that. The films that inspire and excite me always did. There’s less discussion in the art and film worlds than back when you would go to a gallery show or see a movie and sit around with your friends getting drunk and arguing for two hours about what had happened. Things have mainstreamed over the past twenty years and I miss that kind of heated, excited discussion.

I hope my work can revive some of those feelings. As I’ve been looking at my films for this retrospective—and I want to say “midcareer retrospective,” because I don’t want a tombstone—they’ve seemed schizophrenic in scope: shorts, features, video pieces, 16 mm, stuff shot with surveillance cameras, experimental, narrative, documentary. I always joke that I set out to make a cheetah when I start filming and it becomes an armadillo. But that said, I do think that the films are consistently like mini time capsules trying to re-present the periods in which they’re shot.

For example, my film Taken by Storm: The Art of Storm Thorgerson and Hipgnosis is a documentary portrait of the late Storm Thorgerson, designer of legendary album covers for Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, and others. The film editor asked what I wanted from the movie and I told her what I wanted was for someone to watch the film, remember a record he or she used to have, run home and get pissed off realizing that an old boyfriend or girlfriend stole it twenty years ago. Art and films should function in that terrain.