Malison Wonderland

Rahel Aima on cursed images

View of “Cursed Images,” 2019, Galerie Lisa Kandlhofer, Vienna. Front: John Bock, Hell’s Bells and One boot on a trip to hell, both 2017. Back: Joey Holder, Semelparous, 2019. Photo: Mario Ilic & Björn Segschneider.

THE TALL, OLD MAN is in a pine-paneled room, wearing a blue jumpsuit that emphasizes his height. He stands self-consciously between two rows of boxed tomatoes that appear to levitate in midair. Underneath the picture is a caption: This image is cursed—the four little words that every JPEG wants to hear. On October 28, 2015, an anonymous Tumblr user paired the tomato farmer with this incantation, and the phenomenon of cursed images was born. Similar photos were dredged up from the 1990s, 2000s, and the far reaches of the internet, proliferating across copycat Tumblrs and, later, Twitter and Instagram accounts to arguably become the defining aesthetic of the late 2010s.

My favorite cursed images come from their early, wholesome Tumblr period. Jolly men with thin white capes tied over their suits holding Brobdingnagian loaves of bread. Plucked chickens sitting in a makeshift Jacuzzi, cracking open a cold one with the boys, wings splayed relaxedly over the edge. Ramen cooked in a hollowed-out watermelon over the purple glow of an induction burner. When they spread to Twitter, however, the images became immediately more depraved. Brutality and body horror were depicted instead of intimated, as if to accommodate the turpitude, desensitization, and prevailing “fill my eyes with bleach” ethos of that platform. We get the cursed images we deserve.

What makes an image cursed beyond the caption? Digital artifacts of the point-and-shoot era abound: glowy red or green eyes, flashes (especially in mirrors), lower resolutions, home video vibes. Animals and overwhelmingly white people doing awkward, or weird, or mildly gross things. The debilitating sadness of North American bedrooms, basements, and garages, the kinds of places where teenagers film TikToks. Most of all, they induce a funny unsettling feeling, like a reflex hammer tapping some vestigial organ forgotten deep inside of you.

I think of cursed images as terribly American. Tile-to-carpet transition strips, a shower of Cool Ranch dust, 2-in-1 shampoos, and weaponized casualness? Same energy. Over the past four years, cursed images have become a kind of affective barometer for the Trump era, reflecting the intensification of anxiety, disgust and, for many, sheer terror. But cursed images are indexical and contingent, and their effects vary with person and place. So when I discovered that there was an exhibition about cursed images in Vienna, where I’d spent the past few weeks on a residency, I was curious to see how the phenomenon might translate. Mostly, I was ready to hate, and then tweet about it.

Titled—what else?—“Cursed Images” and organized by artist Ed Fornieles, the show, at Galerie Lisa Kandlhofer, was part of the curated by_vienna festival, whose 2019 iteration bore the theme of “circulation.” The exhibition got off to an inauspicious start: Its opening was tragically postponed when a neighbor jumped from their building and crashed through the gallery roof. Inside, Joey Holder’s immersive hellscape, Semelparous, 2019, sets the scene: DOOM II–esque wallpaper, a wooden fireplace and a bed of soil and sand, a looping video of worms. The title refers to creatures that reproduce once in their lifetimes before dying, as opposed to iteroparity, which involves multiple reproductions over the creature’s lifespan—two methods by which curses circulate. Nearby, John Bock’s scenery-gnashing Western, Hell’s Bells, 2017, extends the sex, death, and ultraviolence theme.

Small oil paintings from Issy Wood have a blurry, almost plush quality that recalls the frequent appearance of furries in the cursed oeuvre. Katerina Zbortkova’s rather tastelessly orientalist Dildo in Rice, 2019, manages to capture the deadpan, dead-eyed malaise of many a cursed family, despite its subject sporting sunglasses. And a Puppies Puppies medical training doll invokes respiratory circulation, Real Dolls, and a machete-happy serial killer all at once. There’s a fine line between tacky (cursed) and kitsch (not-cursed), and the show mostly struggled to distinguish between the two, especially with more recent works that fail to make the leap from screen to gallery wall. 

Older works, mostly from the 1980s, provided valuable grounding that extends the concept of cursedness backwards and forwards in time. Especially of note are a pair of David Wojnarowicz collaborations and an intelligently chosen Chris Burden short, Big Wrench, 1980. And a 1972 Valie Export photograph, in which a safety razor is dragged through a thatch of chest hair, is unexpectedly beautiful, if uncursed. There is also an Otto Muehl painting of dueling goats, Zwei Ziegen (Two Goats), 1984, which leaps off the wall in its forceful, insistent vitality—a perturbing inclusion given the late artist’s past as a child abuser, for which he was jailed for seven years. The thing that makes even the gristliest of Twitter-era images feel cursed is their restraint: they’re close, but never too much, and the presence of Muehl’s work feels all the more violent, and unimaginative, as a result.

About a week before I saw the show, which closed earlier this month, I was assaulted by a neo-Nazi. It was morning, and a couple other writers and I were waiting for a car on a street corner. (Later, I realized it was outside an Indian restaurant.) A twentysomething white man strode by. He slapped my forearm as he passed, not hard enough to leave a bruise but enough to sting. It took a few seconds to decipher what had happened, the saliva now trickling viscously down my arm. There was no exchange of words or even eye contact, just that casual defilement. I wiped it off. I washed my arm several more times over the day feeling like Lady Macbeth all the while. The slimy dread remained. 

I thought about the incident that night at the opening for Henrike Naumann’s “Das Reich” at Belvedere 21, a crowded, claustrophobic installation of GDR-era furniture and speculative post-1990 videos about rave culture and teenage national socialists that was the most #cursed thing I saw in Vienna. (I didn’t linger—I had had quite enough of Nazis for one day.) I thought about it over the next few days, when transfixed by Michael Curran’s stunning Genetesque spit-take Amami se vuoi, 1994, while seeing all the election posters for embattled chancellor Sebastian Kurz and his populist cronies, and in the moments between all the other moments.

The thing about curses is that they stay with you, sometimes over generations, as Ann Hirsch’s video consideration of epigenetics and inherited conditions, I am my own fourth cousin, 2019, deftly suggests. I think about Tobias Madison’s continued inclusion in “Life and Limbs,” the current show at New York’s Swiss Institute, despite the domestic abuse charges and ongoing court case against him. About all the abusers that #MeToo ostensibly routed out whose careers will continue to flourish—iteroparously or not—even after they die. All the institutional promises discarded once the news cycle moves on, and writer Elvia Wilk’s cogent maxim: “If a person is an abuser, the work cannot be good.” And I think about the tagline of the original cursed images Tumblr that started it all. IF YOU’RE HERE IT’S ALREADY TOO LATE. THIS IS ALL THERE IS.

Rahel Aima is a writer living in Brooklyn.