Visual Culture

The Strange and Stunning Results of Artist-Directed Music Videos

Scott Indrisek
Aug 9, 2018 8:47PM

Music videos, of course, have always involved artistry, from Michael Jackson’s epic mini-movie for “Thriller” in 1983 to Björk’s 2004 video for “Triumph of a Heart,” which famously features a love affair with a human-sized cat.

But something undeniably odd and inspiring can happen when visual artists who don’t normally work within the medium try their hands at it. Here, we look at 15 clips that showcase the beauty, inventiveness, and occasional disaster that can result when artists step outside of their comfort zones and collaborate with musicians.  

Jon Rafman for Oneohtrix Point Never’s “Sticky Drama” (2015)

This clip for Oneohtrix Point Never opens slow and strange—imagine the gravitas of the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan transposed onto a lo-fi battle between cosplaying adolescents—and it only gets wilder from there. Jon Rafman is an artist known for his mastery of digital animation effects, creating grotesque universes that bend the rules of logic and physics (and traverse the uncanny valley). For one series, he creates creepy CGI renditions of his own dreams—consider him a 21st-century Surrealist with superior software.

“Sticky Drama,” from the 2015 Oneohtrix Point Never album Garden of Delete, is a viciously attention-deficit mix of robotic pop and sheer electronic noise. To accompany it, Rafman chose to go mostly live-action. A vast army of child actors stage their own brutal war, replete with ultra-violent battle scenes and a surplus of green slime (a mood board for this video would likely include both Game of Thrones and Nickelodeon’s Double Dare). A feature film’s worth of epic drama is crammed into less than six frenetic minutes.

David LaChapelle for Blink-182’s “Feeling This” (2003)

How best to conjure the snotty, rebellious energy that made Blink-182 one of the enduring names of pop-punk? David LaChapelle chose to film in a defunct L.A. jail, but don’t expect a treatise on the importance of prison reform here. Instead, the photographer (who has also directed clips for Christina Aguilera, Mariah Carey, and many others) presents a sort of horny penitentiary stocked with nubile young things who are sick and tired of institutional conformity. As in Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall,” these oppressed prisoners don’t need no education—but in this case, they will fight for their right to hump each other during visiting hours.

We see a classroom full of fed-up boys and girls overtaking their fascistic teacher, climbing on their desks in what reads like a punk-rock riff on that climactic scene in Dead Poets Society. That turns into a full-blown riot; a jailbreak; what might be an outtake from a Victoria’s Secret commercial; and a rowdy concert on the roof, where Blink-182 gets anthemic within the safety of a barbed-wire enclosure.

Marco Brambilla for Kanye West’s “Power” (2010)

Clocking in at under two minutes, this slim, supremely dramatic video feels more like the trailer for an action movie starring Kanye West. We see the rapper draped in chains, standing still as a painterly scene comes to life (with half-naked women featured prominently). The general mood—epic surrealism with a dash of kitsch—is in keeping with Marco Brambilla’s other video work. Anyone who has ever stayed at The Standard in New York, or visited its bars, has likely seen his Civilisation (Megaplex) (2008), a Boschian dream that screens in the hotel’s elevators.

But if the video for “Power” manages to jam a lot of bombast into a short space, West’s 2010 short film for “Runaway” (with art direction from artist Vanessa Beecroft) would prove as expansive as his ego. Stretching to nearly 35 minutes, it includes a massive explosion, a fireworks display, a marching band, and an extended ballet performance, among other things.

Alex Da Corte for St. Vincent’s “New York” (2017)

This lush video is a decadent indulgence in color and pattern, from baby-blue blinds to leopard-print tights, a cherry-red shoe telephone, and acres of bodega flowers. St. Vincent’s Annie Clark deadpans through an ode to lost romance in New York City, with cameos from some famous city sculptures—Tony Rosenthal’s Alamo cube in Astor Place; Forrest Myers’s The Wall on West Houston at Broadway—as well as studio installations that recall Alex Da Corte’s own irreverent, Instagram-friendly practice. Despite various absurdities—a random swan; a microphone stand surmounted by what appears to be burning kale—the overall effect is both seductive and eerily moving.    

Ryan McGinley for Sigur Rós’s “Varúð” (2012)

Atmospheric Icelandic band Sigur Rós—famous for singing in a made-up language—tapped 12 creatives to direct short films to accompany their 2012 album Valtari. Ryan McGinley has earned well-deserved acclaim for a photographic practice that celebrates the nostalgic glow of youth; here, he crafts what he called his “poem to New York City.”

The camera tracks a young woman—wearing nothing more than a gold wig, an oversized T-shirt, and underwear—as she skips barefoot through the metropolis. (Editor’s note: Always wear shoes when skipping in Lower Manhattan.) The footage is shot from a great distance, as if captured by an eye-in-the-sky satellite. At certain points, the woman keeps dreamily moving, even though her surroundings—pedestrians on the High Line, yellow cabs—have frozen in place. The video is something of a woozier, romantic counterpart to James Nares’s short film Street (2011), which likewise skewed the way we see New York’s everyday foot traffic.  

Damien Hirst for Blur’s “Country House” (1995)

Damien Hirst won the Turner Prize in 1995, another step on the ladder to international fame for the British artist. But that same year, he also directed this doozy of a music video for the pop quartet Blur, which truly needs to be seen to be believed. It opens with four blokes in a shabby apartment playing a board game called Escape from the Rat Race; the game soon explodes into a surreal reality, one that is decorated with giant skulls and populated by people riding pigs and taking cheeky bubble baths.

The cheeseball factor is off the charts here—Hirst would have made a stellar mid-’90s maestro of beer commercials. Rather than waxing poetic, the artist also shows himself to be a shockingly literal thinker, directly illustrating many of the lyrics: When Damon Albarn sings “He’s reading Balzac and knocking back Prozac,” we get a demonstration of…exactly that. The video’s protagonist is a rich everyman who seems plucked from one of René Magritte’s bowler-hat paintings, and there’s enough cleavage and sophomoric sexual hijinks to satisfy even the most avid fan of the Naked Gun franchise.    

Pipilotti Rist’s “I’m a Victim of This Song” (1995)

Swiss artist Pipilotti Rist is known for her immersive video environments celebrating color and nature, offsetting any earnest New Age vibes with a healthy dose of irreverence. (Her work indirectly entered the popular imagination after the motifs in a 1997 piece were liberally borrowed by Beyonce in 2016.) The original video for this Chris Isaak song “Wicked Game” was directed by David Lynch in 1990; Rist completely altered the effect with her version, which is almost painfully vulnerable, with helium-high missed notes that devolve into a sort of desperate shrieking.

Meanwhile, the grainy video itself seems almost entirely arbitrary, with scenes of rolling clouds, vintage photographs, and random strangers sitting in a restaurant. Rist’s brittle rendition of “Wicked Game” poses a thorny question: Is the song itself the thing plucking brutally at our heartstrings? And would any random collage of footage have the same effects, given the proper soundtrack?

Robert Longo for Megadeth’s “Peace Sells” (1986)

Robert Longo, a member of the “Pictures Generation” who is best known for his hyperrealistic graphite drawings, teamed up with Megadeth for this clip in 1986, and what a hot metal mess it is. Full of flickering, strobe-like cuts and found footage of war and riots, it hiccups between the goofy and the graphic. Fist-pumping fans are interspersed with images of bombed buildings; a man falling down the stairs; a burning Constitution; statues of the Buddha; and several extreme close-ups of singer Dave Mustaine’s oral cavity. (Things slow down around the two-minute mark, when Longo himself seems to grow bored of yet another interminable, noodling guitar solo.)

Fast forward three decades, and everyone involved with this has aged quite differently. Longo is still a sought-after artist dedicated to capturing our fraught political moment; Megadeth’s Mustaine has been a guest on Infowars and has fondly trafficked in any number of conspiracy theories.

Tony Oursler for David Bowie’s “Where Are We Now?” (2013)

American artist Tony Oursler brings his video-sculpture techniques to bear on this bittersweet anthem from his friend, the late David Bowie. “There’s a theme of looking back and moving forward to ‘Where Are We Now?’, of abandoning things and carrying things forward,” Oursler said at the time. Watching this clip now, in the wake of Bowie’s 2016 death, is almost pleasantly crushing; if your eyes aren’t watering at the 3:30 mark, there might be something wrong with you.

The video is also a marvel in terms of how it achieved heightened emotional effects with limited means. We see a static tableaux in the artist’s studio: a few props (an empty wine bottle; a giant sculptural ear) along with a large screen, upon which grainy footage from Berlin and elsewhere is projected. The focal point is a lumpy doll with two projected faces of Bowie and the painter Jacqueline Humphries, Oursler’s wife. Bowie sings while Humphries stares placidly ahead—at one point, she licks her lips, poised as if to sing, but that moment never comes. “As long as there’s sun,” Bowie intones, his words floating before him. “As long as there’s me. As long as there’s you.”

Harmony Korine for Sonic Youth’s “Sunday” (1998)

Harmony Korine got his start in 1995 as the screenwriter for Larry Clark’s brutal teen drama Kids, and has since gone on to produce an unpredictable oeuvre, from Julien Donkey-Boy (1999) to Spring Breakers (2012). He’s also a visual artist, showing on occasion with blue-chip powerhouse Gagosian—and despite any urge to accuse him of dilettantism, Korine’s painting practice is both sincere and impressive.  

This video for a track off Sonic Youth’s 1998 album A Thousand Leaves puts the viewer in an aggressively uncomfortable place. As it opens, we see a young Macaulay Culkin staring drowsily into a mirror, redolent of an Elizabeth Peyton painting. Wearing Hugh Hefner-worthy pajamas, he begins making out, in slo-mo, with a young woman.

Korine cuts to equally slow, dreamy footage of a young ballerina practicing her moves in a dingy apartment, and then cuts to a scene of the Home Alone child star headbanging over dueling banjos with Sonic Youth frontman Thurston Moore. Culkin pulls off the rockstar vibe better here than he would in the later phase of his career, when he earned internet disbelief for The Pizza Underground, a cover band that repurposed Velvet Underground songs with lyrics about…pizza.

Ebony Hoorn for Lost Under Heaven’s “Bunny’s Blues” (2018)

This sinister, P.J. Harvey-inflected track comes with a seductive, lurid video directed by the band’s frontwoman, Ebony Hoorn—a recent art-school graduate from Amsterdam. Incorporating both a striptease, a magic ritual, and a murder, the clip nods to director David Lynch, the 1976 film Carrie, and the saturated color palette of Italian horror icon Dario Argento (an admitted influence of the artist-musician).

The germ of “Bunny’s Blues” came from a performance project Hoorn launched in the Netherlands in 2015. “I created this character Bunny Blue while writing my thesis,” she told Artsy. “I started dressing up and going to empty bars and cafés in Amsterdam, exploring the tremendous amount of freedom experienced without the mundane expectations regarding your identity.” That led her to explore virtual reality and online identities as presenting other sides of the self. “Bunny, for me, is like a research tool,” she continued. “It allows me to look with fresh, new eyes. It sets me apart from myself.”

Make sure to keep watching until the bitter end, where a blood-drenched Bunny flaunts the head of a man she’s just decapitated with a scythe—a visual rhyme with any number of paintings of Judith and Holofernes.

Jimmy Joe Roche for Dan Deacon’s “The Crystal Cat” (2007)

Jimmy Joe Roche and Dan Deacon both cut their teeth as part of the Baltimore-based art collective Wham City. They’ve collaborated on longer, more conceptual projects—like Ultimate Reality, a 2007 film that appropriates footage from Arnold Schwarzenegger films—but this bite-sized video is an easier place to start.

Roche’s aesthetic for this clip mirrors motifs that reappear in his own drawings, paintings, and sculptures, with endless Rorschach-like patterns in psychedelic colors. Deacon, clad in an unglamorous grey sweatshirt, presides over a cast of characters seemingly plucked from amateur public-access television. The parade of flickering neon mandalas builds to an almost unbearable climax that might permanently alter your brain chemistry.

Allison Schulnik for Grizzly Bear’s “Ready, Able” (2009)

Allison Schulnik, a Los Angeles-based artist, goes overboard when she paints, applying impossibly thick layers of oil to create her depictions of cats, clowns, flowers, and landscapes. That handmade tactility carries over into her claymation work for the indie band Grizzly Bear.

In this video, creatures with gaping eyes and mouths are constantly evolving, melting, turning inside out, or being sucked into ominous spacecrafts. The aesthetic is purposefully rough and lovingly handmade. “You go into this zone, there’s nothing like it,” Schulnik toldL.A. Weekly, discussing her very labor-intensive process. “You’re in a little black room all by yourself…alone in the dark for hours and hours in this little mini-world that you created and have complete control over. It’s complete escapism. I love it. And when you see the result, it’s magic.”

Wolfgang Tillmans for Powell’s “Freezer” (2017)

Wolfgang Tillmans loves to buck convention—he’s notorious for installing his gorgeous and poetic images of male anatomy, fruit, landscapes, and countless other subjects in inventive, unprecious ways. It makes sense that Powell tapped the photographer to direct one of his videos: “Oscar Powell’s music is often deemed difficult,” Pitchfork once surmised, and Tillmans accompanied this track with an equally difficult, occasionally maddening video.

Scenes of exceedingly mundane things—a pot threatening to boil over; leaves gently blowing in a breeze—are intercut with a slideshow of still photographs of military members and riot cops. The quiet, restrained pace of the clip is at odds with the electronic song’s insistent, thumping beat, and the video itself almost seems like a parody of a stereotypical art film in which nothing of substance occurs. Still, one can’t help but appreciate the brazen disregard for the clichés and conventions of the form. Don’t expect to see it on MTV anytime soon.

Kara Walker and Ari Marcopoulos for Santigold’s “Banshee” (2016)

Ari Marcopoulos, a photographer known for his casually evocative portraits, teamed up with Kara Walker for this hard-to-classify video. While Walker is synonymous with cut-paper silhouette works that spotlight the horrors of America’s racist past, here, she contributed shadow puppets that gyrate and cavort in a comparatively lighthearted way. This freewheeling dance party is preceded by an incongruous black-and-white segment, in which we see Santigold sitting on a city sidewalk holding a sign that reads “Will Work For Blood.”

It might not add up into one cohesive whole, but the energy and enthusiasm that went into the shoot is palpable. “We decided to just all get together in the studio with the puppets, a bunch of lights, and just have a good time and made decisions as we went,” Marcopoulos told the New York Times. “It was a total team effort. My son Ethan was the cameraman and Kara’s daughter [was] the stills photographer.”

Scott Indrisek