Test Space, Spike Island
March 2 - 17, 2019
‘And so kids in the theater start crying. Not sobbing, like we all do at the beginning of Up, but slowly, with tears running down their cheeks and a little quiver in their bottom lip. For many, this was the first father figure they’d ever had to face losing. Years later, in college, while sipping beers at a local tavern and dealing with the loss of an actual friend, or parent, or grandparent, some of those now-grown kids could be overheard saying, ‘the first death that really affected me in my life was Optimus Prime. Then later my dog died, too.’ How Optimus Prime’s Death Defined A Generation, Birth.Movies.Death.com, 29/07/13.
This exhibition explored the memorialisation, shared grief and continuing resonance of the unexpected death of Optimus Prime in the original Transformers: The Movie 1986 animated film. Originally released in 1984, The Transformers was an animated robot superhero television series that rapidly became a highly profitable global franchise. A deeply ‘toyetic’ universe - a Hollywood term for an intellectual property rich with the potential for merchandise - it has since been reinterpreted in Michael Bay’s cinematic series, grossing over $4.3 billion globally. Central to the storyline was the continuing battle between the morally steadfast leader of the Autobots, Optimus Prime, and his nemesis, Megatron of the Decepticons. The Transformers ruthlessly blended commercialism and characterisation, merging a must-have toyline with a Marvel comic book series that solidified fan devotion to the core cast. However, in the 1986 animated film, the decision to rapidly kill off Prime created an unexpected and severe response in their young and devoted audience - shock and grief. For those who experienced it, it serves as a resonant and pivotal moment, a connecting trauma. The Transformers now exists as an established pop culture belief system with equivalence to other, older canons such as Star Wars and Star Trek, with the scene becoming an essential component in the memorialisation of the mythos across the Transformers fan community.
Anchored by this event, this exhibition explored how the unexpectedly potent position of Prime as a substitute father figure came to deeply affect the childhoods of so many. A totem of reliability and moral fortitude, this must-have toy and animated patriarch hypnotically shifted form, in vivid red, silver and blue, between a Freightliner FL86 cab over semi-truck and a towering humanoid robot. Imbued with gravitas through Peter Cullen’s gravelly baritone, Optimus Prime was an accidental icon, the glue in a surrogate, imaginary family.
Death Mask replicates the form and colour of Prime’s head in his iconic death scene, where Prime’s rich blue, red and silver colouring fades to grey as his life force slips away. Sitting between a loving hand-made prop and a static sculpture, it invites interaction to stand within and stare out of the vacant eyes, rekindling a childlike curiosity and scale. The Boy at the Gate sits at the edge of motion, poised to either continue his consideration of the void or set forth on a trike into life and the world beyond, here punctuating the works as an observer of the complications and ramifications of growth and transition. Optimortis takes the form of Prime’s limp, robotic hand and extends it into a space between decay, melt, semi-mummification and the plastic wrapping of commerce, merchandise and items in transit. Optimus Prime observes his own death from Moon Base One repositions Prime from victim to distant seer as images from the film flicker on his large command screens, fading to black as a direct echo of filmic tradition. Matrix and Daniel respond directly to iconic stills from the preceding series, humanishing them as minimal, hand-drawn moments of potency, perhaps for future reference in the continuing evolution of the Transformers belief system.
Freedom is the right of all sentient beings uses the language and form of merchandise and commemoration directly - a bone china mug and commemorative plate shift prime’s iconic head and most famous quote into a crisp, clean, domestic sphere. However, the placement on a broken section of furniture reconnects these objects with the mortal inevitability that underpins these narratives, imagined, animated or lived.
All photography Garry Loughlin