There is a scene early on in Lamberto Bava’s 1986 low-budget Italo-horror schlock fest Demons 2: A sinister figure is seen limping down a hallway. He enters a room, picks up a knife that is covered in what looks like blood, and wipes it on his soiled apron. The camera then reveals the source of the gory substance: a jar of syrup that has been knocked over. The man is identified as a baker and goes about decorating a cake for a woman’s birthday party. The scene of once-impending terror is defused with a comedic twist. This mix of dread and absurdist humor provides an appropriate framework for viewing Alex Da Corte’s immersive theatrical installation A Season in He’ll at Art + Practice.
Upon entering the gallery, it is clear that the viewer is not in a conventional white cube. Da Corte has created a phantasmagorical wonderland, transforming the space through tile flooring, painted walls, and colored lights, while also incorporating olfactory elements with rose, sage, and clove-scented misters. The exhibition takes its title from Arthur Rimbaud’s 1873 prose poem A Season in Hell, which describes the young author’s drug-fueled descent into madness after the dissolution of his tempestuous affair with fellow poet Paul Verlaine. Rimbaud has provided inspiration to a long line of cultural and countercultural figures, from the Surrealists to the ’70s East Village punks like Patti Smith and Richard Hell (who took his stage name from the same Rimbaud poem). Da Corte is drawn to Rimbaud’s work, not only for the way it breaks with conventional reality, but also for its frank and uncompromising descriptions of queerness.
The first object encountered in the installation is a large black cone rising up from a flat circular disc: a witch’s hat blown up to the size of absurdity, referencing both lighthearted escapist fantasy as well as the historical trauma of persecution. A large vintage photograph mounted on the wall continues this sense of ambiguity, capturing a weeping young woman being consoled by a shaggy haired figure. What at first appears as the aftermath of a tragedy is actually a wedding photo—tears of joy rather than tears of pain. A neon sign spelling out “night” with twinkling stars hangs on the wall—a direct, if somewhat cryptic, quotation from Demons 2, where an identical version oddly graces the protagonists’ apartment wall. But viewers need not be familiar with the reference to get the allusion to “the witching hour,” the nocturnal period when occult and supernatural powers are at their peak.