The Brothers Quay: Do You Think You Understand A Comb? They Say Nay

As silly as it is, the earliest memory I can recall of having complete control over my environment is making a diorama. A masterful wash of pride came over me as I stared down at my kingdom constructed of a shoebox, cheap tempera paint, and model magic clay. I guess you could call it an early existential crisis.

The Brothers Quay, auteurs of animation, construct environments for doll parts, screws and combs to inhabit. These identical twins capture the relationship of their recycled objects with surrealistic surroundings in their stop-motion films.

Our entire existence consists of our interactions with objects. These objects are assigned a basic association early on in our development, stemming from sensory or environmental factors. The life expectancy of objects was brought to my attention in the documentary, OBJECTIFIED (2009). Designer Karim Rashid contemplates the folly of product design, “If the shelf life of a high-tech object is less than eleven months, it should be all 100% disposable”.

Once the consumer decides to “end the life” of an object they release all responsibility and it ends there—or does it? Don’t fear, artists put on the cape and fly in to save the discarded souls of these orphaned objects. They are not repurposed for a Pinterest tutorial but rather a tool of Freudian free association.  In this episode, a duo of offbeat heroes from Norristown, Pennsylvania, the Brothers Quay, swoop in to save the day.

Immediately upon watching the Brothers Quay short, THE COMB (1991), the atmosphere eerily reminded me of the I Spy book series. Walter Wick, the photographer of the I Spy book series, meticulously considers and stages his collections of objects in the same vein as the Brothers Quay.  As a child, the underlying tone of I Spy photographs attracted my attention rather than the task of locating the various objects. I always felt a sense of unease upon looking at the attic choking with fog on the page. The scene resembled more of a glorified hoarder’s paradise than the playful atmosphere of a Where’s Waldo illustration.

That unease resurfaced while watching the films of the Brothers Quay. Propelled by their use of stop-motion animation, I begin to question my environment. The brilliance of stop-motion animation is that slight lag in movement that is achieved through the objects. That brief resting point gives the viewer a chance to contemplate the experience and reevaluate the purpose of the object.

The Brothers Quay gravitate towards objects with a previous life. Stephen Quay explains, “[The objects] possess memory. History is something they’ve brushed up against, and they hold all of history in their bodies. And for us it’s a way of wanting to release that side of their history, if possible.”

Short films by the Brothers Quay take on a surrealistic pedigree. They present an obvious disinterest in logic or any sort of linear narrative. The films instead operate on dream and memory logic. A lack of any audible dialogue lends a voice to the objects that can be uniquely interpreted for each viewer. In THE COMB, there is an oscillation of this sort of visual dialogue between the live action sequences and the stop-motion animation. This juxtaposition forces the viewer to consider a connection between the objects (a woman lying in bed and a doll trying to climb a ladder) even though there may not be one.

In the spirit of Salvador Dalí and Luis Buñuel’s surrealistic masterpiece, UN CHIEN ANDALOU (1929), the Quays’ work thrives from the harmony between the two creators. Salvador Dalí and Luis Buñuel created their short film by sharing a fragment of troubling imagery from a dream. They mutually decided to let both disjointed dreams marinate in the film, with only one necessary ingredient proclaimed by Buñuel, “No idea or image that might lend itself to a rational explanation of any kind would be accepted.”

Similarly, the Brothers Quay have no need to disclose the purpose of their narratives, only the process or means in which they arrive at it. Like many famous creative collaborations, the true nature of the inner workings of their minds are better left to myth and legend. They do let us in but as strangers. As the Brothers Quay have said, their invented environments are “fixed systems in which an intruder arrives”.

After the Brothers Quay scurry off with your sense of logic and devoid your mind of any previous associations to the objects they employ, what are you left with? A comb becomes the resolution to a struggle, screws become champions of freedom and “Frankensteined” doll parts become your subconscious thrashing around in the waking hour. No longer do you have control over them; you instead become equals with inanimate objects. The Brothers Quay give their objects an opportunity to exercise influence over their creator—let the existential crisis commence!





I’m a mixed media artist from Braintree, MA. I investigate various art disciplines, particularly ancient processes and film in non-traditional ways. The genre of Film Noir in particular, with its play on lighting to convey the motives of characters, directs my decision-making. My current body of work involves the creation of 3-D models influenced by my interest in set design and the use of miniatures in film. These models are then photographed with a Film Noir aesthetic using techniques I have acquired from studying film. More of my work can be found here.
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