Ellen Cantor: Remember Me, 1999, video, 10 minutes, 25 seconds; at the Künstlerhaus Stuttgart.

Occupying two floors of the Künstlerhaus Stuttgart, this exhibition encompasses works on paper, including porn photo collages, as well as films both short and long. It is the second part of an exhibition that began, with somewhat different content, at the CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts in San Francisco and will have an afterlife in Stuttgart this September in a screening of Pinochet Porn, the film that the late Ellen Cantor (1961–2013) spent the last eight years of her life working on. Final edits are being carried out by friends and collaborators according to the artist’s instructions. Ostensibly set against the backdrop of Augusto Pinochet’s US-backed Chilean dictatorship, the story—which focuses on the dictator’s imaginary twin daughters, Paloma and Pipa (both played by Lia Gagitano, founding director of the New York nonprofit Participant Inc.), and their love affairs with half a dozen men—somehow culminates with the collapse of the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001. The exhibition features an edited trailer for the movie that Cantor completed herself, as well as a display of Circus Lives from Hell (2005), a set of her cartoon drawings whose sporadic scenes and actions were a primary source for the collagelike Pinochet Porn. 

“Tragedy is a choice” is the mantra that runs throughout both the works on paper and the film. Actually, though, it’s presented as an inevitability, and one that pervades Cantor’s life and art. An obvious example is the brilliant video Within Heaven and Hell (1996), wherein Cantor cobbles together scenes from The Sound of Music and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre to illustrate pendulum swings between pleasure and torment, as her voice narrates the tale of one of her relationships gone sour. 

Sampling isn’t as easy as it seems, and Cantor was clearly skilled at it, as the short films included in the show make clear; the intensity of her passion for and knowledge of the history of the moving image enabled her to readily take footage shot and edited by others and use it for her own meditations on love, happiness, and the inherent impossibilities of both.

Ode to Life (1997) begins with Cantor’s voice-over recounting a trip to the Black Forest when she announced to her companion that she was so happy she could die—which very nearly happened a moment later when they had a car accident, fortunately without injury; it culminates in a collage of ejaculating cocks taken from low-grade porn videos, with a lecture by Cantor on the biological generation of life. In Remember Me (1999), Cantor smartly and movingly homes in on Antonioni’s L’Avventura, the bizarre tale of a romance that blooms from a woman’s disappearance. Against a devastatingly beautiful Mediterranean backdrop, Cantor’s voice warns: “The sea is an element devoid of loyalty. Do not trust it, or it will end by submerging you.” Tragedy—the torrents it produces and the ways in which we navigate them—is, in the end, what gives a life its substance.