It’s a little jarring to hear Keanu Reeves talk about PDFs. Yet he happens do so with precise fervor, along with things like hue density and saturation grades, in service of his latest role: Existentialist poet. This past Tuesday, Reeves and the Los Angeles-based artist Alexandra Grant were in New York recounting a trip to Göttingen, Germany, home of the publisher Steidl, where they worked hands-on to finalize their latest book-length collaboration, Shadows, a tone poem of Reeves’ spare, alternatively morose and gnomic verse paired with Grant’s images of the actor in shadows.
Despite appearances, Shadows is less a neopagan handbook than aesthetic meditation on such small ideas as conceptions of the self, interior crisis, and reconciling your own mortality. The project is as much about Jungian psychology as creating a beautiful object, and Grant and Reeves were keen to talk about the haptic qualities of paper stock, being surprised by the translation of colors (sample shade: “70's porn rust”), and what Reeves called “that collision of RGB and CMYK." It's no surprise they insisted on being intimately involved in the printing of their book.
“It was definitely cool to see them talking, struggling with each other, trying to get these colors from the computer to then get them printed,” Reeves said. “It was great, just to see them alive like that.”
Reeves reminded Grant of when Gerhard Steidl, the famously hands-on head of the publishing house, scolded her. “'Stop looking at the computer,'” Reeves said in his best Hans Gruber voice.
“We can spend a lot of time debating," Grant agreed. "Like, 'A raspberry hue? And should it be darker?' We can get obsessive.”
Grant and Reeves began their first book project, 2011's Ode to Happiness, not long after meeting at a dinner party in Los Angeles, in 2009. Reeves had written a poem for a mutual friend, a comically sullen self-care guide that leaked despair (sample line: “I draw a hot sorrow bath”). After Grant read it, she was inspired to produce a complimentary series of gloomy, washed-ink illustrations. The result was a “grown-up’s children's book” that would be right at home in the personal libraries of William Steig and Maurice Sendak.
The text in Shadows is similarly poetic, evoking the psychic damage of, say, a Hermann Hesse character (it should be noted that Reeves has played Siddhartha, the pre-enlightened Buddha, in Bernardo Bertolucci's 1994 film "Little Buddha"). But its acceptance of impermanence—the shadow as memento mori—is rooted in a kind of Eastern spiritualism. The effect is something close to zen koans, by way of Jenny Holzer.
It's also a book about grief, and the transmutation of grief as catharsis. “It seemed to me that the shadow was the perfect sort of physical manifestation of moving through darkness into light,” Grant said. “I liked that idea of the meeting place between light and dark and two different people.”
Grant shot Reeves at his New York apartment during the filming of 2014's John Wick, where she found herself in the unfamiliar position of issuing prompts to one of our most well-known actors. (Grant: “What is loneliness?” Reeves: “Yeah, good one.”) It was a physical performance, with Reeves throwing rabid shapes, doubled over, curled into himself, reaching into the void.
They managed to exploit gender roles, not only in the idea that the book presents a female artist’s gaze of a male actor's shirtless body, but also in the aesthetic results, which are not explicitly masculine.
“There's a horizontal body that's just very sensual,” Grant said. “That sense that the self can have so many interpretations...I like the tension.”
The images might look manipulated, but with the exception of the colors, they are unaltered—something Grant said beguiled even the master printers in Göttingen.
“I think this is part of the mystery of the book, that no one at Steidl knew how the images were made. It's digital photography that's aware of chemical photography, but everyone working there was like, 'How did you make these images?'" (While in Germany, Grant and Reeves happened to share studio space with Juergen Teller, who got an early look at the project and offered such notes as, “Enlarge the cover title.”)
Happily, the humor of being so cripplingly introspective is not lost; as much as Shadows is sunk in melancholy, a lot of it is also quite funny. As Grant explained her efforts to telegraph various states of being, Reeves's eye is drawn to a copy of the book. It was open to the line: "In the light of day/darkness/good luck," which he recited out loud. Which made him cackle, loudly. “I think that's hilarious."
Reeves added that he finds a regular pulse to his writing, which is not the same as retreating from film work to live as an ascetic. He recently finished shooting the sequel to John Wick, and has a part in Nicolas Winding Refn’s upcoming The Neon Demon.
Still, I wondered, does Reeves have another book in him? Or even a novel?
“Oh, I'm not going to do a novel,” he said. “It's going to be more poetry. Thank you for asking.”
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