How Artist and Filmmaker Sebastián Silva Wrote Himself—and His Art—Into His New Meta-Comedy ‘Rotting in the Sun’
The Chilean director and artist discusses the art and "accidents" that went into his latest film.
Sebastián Silva will be the first to admit that with his latest film, Rotting in the Sun, he has presented “the worst version” of himself. The meta-movie, which he wrote, directed, and starred in, sees him play a queer artist also named Sebastián Silva—one so morose and irritable, prone to suicidal ideation, and predisposed to ketamine that not even a getaway to a nude gay beach could buoy his spirits.
But lest you think Rotting in the Sun a navel-gazing exercise, the pitch-black comedy takes some startling detours. While on the Mexican beach, Sebastián encounters Jordan Firstman, the influencer also playing a fictional version of himself, occasioning a skewering of social media culture. The meeting further sets in motion a series of surprising—and fatal—events that throws our protagonist’s existential drama into acute relief.
“All of his complaints and his death wish come from a place of privilege,” said Silva of his fictional self. “With people in the arts, especially, it’s like, why are you complaining? You are making indie movies or you’re painting at home, and you’re still in pain.”
He added: “The film is a very misanthropic comedy where I’m consciously and laughingly hating on everybody, including myself.”
It’s with this cinematic risk-taking that the Chilean director, now based in Los Angeles, has made his imprint on the indie film circuit. Rotting in the Sun, which premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, follows his movies—The Maid (2009), Crystal Fairy and the Magical Cactus (2013), among others—similarly woven with an offbeat, cutting wit.
In Nasty Baby (2015), for one, Silva played a wannabe performance artist in a parody of arty pretension. “Whenever I have a chance to make fun of the art world,” he said, “I will.” Rotting in the Sun also happens to feature such a surfeit of male nudity as to veer into satire, representing Silva’s way of drawing out “genital-centric desire, but also as a little bit of a joke.”
They’re stories, too, characterized by narrative twists and turns that wander into moral ambiguity—a discomfort that Silva actively encourages. “I don’t want to make something that everybody immediately agrees with because it’s such a boring conversation,” he said. “It doesn’t even feel like a conversation or a dialogue—it feels like a TED talk.”
Silva also brought to Rotting in the Sun another aspect of his practice: his visual art. His paintings are hung around Sebastián’s studio, particularly a work-in-progress of his massive, penis-filled canvas, wish i wasn’t gay (2022), which perfectly mirrors an orgy taking place in the same space.
Another piece, created especially for the film, features a manic calendar page. “It reads July 1, July 2, July 1, July 2, April, April, April, and then just Tuesday, Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, Monday,” Silva explained. “It represents the tedium that Sebastián is living with, where it’s like, another fucking week, who cares?”
A journal that Sebastián keeps, which ends up a key plot device, was also filled with the director’s scribblings and doodles. While some of the drawings, particularly those in reference to Firstman, were made specific to the character, others were lifted from Silva’s own journals. According to him, he has amassed “millions” of them.
Since his teen years, Silva has been actively illustrating, backed by his father who supplied him and his six siblings with sketchbooks and art supplies. He took cues from cartoonists such as Walt Disney and artists including Philip Guston and Keith Haring, and designed his own characters, working in ink and acrylic, and always in black and white. It was “obsessive work” that he never ceased.
During our conversation over Zoom, he brandished several of his early works that brimmed with his imaginative characters. One piece is filled almost edge-to-edge with intricately detailed animal figures in deep black ink. Another depicted a series of odd and alien critters lined up to reach a darkly shrouded aged character standing in for death. He also unearthed a fanzine, titled Awareness Improves Life (or AIL for short), which he created and distributed in his 20s as an outlet for what he called his “esoteric tendency.”
Silva’s large-format paintings made their gallery debut at David Castillo in Miami in 2011 before resurfacing at his 2021 solo show “The Elephant in the Room,” then “My Party” (which opened in September) at Mexico City’s Galería OMR, which represents the artist. In these works, Silva has taken apart his beloved cartoon characters, transforming them from figurative representations to deeply abstract planes of color.
“I started finding a lot of pleasure in deconstructing characters to the point where I’m the only one seeing where their parts are,” he said. “Everybody can feel that there are beings in these abstract landscapes. It’s not just strokes and splashes. There is something concrete that has somehow dissolved.”
For an artist who has worked mostly in black and white, his colors pop off the canvas, with mint greens, pastel pinks, and cerulean blues set off by earthy beiges. These shades, he said, emerge from a personal place, his “inner state.” There’s the pink from his love for Philip Guston, the black from early Disney cartoons, the pale mint that he’s simply “completely obsessed with.”
“It’s psychological,” he said of his color palette, “and it’s also biographical.”
(Rotting in the Sun also contains a brief animated sequence depicting the effects of ketamine on Sebastián—colloquially known as a k-hole—a subjective experience which Silva captured in terms of color: “It’s definitely not colorful. It’s silvery, and like, black and white and platinum. There’s no real color.”)
These days, Silva has been trying to loosen his lines and shapes by integrating A.I. generator Midjourney into his creative process, while increasingly welcoming spontaneity. “I started with planning my abstract work in a very controlled way, but now I’m more interested in the mix of being deliberate and also embracing accidents.”
It’s an approach that Silva conceded might be “kind of lazy,” but one that he’s long exercised in his filmmaking. His productions, after all, bear a looseness that belies thornier themes, just as his paintings conceal characters within their casual abstraction. It might be a creative process that comes with being a self-taught artist and an independent filmmaker, but for Silva, it’s a way of being—to “keep the plot alive.”
“It’s kind of a lifestyle,” he said. “I think my life is a little like that to me.”
Rotting in the Sun is now streaming on Mubi. “Sebastián Silva: My Party” is on view at Galería OMR, Córdoba 100, Roma Nte., Cuauhtémoc, Ciudad de México, through November 4.
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