this is tomorrow: From Transhuman to South Perspectives (review)
First published at This Is Tomorrow
There’s something uncannily cave-like about Rowing’s small, Kentish Town space at the moment, for its current group show ‘From Transhuman to South Perspectives’. It reminds me of a line from Werner Herzog’s ‘Cave of Forgotten Dreams’: “In a forbidden recess of the cave, there’s a footprint of an eight-year-old boy next to the footprint of a wolf. Did a hungry wolf stalk the boy? Or were their tracks made thousands of years apart?” Much like Herzog’s cave, here at Rowing time has also collapsed in on itself, as both the ancient past and the near future creep into the present.
I enter the space through an opening in Athena Papadopoulos’ ‘Peeper VI’, a large, fleshy sheet of pink Lycra stretching the width between two walls, pocked with holes of varying sizes, and smeared with lipstick, hair dye, nail polish and bleach. Earthenware pots – by artists Robert Rush, Gabriel Méo and Octave Rimbert-Rivière – rise up like stalagmites from the ground all over the floor, imbued with ancient significance. These pots are handmade and the rough-hewn material often bears traces of the fingers that made them. Rimbert-Rivière’s ‘Mountain’ stands closest to the entrance. This bulky, organic lump of plaster is marbled with pink and grey, like a mineral-rich boulder. It could easily have been found at the bottom of a cliff. Only on closer inspection does its artifice become apparent, as its boxy seam hints at its human manufacture.
Stretched across the far wall of the gallery is Aurora Pelizzi’s ‘Cueros, Pellejos y Pendejos’, literally translating (or so Google translate tells me) as ‘leather, skins and assholes’. Dots and handprints are stenciled in black dust on to a leather hide, still bearing the shape of the animal that once wore it. The process has left reverse silhouettes behind, looking much like the Paleolithic cave paintings of Lascaux or El Castillo. Here Pelizzi draws inspiration from our earliest collective past, replicating the painted dots that are thought to be the oldest human works of art. Like ‘Cueros, Pellejos y Pendejos’, many of the works on show here are time-travelling. They use the tools and handcraft techniques of not simply a pre-capitalist time, but a pre-agricultural time. In using these primitive techniques, these artists stand in direct opposition to the modernist avant-garde’s preoccupation with technology.
As a rule, I’m suspicious of nostalgia, especially when the desire to ‘un-do’ capitalism ends up with making a reactionary case for feudalism or, even, the Paleolithic. But I suspect this isn’t quite what’s happening here. Perhaps this is something more like survivalism. How can art production continue when resources become scarce? Or when large sections of the earth become uninhabitable? Or when financial crash after financial crash leaves our lives so precarious we can no longer find the spacious, free time for art-making? In using the techniques of the past, these artists also look tentatively forwards: the past, present and future collide.
Not all of the futures presented here are primitivist. Perhaps, the lengthy curatorial statement suggests, we’re heading for the ‘transhuman’, where humans are transcended in favour of a new, cyborg reality. GCC’s ‘Co-op’, a sort of spoof corporate video for a collective of nation-states, shows us one such futurity. We see images of glass high rises, sleek touch-screen technologies and air conditioned hotel lobbies, as an authoritative male voiceover soothes us with sentences punctuated with words like ‘success’, ‘luxury’ and ‘concept’. These are repeated with such frequency as to become utterly meaningless. Both everywhere and nowhere, the world in this video is the impersonal end point of global neoliberalism. Dubai is indistinguishable from Zurich and all individual human differences have been erased. To some degree this sterile world seems peaceful but it is underpinned by a sinister and obligatory universalism. The voiceover mentions the ‘impregnable’ nature of the ‘GCC union’, suggesting that any form of resistance – grassroots or otherwise – would be impossible.
The curators take aim at other configurations of western dualism. An untitled lenticular image by Estrid Lutz and Emile Mold quite literally blurs the distinction between the human and technological, superimposing a data centre on top of a block of flats. In another corner, Robert Rush’s ‘Where Is Nature?’, a noise-sensitive assemblage of metal and plants, enables a basic dialogue between human and nature. There is a sense that the curators are eager to somehow ‘get beyond’ – beyond both modernism’s persistent dualism and postmodernism’s permanent-present – and are open to whatever that ‘beyond’ might be. As ‘crystallizations of possible futures’, these works demonstrate – with sometimes bracing brevity – alternative roadmaps for thinking about what lies ahead.