Women are the Post-Apocalyptic future

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BERLIN and PARIS — In recent years, impending ecological apocalypse has spurred a number of contemporary artists to visualize fears of an environmental collapse. Yet it’s also inspired artists to imagine post-apocalyptic futures. British artist Emma Talbot and American artist Dana Schutz address the subject of societal, ecological meltdown in their recent shows, organized respectively at Kindl, Berlin, and at Musée d’Art Moderne (MAM), Paris. While they draw the spectators’ attention to humanity’s absurdities, contradictions, and collective inefficacy, they offer paths to eco-centric renewal as well. Looking at their paintings, I couldn’t help thinking of late American writer Ursula K. Le Guin’s futuristic stories, some of which envisioned nonhuman, eco-based intelligence. 

Technology and contemporary society’s addiction to it are central to Talbot’s paintings, featured in the group show POLY: A Fluid ShowCurated by Solvej Helweg Ovesen. Kindl Center of Contemporary Art, Berlin. The exhibition is dedicated to contemporary artists who have used the idea pollination, which comes from biology, to reimagine social structures, emphasizing hybridity and collectivity. In her collage on six silk panels “When Screens Break”Talbot’s (2020) paintings depict faceless avatars floating among colorful amoebas, black and white webs and other colors. Speech balloons with underlined text describe a world that’s so technologically mediated that when smartphones break, they leave a harrowing sense of emptiness. “When Screens Break”This is also the name of an animated film playing on a small floor-mounted screen, in which a lone figure laments the loss of screen interactivity.

Installation view Emma Talbot: The End is the BeginningKesselhaus at Kindl in Berlin

Talbot’s site-specific mini exhibition, Emma Talbot: The End is the BeginningThe group exhibition (2023) at Kindl is a continuation of the accelerated posthuman future that was glimpsed in this show. Talbot fills the soaring space at Kindl’s Kesselhaus with enormous paintings on silk suspended from the ceiling, along with fabric sculptures. In the section Materials for Survival, she replaces the human figure with giant spiders painted onto silk. Other creatures are combined (e.g. humanoids, insects, and plants). In its exuberant fecundity the post-human universe is seductive. Only upon closer inspection is it clear that Talbot renders nature’s revenge — for instance, the River Styx rising against humans’ rapaciousness (the text bubbles name capitalism and greed as primary culprits). But the paintings also weave the human body into sprawling mosaics of fertile, fungible forms, reminding viewers that we’re made of  the same chemical elements found in nature. Knocked off nature’s pedestal, human consciousness may learn from nature’s inbuilt, multiple intelligences, and from our common organic foundation, to survive, then to regrow.   

Dana Schutz’s pre and post-apocalyptic works are based on social scenarios that are recognizable, much like Talbot. Dana Schutz: Le Monde Visible, the first survey of her work in France, curated by Anaël Pigeat at MAM, Paris, and co-organized with the Louisiana Museum in Denmark, is a veritable whirlwind of social dystopias. In the oil painting “Men’s Retreat” (2005) — an eerie grotesque in sickeningly bright colors — grown and middle-aged men wearing neckties, stripped to tank tops, faces painted or blindfolded, frolic at an outdoorsy retreat, yet their expressions convey a peculiar sense of senility and menace. Other tableaux are explicit: “Presentation”A somber crowd watches a vivisection of a living person in 2005.Complacent spectators, who are oblivious of the spectacle, watch a vivisection (of a living subject? “Fanatics”(2005), angry citizens in disguise crowd behind a metal fence barricade. Finally, “Beat Out the Sun” (2018) depicts the absurdist scenario of an inscrutable, cartoonish mob — climate-change deniers, no doubt — marching shoulder to shoulder to attack the scorching disc hovering dangerously low on the horizon.  

While neither Talbot nor Schutz places responsibility for climate-response failure squarely on patriarchal systems, for both artists, specifically female-identified bodies seem central to the world’s post-apocalyptic future. Talbot’s sculpture of a multi-tentacled insect, for instance, features long-haired wigs and nimble humanoid limbs as vestiges of the human, whereas her collages also include breasted figurines evoking ancient deities amid the webby patterns. Talbot doesn’t suggest we tame wild animals, but rather that the resilience and rebirth of the female body is essential to the survival for the entire species. 

In Schutz’s paintings, women are empirical world builders. She paints them as deeply focused, blocking out the surrounds of an encroaching jungle — part greenery, part cement — populated by semi-human and robotic beings. “Civil Planning”The painting (2004), which depicts the scene, satirizes human futility, but also pays wistful tribute to perseverance. In another painting “Reformers” (2004), women lean over a collapsed table, on which a marionette-like figure has broken in half — another frustrated collective effort. 

Though the humanity depicted in most of Schutz’s works suggests an inborn haplessness, she offers some hope for the post-apocalyptic future. In “New Legs”In (2003) a blond, raw-pink-fleshed woman, seated on a beach with no people, is creating a pair legs. Eve reinventing herself in an unpopulated world where she can only depend on her ingenuity. Schutz’s large painting “The Visible World”The show, which is named (2018), is an odyssey that centers on a naked woman, swept by waves onto a rock. A bird perched on the thigh of the woman holds a red ball, possibly a pomegranate, in his open beak. The painting’s opaque symbolism, which may hint at the limits of human empiricism, conveys a sense that this shipwrecked, grief-stricken, somewhat de Kooning-esque creature (the wall text refers to her as a traffic-light-green-eyed Prometheus) may yet be the planet’s only hope. 

Installation view Emma Talbot: The End is the BeginningKesselhaus at Kindl in Berlin
Installation view Emma Talbot: The End is the BeginningKesselhaus at Kindl in Berlin

POLY: A Fluid Show The Kindl Center for Contemporary Art in Berlin (Am Sudhaus 3), Germany, will continue to host the exhibition until February 25, 2019. Solvej Ovesen curated the exhibition.

Emma Talbot: The End is the Beginning Kesselhaus am Kindl (Am Sudhaus 3 in Berlin, Germany) continues through May 26. Kathrin Better curated the exhibition.

Dana Schutz: Le Monde Visible continues at Musée d’Art Moderne (MAM) (11 Avenue du Président Wilson, Paris, France) through February 11. The exhibition was curated by Anaël Pigeat, assisted by Alexandra Jouanneau, and organized by MAM in collaboration with the Louisiana Museum in Denmark.

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