The End of the World (As We Know It), or, Smiling Through the Apocalypse
The 2008-2009 art season in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.A. has been bracketed by apocalypse, though nobody planned it that way.
Wm. Turner Gallery’s Matthew Rose exhibition “The End of the World” opened, purely by chance, a day or two after the beginning of America’s financial crisis of mid-September, causing one viewer (me) to misremember the title consistently as though it had been borrowed from the song from another season of financial and cultural upheaval, “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (and I Feel Fine).” (“Smiling Through the Apocalypse” is the title of a completely unrelated book.)
In the parts of the world dominated by Peoples of the Book, apocalyptic thinking has wrung multiple metaphoric meanings from history: the end of the world has often been a vision of renovatio or of the Great Instauration of ultimate perfection rather than of the end of all things. (But note that 1 Peter’s “the end of all things is at hand” would have remained in the Christian scriptures even if the Revelation to John on Patmos had been expunged by the church councils, and Islamic and Jewish visions of the sky rolled up like a scroll are firmly fixed in the words of the respective scriptures.)
But rather than running off to the loci classici of books by Norman Cohn or Ernst Bloch, let’s note that Georgia State University has just opened a summerlong (through August 12) “Images of the Apocalypse” exhibition, giving us often paradoxically lovely new work by Stephanie Kolpy, Etienne Jackson, and many others. (Dahlan Foah’s video of images of the apocalypse contains some images that aren’t entirely of the End Times—Dante’s tripartite Inferno-Purgatorio-Paradiso being the pre-apocalyptic arrangement that will, as Dante tells us, be greatly modified when time shall be no more—but the point here is the structure of the human imagination, and its repeated returns to the issues associated with the sense of an ending.)
The G.S.U. exhibition is primarily about the contemporary religious and secular responses to notions of the end of all things. These begin with the imaginative consequences of Christian fundamentalists’ expectations of the Rapture or of the Second Coming, depending on their particular version of Protestant theology. (See my citation in a previous post of the bluegrass song in which the lyrics’ response to a beautiful day is to think about how great it would be to have all this loveliness abruptly brought to an end in the ultimate Beautiful Day…it’s part of a dialectic that is at least as old as the prophet Amos’s “Woe to you who desire the day of the Lord! Why would you have the day of the Lord? It is darkness, and not light….”)
The Gospel’s declaration of a final judgment in which those who did not feed the hungry or visit the sick and prisoners will be sent into everlasting fire isn’t the predominant model of the Apocalypse these days. Prevailing imaginative models are more like…well, let’s not go there, but get back to the art at G.S.U.
For in any case, the art responds more often to the other current models of the apocalypse, secular but nevertheless archetypal expectations of imminent machine-based or nuclear obliteration and/or environmental catastrophe. If we are about to (metaphorically speaking) topple over the cliff as in one of Kolpy’s images, the issue is whether we can pull ourselves back from the brink.
And all the old predilections show up in these latest incarnations of an ancient imaginative structure. The recent pastoral visit by Daniel Pinchbeck to the faithful in the evolver.net(work), discussed in an earlier post, reveals an approach to the anticipated end of all things that ranges from the ultimate optimism that Pinchbeck claims as revealed truth (articulated by the elders) to others’ gleeful or apprehensive expectations of utter destruction instead of fundamental positive transformation. Those who believe themselves to be relentlessly secular are still enraptured by images of an ending that have more to do with ancient modes and models than with realistic statistical mappings of what is most likely to come.
And that version of visionary expectation makes the vehement comic-book weirdness of Leisa Rich’s “Beauty from the Beast” of particular interest. Rich’s show, at Callanwolde Fine Arts Center through August 28, features a 3-D garden of soft sculptures that imagines the vegetal forms evolved through the mutation with the physical detritus left behind following humankind’s extinction; the forms, which quote the shapes of actual flowers, incorporate hundreds if not thousands of cut-up plastic straws, recycled carpet samples, recycled food labels, and too many other found materials to list comfortably.
This lush garden of all too earthly post-artificial delights pretty much covers the floor of the gallery; the walls contain a stitched and collaged oversized comic book wiping out the planet (or actually, just the United States’ portion of it) in eight concisely imagined disasters: “Pacific Northwest Megathrust Earthquake,” “N.Y.C. Hurricane,” “Asteroid Impact” (that could take care of everybody else, too), “L.A. Tsunami,” “Supervolcano,” “Midwest Earthquake,” “Heat Waves” (that would also be sufficient to finish off the rest of the planet), and “East and West Coast Tsunami.”
The environmental apocalypse may arrive whether anyone tries to stop it or not; certain Pacific and Indian Ocean island countries are making real-life plans to evacuate. Nuclear proliferation remains whatever threat level it always was, even if the scenarios for total obliteration shift.
The alternate positive version of the apocalyptic vision, of the renewal of all things, is changing moment by historical moment just as past political versions of apocalyptic thinking did; as predicted a couple of generations ago, the revolution will not be televised, but we are in an era when forces that came to power through yesterday’s technologies now confront the elusive counterforces of digital networks. The end of the end will not be what was born in dreams at the beginning.
Which is how the imagination of apocalypse, for good or for ill, has also always played out. Our beginnings never know our ends, but as the pre-post-millennialist voice called from the audience at Pinchbeck’s appearance at Eyedrum, we know what we wish would happen.