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Fantasies of societal ruin are an aesthetic well that never runs dry. Apocalyptic predictions seem inevitable, particularly in the contemporary era—a dire future arcing out of the terror and frustration of the present. Ruminations on the end times saturate artworks with speculative science fiction and predictive environmental disasters. More generally, “Y2K” fears echo back: in the lead-up to the year 1000, similar choirs of doom sounded at the prevailing theological thought that “mundus senescit”, or “the world grows old.”1
Bradford Kessler’s Anxiety Social Club at ASHES/ASHES concerned itself with the contemporary terror and vertigo of all-pervading ideology rather than the year 1000s damnings of an angry God. The show’s press release quotes Žižek: “The ruling ideology today is basically something like a vague hedonism with a Buddhist touch.”2 Kessler stepped on the gas pedal of this notion, portraying a wrecked world that, if not post-apocalyptic, was caught irretrievably in accelerating decay.
Kessler’s graffiti murals, sleek, white mannequins in bullet-and stab-proof body armor, and Photoshopped wall collages were framed as a “Žižekian horror” that “explore[d], if not admire[d], the violent beauty of man’s natural descent into savagery” (emphasis mine). Civilization, what’s left of it in the projected world of Anxiety Social Club, anyway, is framed as an unnatural ascent, resistant to the savagery inherent in both ideology and humanity itself.
Kessler tempered his own work throughout with pieces by a handful of other artists. These flourishes of an almost-Buddhist sort—the relative calm of Ajay Kurian’s Modernist houses-cum-fish bowls, a gently folded pile of fleshy material by Ivana Basic—marked the distorted landscape, offering a teaspoon of contrast amidst Kessler’s harsh aesthetic.
However convincing Kessler’s critique, ham-fisted allusions were the rule: from corrupted innocence in the gun-wielding child of Maybe It’s Only Us, to class in the bloody handprints stalking out of a pair of broken wine glasses in May we live in interesting times. Is the latter an indictment of high society or a Bane-like manifesto to violently dispense with the rich? Whether literal punishment or metaphorical decadence, the viewer was caught between fatiguing mixed messages.
The tangible mania of current events is directly referenced in Michael Assiff’s Vent (Santa Barbara Spill, #ShellNo) (2015), a vinyl print applied to a steel vent grate low on the wall. Its hodgepodge subjects range from the environmental disasters of GMO technology and the Santa Barbara oil spill, to the sociopolitical force of Caitlyn Jenner. Kessler, meanwhile, conjured a tempered foreboding out of a predictable juxtaposition between advertising’s inflationary false promises and a tribal militarism, steeped in Hollywood-style terror.
Despite all of the work having been made in 2015, an uncanny datedness marked the exhibition, echoing out of ‘80s horror touchstones: schlocky special effects (the false flesh of Basic’s piece3.
, the Chucky head from Kessler’s In the Belly of the Gar) and the doomsday ideology of Mad Max. Shiny mannequins clad in body armor and bearing clawed weapons (Soft-Bodied Story and David [Trust Fiend Baby]) struck with potent, chilling and understated effect, in sharp contrast to the hysteria of Maybe It’s Only Us’s gun-toting preadolescent; the hybrid human-arachnid motif stamped onto their suits resembled a pseudo-religious totem for a new post-apocalyptic culture. The detritus strewn about their feet presented an image of civilization effectively frozen in decline.
Žižek argues elsewhere4that, whatever ideology’s internal contradictions, attempts at resolution only tear away at the distortions of reality that form our very ground of existence. Beyond ideology lies the horror and dissolution of The Real, or what Tricky might call the “Really Real.”5. England: Domino, 2010.] In Kessler’s bombed-out world, the instability of ideology has come to fruition, wreaking a havoc survived mainly by insects and caricatures.
The apocalypse is perhaps most potent when it looms on the horizon, less as a reality than a myth. So long as it never actually arrives, its power to evoke and terrify becomes exponentially greater. Kessler’s approach favored visual chaos over a nuanced understanding of entropy, a principle that draws its destabilizing power in part by sharply contrasting with order. This contrast forms a central characteristic of civilization itself—something ignored in Anxiety Social Club’s language of extremes, in which humanity itself, struggling through its own demise, is little more than an eerie silence.
This review was originally published in Carla issue 3.