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In their new exhibition at LA Artcore, Souvenirs, Vanessa Holyoak and Antoine Chesnais skillfully lay out speculative narratives where the absence of humans is outlined by the objects they have left behind. Arranged like a quasi-museum display, Souvenirs comprises four distinct sections, each of which presents a different narrative of absence and disappearance. Specimen jars and gloomy terrariums allude to a future landscape altered by environmental collapse, where humans no longer exist. By imagining what is left behind in the wake of climate devastation, Souvenirs provides a thoughtful exploration of how it feels to move through a time marked by ecological loss. While wandering through the dimly lit, fog-filled gallery, I endeavored to decode the various narratives, relying on the discarded objects as my compass. However, I encountered a deliberate sense of resistance along the way.
In the first gallery, The Last Night of the Year (2023) presents a still tableau—an unoccupied table and chair seemingly abandoned by an unknown figure in the midst of a natural disaster. The gentle glow of a solitary lamp casts its light upon a poem inscribed within the pages of an open notebook. A meditation on the last night of the year, the poem alludes to feelings of isolation and the passage of time. Meanwhile, the sound of BBC Scotland radio fills the gallery with transmissions featuring interviews with survivors of natural disasters. Tucked to the side of the table, Collected specimens (Helensburgh, Scotland, December 2021) (2023) comprises ordinary objects carefully arranged in labeled specimen jars on a metallic shelf. Recalling the corner of a researcher’s lab, the collection includes a tuft of moss, cigarette butts, and a love letter, among other artifacts—everyday items that have become relics, possibly recovered during empirical research. In this vision of what remains in the aftermath of disaster, the artists hint at the presence of a figure dedicated to documenting the traces of a vanishing landscape, a stirring image that juxtaposes absence and presence to express feelings of inaction and dread.
Nearby, Holyoak and Chesnais have delicately installed photographs of objects similar to those in Collected specimens within the confines of four illuminated glass terrariums placed on somber black pedestals. Although taken with an iPhone, these images evoke the stylized essence of traditional studio photography through their carefully crafted mise en scène and lighting. In Souvenir H1811 (2023), a photograph of a crushed beer can leans against a rock covered in moss and autumn leaves. While terrariums are typically produced to foster and cultivate plant life, the decaying plants contained within Holyoak and Chesnais’ terrariums are instead captured as photographs. Thus, the terrariums are transformed into obscure memorials for our contemporary lifestyle. By presenting their audience with a vision of the future where remnants of plants and human trash are the sole records of our existence, the artists weave a narrative about the fragility of our environment and our own future. Through its carefully arranged immersive environment, Souvenirs invite us to dwell in the murky spaces between absence and presence, where traces of the past emerge as potent signifiers of environmental collapse.
Souvenirs runs from August 17–September 17, 2023 at LA Artcore (120 Judge John Aiso St., Los Angeles, CA 90012).