What is an artist to do when the world just keeps accelerating and you always seem to be lagging one step behind your own time? Living in a technological age where images are produced, distributed and consumed in a single, sweeping movement, is there even a place where we can speak about this development? This issue formed the starting point of the exhibition Welcome Too Late at Kunsthal Charlottenborg, where curator Toke Lykkeberg has put together a show with few works, but many sweeping claims.
Based on the assumption that the here and now is growing increasingly elusive and ephemeral, thereby becoming ever more difficult to capture and relate to artistically, Lykkeberg sets up the concept of “the extemporary” – meaning art which, unlike contemporary art, rises above the moment to focus on wider-ranging, less tangible time frames. As the captions on the walls paradoxically point out, one of the current trends is for contemporary art to zoom out and address movements that are more wide-ranging in scope than the most narrowly topical issues.
However, the first works that greet you as you enter the exhibition can hardly be said to stand outside of time. In fact, US artist Parker Ito – whom Lykkeberg originally introduced to Danish audiences at the now-defunct Copenhagen exhibition venue IMO – is very much a child of an ever-accelerating technological development where content is produced and consumed at a rapid pace. In his highly eye-catching installation he illustrates the Internet’s ability to connect and convey information through vertical pink LED chains and a sculptural reference to the Nintendo game Pesterminator, where gamers must frantically fight mutated pests to prevent them from breeding and taking over the planet.
With impish curatorial boldness, Ito’s work is juxtaposed with a small clip from a documentary film about the Impressionist artist Claude Monet (Ceux de chez nous from 1915, directed by Sasha Guitry), who has, perhaps more than anyone else, been hailed as an exponent of “capturing the moment” in paint. Apart from the obvious connection inherent in the fact that Ito and Monet both fight a seemingly hopeless struggle against the speed with which each precious, fleeting moment is replaced by another, they also both seem to be fighting invasive species: Ito pits himself against mutated rats, while Monet struggles with the water lilies in his lake at Giverny, said to be spreading at an exponential rate. Incorporating Monet is a funky choice of the kind that earns you plenty of curator credibility points, but it is also strategically clever because this protects Lykkeberg against an obvious critique: that the extemporary is simply a new movement within contemporary art.
The exponential growth of the water lilies leads directly to an installation by an artist from a slightly older generation than Ito: Mexican artist Eduardo Terrazas, who takes his starting point in the book The Limits to Growth. Way back in 1972 the authors of this report (Donella H. Meadows, Dennis L. Meadows, Jørgen Randers and William W. Behrens III) put the climate crisis on the agenda by concluding that continued exponential growth would prove fatal to the future of humanity and our planet. In a dizzyingly beautiful installation of mirrors and video screens – perfect fodder for selfies – Terrazas illustrates how graphics visualising scientific calculations can predict the consequences of exponential growth up until a certain point where everything becomes dark and unpredictable. From that point on anything might happen.
The idea of the constant acceleration of time appears in e.g. the work of the French theorist Paul Virilio. In his central work Speed and Politics from 1977 he puts forward the idea that the inherent logic of acceleration is that it is always increasing, and that the way the world is arranged is an effect of this increased speed. For both Virilio and Terraza, the final outcome is that you end up at a point where everything is omnipresent and gathered at a single point, meaning that time and space as we know it will be suspended.
This is to say that in spite of the acceleration that drives these developments, we are still dealing with an entirely classic linear progression: only at the end of technology as we know it are the frameworks of temporality blown away. In this sense, the concept of acceleration and the idea of chronic exponential growth are akin to classical and religious notions about the apocalypse where we are moving at ever-growing speed towards a specific point in history, a catastrophe, where the world as we know it ends, possibly paving the way for a utopian world instead. It is interesting to note how any “contemporary” age, regardless of its own position within history, always seems to believe that the most important, all-embracing changes take part within that particular age – even if those observers know perfectly well that every epoch has its own cultural and technological shifts, and that such shifts often cause only slight changes in the culture.
Tue Greenfort addresses this very issue in an installation that also takes its starting point in The Limits to Growth. By comparing cover illustrations from various editions and translations of the book he illustrates how the idea of exponential growth incorporates a duality in itself: it represents a dystopian view and a defence of the status quo, but at the same time it can also be regarded as a progressive movement towards more sustainable development – a new kind of utopia rather than a process of mere unravelling and destruction.
The first part of the show – featuring Terrazas, Greenfort, Ito and Monet – involves a fierce struggle to capture the present before it becomes the past, but throughout the rest of Welcome Too Late a range of different perceptions of time and space are joined up with much less resistance. In anarchist fashion, Iain Ball’s work cuts between new age, animism, psytrance, geology and hypermodern technology on the basis of associative and aesthetic principles, culminating in the hybrid form of a fossil in a rave outfit. Visually similar are the works of Marguerite Humeau and Katja Novitskova: in two of the most widely depicted works from 2016 they drag the past through a wormhole into an undefined future.
Novitskova’s work, originally shown at the Berlin Biennial, depicts a bull – a cultic symbol of fertility and growth – being devoured by a fire nourished by fossil fuels generated by that same growth. Humeau’s dying elephant, previously displayed in Paris and Nottingham, plays with the idea of how modern gene technology might allow us to conjure up a species that was only prevented from coming into being by a random mutation of genes.
The whole thing is an unusually audacious, and very Lykkebergian, move: basing an entire exhibition on a homespun concept and then getting some of the most highly hyped international artists of the age to corroborate that concept. Featuring only seven works, the show unfolds an impressive array of perspectives on the directions in which the (un)holy alliance of technology, nature and humanity is taking the world, and given the highly diverse subject matter the show has a surprisingly homogenous visual feel. The aesthetics of these works employ a smooth, hip, Western, technology-celebrating ideal that might make one ponder the question: whose present, exactly, has become so difficult to catch?