Thursday, November 01, 2007

Men in period dress--all of whom look suspiciously similar--wearing animal masks. Zeppelins milling about. Really, really long panoramic photos--think wider than widescreen. All of this can only mean it's time for another show from collaborators Nicholas Kahn and Richard Selesnick.

Like previous Kahn and Selesnick projects, the objects and images in this show construct an alternative history based loosely on real events--in this case, an iceberg running aground in 1923 off of the coast of Lubeck, Germany. The two artists use this as a jumping of point to examine contemporary crises--global warming, end-of-times rhetoric, inflated currencies.

I last saw Kahn and Selesnick at Irvine's old location in Dupont circle, with their show about lunar expeditions, real and imagined: The Apollo Prophecies. What struck me about that show was the gulf between the beautifully realized 12" X 84" black and white prints--depicting a lost, pre-WWI lunar expedition, pining for a mysteriously foretold Apollo 11 mission--and the crude, Mystery Science Theater 3000-esque props with which they were paired.

Eisbergfreistad doesn't share that disparity. In fact, as handsome as these elongated color prints are, they seem a bit familiar. Sure, there are some arresting images: The card players in Card Game sit in the shadows of a city made from melting ice; they fritter away their presumably now-worthless spoils--hoarded during fears of an impending apocalypse. They all wear overcoats and animal masks, vaguely recalling the monstrous appearance of generals and businessmen in drawings by German artist George Grosz--say, Die Stimme des Volkes, die Stimme Gottes (1920), from the NGA's Dada exhibition.

But still more evocative are the drawings, paintings, and documentary evidence. As Boston Globe writer Mark Feeney points out, a grid of black and white photographs in the show nicely recalls New Objectivism--modern photography from between the wars, as recently highlighted in the Foto show at the NGA. There's also a deck of hand-painted playing cards, featuring medieval-looking imagery--long-legged birds nesting in overcoats; strange thorny vines unfurling against the clear blue sky. Piles of Notgeld have been cast into wheelbarrows, or sewn into winter coats. In Kahn and Selesnick's world, the special Eisbergfriestadt currency, of course, became so inflated as to be utterly worthless, save for generating warmth as either clothing or fuel for fires.

Like the Apollo Prophecies, Eisbergfriestad manages to make the not so distant past seem strange and fantastic, and points out how fluid history is--how our understanding of it is constantly reshaped by events in the present tense. The irony of the iceberg incident in Lubeck, as Kahn and Selesnick point out, is that in a sense, it really was a harbinger of disaster: "Lubeck was the first German city to be fire-bombed in World War II - and, despite being rebuilt, is in danger of flooding due to global warming." In other words: There could be icebergs in Lubeck again soon.

Pictured: Installation shot from Pepper Gallery, Boston, RadfaB, 2007, (Wheelbarrow), wood wheelbarrow and notgeld, 50" X 63"; Card Game, 2007, archival pigmented print, 10" x 72"

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