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“Truppe Fledermaus & the Carnival at the End of the World,” at Yancey Richardson, might be described as a performance of the imagination. Concocted by two English-born, U.S. educated artists, Nicholas Kahn and Richard Selesnick, the show creates just enough semi-plausible historical authenticity to soften up viewers for the artists’ outlandish – but not impossible – vision of the future.
Kahn and Selesnick have collaborated before – for the past 20 years in fact – creating fictitious histories from both past and future, both on Earth and other planets, that combine impeccably deadpan pseudo-erudition with no-limits weirdness. I have to admit I’ve never seen anything quite like this work. The artists’ mastery of photography, drawing, printmaking, sculpture and creative writing is matched only by their showmen’s fervor to wow their audience. In fact, trying to think of comparisons, I could only come up with the Monty Python Flying Circus –likewise fervently theatrical, over-educated, British and willing to try anything.
These guys are having fun.
The world conjured by this show is framed by an invented traveling theater of hustlers, freaks and spiritualists called “Truppe Fledermaus” (Bat Troupe). The entire wall next to the gallery entrance is covered with posters and handbills advertising the strange offerings of the Truppe. Stylistically, these ads — with copy in German – refer to everything from German Expressionist cinema — “Ich bin Nosferatu” (I am the Vampyre) — to fanciful medical charts – “Tod Frucht” (Death Fruit) – to a colorful, full-figured nude woman covered with roses that suggests P.T. Barnum via Manet — “Das Tatowierte Wunder” (The Tattooed Wonder).
I’m not entirely sure why these ads are funny, but they made me laugh. The artists’ decision to use the German language is part of it. If you’re a linguistically unsophisticated American (like most of us) try booming out “Ich bin Nosferatu!” over and over in a small room and you’ll know why. This prejudice is unfortunate and probably worse than that (I remember my parents telling me about neighbors who refused to take Hitler seriously because his speeches on the radio made them laugh). But, here, as elsewhere in the show, Kahn and Selsenick seem determined to go with their guts. Funny is funny. I’m sure John Cleese would approve.
In the room with the prints are a few sculptures – created, we are told, from “…ceramic, wax, Styrofoam, paint, plaster, glass antlers and silicone caterpillars.” Like the posters, these suggest a new world in which genetic boundaries are exotically shifting. For instance, a bust of a top-hatted man mounted on a tripod is densely covered with pitch black feathers, as though he is morphing toward a new consciousness as a crow. By now it’s clear this theme will repeat throughout the show. Still, with the tangible three-dimensionality of the sculptures, the idea gains a special kind of fetishistic power. I’m guessing many people wouldn’t want this Crow Man to spend the night in their bedroom.
The remainder of the show (five walls out of six) consists of photographs. Taken in both black and white and color with an 8 X 10 view camera, many of these are aesthetically superb (Kahn and Selesnick studied photography together at Washington University). Their technical control provides a wonderful incongruity with the subject matter, which is primitive and truly bizarre. It’s not clear if the Truppe Fledermausers themselves are taking part in the activities or simply witnessing them. “At the end of the world” I’m not sure it matters.
Human populations have collapsed. Individuals and small groups of humans make their way on foot, by hand-drawn primitive wagons and carts or in rough canoes, through a bleak, boggy, apparently drowning world of rampant vegetation and mutant creatures. When they gather in groups it seems to be for the purpose of creating strange tableux or engaging in wild revels of unclear purpose.
Nearly everyone wears a mask. From Hieronymous Bosch alone, the artists have stolen bird beaked, owl-eared and wide-eyed grinning demon masks. Furry bat (fledermaus) masks are also popular and, in a pinch, simple Ku Klux Klan-style bags with cut-out eyeholes, pulled down over the face, seem to work.
It’s a wild, wild world.
Climate change and rising sea levels are clearly the subtext here, although the artists’ invented future has little in common with what we might expect from a real post-warming planet. Instead of huge ruins and the ubiquitous trash of billions (whether or not killed off by plagues) — we get deserted swamps, bogs, mudflats, dunes, beaches, rocky outlooks and placid bodies of water.
Apparently, we are returning forward to a world of harsh threats and magical remedies. In this woefully primitive world even the most basic technologies of the past have been erased (perhaps by trauma?). In response Nature Herself seems to be trying something new. Parts are being swapped among humans, other mammals, birds, fish and plants to produce human-other hybrids. Among the shambling-bramble-plant-humans alone we see Yew Man, Lichen Man, Seaweed Man and the more generic Greenman, who starred in an earlier Kahn & Selesnick show, “The Pavilion of the Greenman,” in 1997.
All this may not convince as dystopia, but it’s a wild, wild world that thoroughly seduces in other ways.
I’ll end this review by describing two favorite pictures that represent the blend of obsessive earthbound intensity and wacky lift-off humor that makes these images so unusual.
One: A young woman in Victorian dress is running away, across a drab, wintry field, holding up her petticoats. From her piled-up hair two giant antlers rise against the sky. I can feel this woman’s distress. It could be Jane Eyre fleeing in tears from Mr. Rochester. I want to save her.
Two: Next to a curving river, Leaf Man, an artist sights over his brush at his portrait of his Leaf Man friend. Done posing, the friend sits in a chair, looking happy. The two Leaf Men are having a jolly chat. What a pleasant way to make art, they are saying.