Each one of us is as old as the entire biological kingdom, and our bloodstreams are tributaries of the great sea of its total memory. The uterine odyssey of the growing foetus recapitulates the entire evolutionary past, and its central nervous system is a coded time scale, each nexus of neurones and each spinal level marking a symbolic station, a unit of neuronic time.
-J.G. Ballard, The Drowned World, 1962
In his novel on ecological calamity, The Drowned World, J.G. Ballard presents readers with a landscape inescapably altered by climate change and the subsequent “terraforming” of the collective human psyche to match the appearance of the new Earth. The tectonic shift in environment effectively sees the remains of humanity being plagued by waking, dream-like states, where memories, not quite theirs, but of those of a collective past tap into the reptilian brain needed for survival, making sense of the new landscape. Likewise, Angelika Markul’s exhibition, If the hours were already counted, on view at Sector 2337, curated by Caroline Picard, presents audiences with a similar scenario. Here, a confrontation with unfamiliar and alien geography draws upon a collective memory to understand the human relation to the sublimity and indifference of the natural world.
Markul’s landscape, however, is not one altered by advanced climate change, but one that never changed at all. If the hours were already counted consists of a spare installation: a short documentary film, a lone drawing, and crystalline wall structure that divides the gallery mimicking the crystal structures of the film’s setting. The wall establishes a scale where the film can analogously consume and immerse the audience in a screen whose scale is commensurate with the geologic cathedral Markul’s images are placed within.
Markul filmed inside of the subterranean Cave of the Crystals (Cueva de los Cristales) under the Chihuahua Desert near Naica, Mexico and discovered in 2000 by two silver miners. Markul delves deep into a cave formed sometime during the last Ice Age, capturing a landscape that is more Land of the Lost than it is Planet Earth. The video component of If the hours were already counted follows two scientists as part of the Naica Project – a search for primordial microorganisms and bacteria in a fashion similar to the search for alien life. Markul’s camera probes the depths of the cave, reaching between crevices and around corners, showing the scientists playing like astronauts making the first contact with an unfamiliar and hostile planet. The Platonic irony of this journey is apparent in how it requires a return to the cave to seek knowledge, and upon the return to this Prehistoric Eden, the seekers encounter an environment that has evolved alongside themselves, out of the general human purview, and in conflict with anthropoid corporeal interests.
This is a landscape where one knows one is not welcome within, but where one wants to stay. The scientists are decked out in suits to prevent the cave’s extreme heat and atmosphere from getting to them, but even that is not enough. The explorers are later shown inside a plastic quarantine chamber with an A/C unit, in two sets of shots that look as if they come from the latest Sci-Fi horror blockbuster. As the film loops within itself (the film never shows a clear entrance or exit from the cave) one cannot shake the dreamlike nature of the exploration. As the film progresses through cycles, the scientists become less like researchers, and more like somnambulists, under the influence of the strange new world, they find themselves trying to navigate. As they go deeper into the cave/dream, those on the opposite side of the screen are invited to follow suit. The journey and its repetition create an empathetic lucid dream, aided by a deep droning sound installation by Simon Ripoll-Hurier. The audio aides in dislocating this documentary from reality and pushes it into the liminal territory between trance and wakefulness, much like the next stage of humanity in Ballard’s novel.
Shot on lush 16mm film stock, whose deep, warm tones and grain shimmers against the wall like the light reflecting off of the crystal structures within the cave. The quality of the film creates moments where the highlights are so bright, the projection separates into spots of RGB, revealing the crystalline structure built into the surface of the film itself and within the lens that projects it. While the grain glistens and lights flicker, Markul’s lens trains itself on an environment whose hostility is as apparent as its beauty. Similarly, time splinters within the cave as well. Anachronism assumes temporal dominance, and it seems inevitable that by the time the wanderers of the cave emerge, the world from whence they came could be equally inhospitable. The unending loop of the film – starting with the scientists entering from a patch of light, and the camera similarly being consumed by the beam of a flashlight at the end constructs a snare where nothing escapes from the cave and its pre-Anthropocene condition. The endless dream of wandering through the landscape searching for life serves as a cautionary tale. A tale where a pre-human discovered world may not be so different than the future of the world that the species has worked so hard to shape. What Markul and Ballard both present their respective audiences is the space where dreams, memory, and experience overlap, and complicate one another’s readings by proximity – ushering in a new ecological condition where our needs may no longer be central to the continuity of the environment.
Since the film was made, the cave has been indefinitely closed to human incursion in order to protect its fragility. The ecosystem that fought against the intrusion of humanity proved itself to be as fragile as the explorers as in the same way that a body tires after fighting off a cold or virus. What was once discovered by chance, has by way of the human accident, been forced to re-enter a state of cloister to protect itself. While scientific exploration may no longer be welcome, Markul’s film and drawing leave behind another dimension of discovery from the cave, that of the strangeness and unknowability of the world, and the way in which the familiar and routine may quickly reveal an unpredictability that humanity can and should no longer feign control over.
– Gareth Kaye
In Handles Expenditure, Liz McCarthy’s sculptural based practice is hidden-in-plain sight. Though, the intention behind the space—a micro-gallery curated by Sharmyn Cruz Rivera that is seen from outside the storefront of Sector 2337—is meant to engage diverse audiences along Milwaukee Avenue. From a distance, the pile of hand-pulled off-white clay pieces look like an elegant, albeit arbitrary, stack of bones.
Encased in what was originally a restaurant menu box, the installation is inevitably intimate—one has to look closely and carefully to notice it all—which is where the curiosity is mostly contained. It is bland, and intentionally so; a reprieve amidst the other slick facades and the formerly dive atmosphere of what is colloquially known as the “hipster highway” of Chicago. Why handles in particular for the small-scale and exhibitionistic aspect of the space? The idea of the handle as part of the vessel is deconstructed in Rivera’s press release. What is anything without its initial function? Can the audience appreciate (or acknowledge) the original form that is absent and implied, if the vessel to each handle ever existed at all? The answer, like the installation, is indirect. The handle-ness of the handle seems to be besides the point.
The subtle violence of the installation is within the site, giving way to a reliquary-esque appeal of placement. These forms, handles to something or not, lay upon another in their non-ness. The gesture is ubiquitous in contemporary art, but most strategically used as a form analogous to the banality of death. Felix Gonzalez-Torres immediately comes to mind with the well-known candy or poster piles. Like Gonzalez-Torres, McCarthy seems to use the cool rhetoric of 1960’s Conceptualism (i.e. white on white, repetition, a box, nihilism) to toy with concept of identity and possibly death, but the poetics get lost in the mire of the intended form.
A handle to a vessel is antiquated but is that what viewers are meant to mourn here? The feminine body as vessel and container hints at the prototypical second-wave Feminist critique but the handle-as-limb in public display loses any dynamic air it might have had. The identity-politic that I believe McCarthy—and by extension, Rivera—wish to work with are better found within the psychic architecture of the site that is full of laborers, stroller moms, tourists and die-hard hipsters. Ultimately, the installation lacks the radical confrontation and certainty that the liminal space has every right to command.
– Brit Barton