Society forces us to believe that anything is possible in the future. While we may speculate about upcoming events in the days, weeks or even years to come, we would rarely be brave enough to say that what lies ahead is certain. However, a new exhibition at Calvert 22 subverts all of this, purporting that it is the past in fact, and not the future, that is unpredictable.
Curated by Monika Lipšic, The Future is Certain; It’s the Past Which is Unpredictable is based on an old Soviet joke. If one thinks about it though, this statement could easily be applied to how we interpret modern history. How many times have scholars discovered new pieces of information that have completely restructured our understanding of the past? Probably too many to count. And, while it would not be sensible to say that the future is certain, there are many aspects about impending events that we can predict.
Covering a large panel on one of the main gallery walls Горы от Ума is written in bold black text against a white backdrop. The translation of Slavs and Tartars’ work reads ‘mountains of wit’, perhaps an affirmation of the joke on which the exhibition has been founded. The whole display – spread across two floors – is bizarre, disjointed and unexpected. The artwork has all been drawn from available sources, carefully managed in order to produce further resources of different value. Just like its title, the show is unpredictable and throws the viewer’s understanding of what they thought was unchangeable, completely out of the window.
Of the nine artists contributing to the multimedia display, perhaps the most striking work is Felix Kalmenson’s Atlas, 2017. Within a gem-like carcass of a shell is a series of video screens in which a rotating figure of Atlas – one of the Titans punished for revolting against Zeus – rotates slowly to disorienting music. He appears menacingly against an orange background. The work has been described as a personification of time, though it is not clear what it is trying to communicate. Perhaps its cyclical movements are there to remind us that even when an event has become a piece of history; the past always catches up with us in one-way or another.
Also of note is Jura Shust’s Spirit Intoxication, which comprises a series of wine glasses joined together and filled with a lime green liquid. Presented against a bear brick wall and among an abundance of leafy plants, one might be forgiven for assuming that the installation is an avant-garde piece of domestic wall-art. However, Shust’s offering reflects on the sphere of consciousness and human thought: the concept of ‘noosphere.’ Beside this Juan Pablo Villegas has installed Moneda, a mirror constructed from the silver of analogue film slides that look like they have been engraved with constellations. The title Moneda comes from the Greek goddess of memory, reflecting on how events that have previously been recorded – in this case through film – can be completely repackaged to appear as something different.
‘The past is a force that needs work’, says the press release, which purports that history is ‘a source of imagery’ and ‘an object for thought.’ This may explain why nearly half of the work produced by the nine artists and collectives on display are videos. These films come in the form of Jonas Mekas’s discussion of his past life as a bumblebee, Emilija Škarnulytė’s discovery of a mermaid in Norway and Emily Newman’s revisiting of a Soviet expedition to the Arctic in 1933.
On one wall Newman displays medals besides papers that look as though they have been taken from a children’s colouring book. The images that form The New Chelyuskinites have been filled in with bright shades using pencils and felt tip pens and the colour often runs outside the lines. The resulting images of historical scenes seem less serious than they are probably intended to be. Surrounding these sheets anecdotes appear in Cyrillic that have been printed upside down, therefore questioning the authority of what they have to say.
While much of the art on display is futuristic in its use of technology and video, it also pays homage to traditional and even prehistoric materials. Textiles are included in the form of dolls hanging from walls and a European dream-hunting blanket with a map stitched on top. Rather than Happiness’s deep blue textile is titled Khazar Mythology and is populated by a mystical sky-blue horse with flames coming out of its face and hooves. The creature is seen trotting through an abyss of navy fields, besides pink seas and through salt lakes and mountains. There are also bones lying around the exhibition space. They could be prehistoric, but the lack of wall text throughout the whole display leaves us guessing, forcing the viewer to decide on what might be the past and what could be the future on their own.
The Future is Certain aims to rewrite history, or at least subvert our understanding of it. Maps are inverted, historical records are displayed under new lights and the past is stripped of the badge it once wore that said ‘fact.’ In a film about the show Lipšic cites Walter Benjamin, explaining: ‘to treat the past historically does not mean to recognise it the way it really was.’ Lipšic and her artists do just that, they look at the past, they accept that it has been documented in an accepted way, and then they ask why through visual means. The resulting display is a fascinating and thought-provoking look into how we interpret history.
The Future is Certain is on display at Calvert 22 until 20 August