‘Gazing at the Catastrophe’ by Natalya Serkova

James Ballard’s novel Crash was published in 1973. Its main protagonists staged and participated in real car-crashes so as to later have sex in these deformed, crashed cars. Stab wounds from the particles of glass flying asunder, blood on the dashboards and the crumpled parts of the vehicles provided the necessary setting for these games. Not only did Ballard show that speed, pain and adrenaline had become the new sexual fetish: at the turning point of the plot it was not the brand new auto, but the catastrophe itself that became the trigger for the sexual arousal and the satisfaction of sexual desire. The heavier the collision, the harder the lovers in the car were hit, the bigger the damage for the vehicle, with its parts sent flying in every possible direction, the closer the characters came to achieving the goals of each new car accident. The book was written at the time when the the so-called Shock Doctrine was actively promoted all over the world, and it would seem that from that time on we have all been living on the brink of a delayed catastrophe, the catastrophe that is spreading in the constantly approaching waves, and that has become the main stimulus for development and change.

Any catastrophe, whether it is the destruction of indigenous civilizations of Mesoamerica by the European colonizers, the 1917 revolution in Russia, or the future catastrophe that is yet to come, inevitably transforms the very structure of the place in which it enfolds. This transformation does not only affect the changing physical, material appearance of certain objects, but also – and more profoundly – the very texture of whatever it is that is changing. The bearers of catastrophe alter languages, calendars and religions upon the decimated territories. Even if there is no one or nothing left to change upon the cleared up terrain, it is bound to be occupied sooner or later by the new religion, calendar and language. However, all the three things contain within them the same key aspect, namely, time, which is always the first to be subject to change. When disaster strikes, time can accelerate and move at the speed of a lightning, compressing events and spaces, or it can expand and stretch, rarefying air until there is a vacuum, and it can stop altogether and stand dead still, freezing the moment of demise. Catastrophe creates temporal “funnels” and black holes, that are easy to sink into and almost impossible to get out of. Catastrophe is always the future that suddenly unfolded wrong side foremost and rushed towards us all too quickly. Unable to move we are frozen in space, staring into its approaching face for what might be a split second or ages.

In that sense we always know what awaits us before it actually happens in real life. To be staring into the face of the future that rushes towards us means dying long before the city succumbs to the epidemic of a lethal virus, or crashing into a house during the landing and hear the weeping of one’s loved ones by your grave when the plane is gaining altitude during the takeoff, or it means seeing your own limbs scattered all over the ground while you are driving your brand new “Honda” out of the garage. The world and us have long been dead, and we all just need to wait for the moment when all of this happens. Such recognition of the past future becomes the way for us to at least capture the wave radiated by the catastrophe that has already occurred, if not to prevent it from happening altogether. To do that one no longer needs to accelerate the still too slow movement the way Ballard’s characters do. On the contrary, one has to freeze and listen to the sound of the slowly torn metal in sudden silence.

This is exactly what artists Monia Ben Hamouda and Michele Gabriele do in their show “It will not only kill you, it will hurt the whole time you’re dying”. Torn, deformed, entangled, strange objects create such an environment around them in which decelerating time almost stands still and rarifies the air. Thus, a space is constructed in which, it would seem, some catastrophe has just happened very recently, but the dust and ashes have already settled, the noise of the houses that come crumbling down has died away, and whatever had been alive before the catastrophe struck has found peace among the wreckage. Only the fish, having survived, perhaps, thanks to their silent existence within their own temporality, swim noiselessly in the broken down fridge, their monotonous movements seems to suggest that these are, indeed, the very qualities required in order to survive the apocalypse.

In fact, any apocalypse is extremely humane, and to survive it means to get rid of anything that can hint at your relatedness with things human. This is what makes it impossible to grasp either the affiliation or the purpose of the rest of the objects in the show: these shapes and ties do their best to deny any possibility of past contact with people, if there has ever been such contact in the first place. Only the volleyballs have to be torn into pieces and absorb the remains of some organic substance, the rest of the objects look as if they have existed in this out-of-human state from the get-go. When we were kids we used to be told that only roaches were going to survive the nuclear apocalypse, because in case of emergency they would be able to feed on plastic and radioactive waste. This renunciation of animal life and the merger and productive interaction with the inanimate matter will allow roaches to start afresh the process of evolution on the planet. By ignoring and erasing from their memory all those who have possibly produced them at some point, (albeit not single-handedly) these objects qualify for the existence “beyond”, in the “aftermath”.

While humans stand no chance of surviving, the thing still do. This has a lot to do with the fact that we still do not know all there is to know about material objects. It is not that things seek to convey to us something secret about themselves. Rather, it is in our interests to discern something in things that can salvage us from the human, all too human and to use it to our own advantage. However, in order to be capable of this discerning gaze we should live, feel and see the way things do. The more complete the congruence (that can never be absolute in the first place) with the eternally dead, the more vital we ultimately can hope to become. As if to amplify such congruence the objects of “It won’t only kill you, it will hurt the whole time you’re dying” unfold their “entrails” in front of us, while the layout of the exhibition space resembles the operating table in a sterile tiled room. It is not the outcome of the procedure but rather the very process of examining the objects and gazing at them that becomes its focal point. And yes, it does hurt. We have to look at things at a different angle, to eschew familiar cause-effect relationships and to adapt our own pace to the pace of these things. But these things are static, frozen, immobile, they have dropped out of the temporal flows disrupted by the catastrophe, or rather, they had dropped out of them even before the destruction began. In essence, they have never belonged to the conventional time that we are used to, and if we are to really see this thing we will have to renounce this conventional time, too.

But what does it mean for a person to drop out of the flow of time? It means that you can become anything and everything: a stone, a universe, a speck of dust, a tiny dot, but not a human being. It means that one has to balance in the eternal “here and now”, inscribing it with the movements past and future, it means being able to discern the voices of those who used to be separated from us with a wall of a different temporality, and to fear not whatever once threatened to destroy the usual course of events. To drop out of the flow of time today means to move from the familiar spot and to come to a thing. On the one hand, a material object is physically present in the “here”, but on the other, it always flickers, shimmers at the boundary between the recognizable and the unrecognized, while prompting us to come as close as possible to that boundary. Among the elements of specific objects displayed at the show one can discover a sausage, fur, the aforementioned balls, bones, bottles with household chemicals and Turkish delights. The thing whispers: “I am here, I am what you have always known about me”, while turning and shifting its parts in such a way as to force the viewer to go all the way (and way out of his or her way) in order to really understand what is going on here.

This narrative constructed by the exhibits will ultimately become the very act of gazing, examining, the process of renouncing the conventional time and logic, renouncing the catastrophe itself. This is the crux of the paradox: one has to go through the catastrophe in order to annul it for good. One has to come near, to match the inanimate matter in order to attain supreme vitality. It is obvious that it is going to be a different kind of vitality: the scenography inside “It won’t only kill you, it will hurt the whole time you’re dying” seems to unfold this interval, this intervening gap of transition from one state to the other. We are still here, surrounded by sausages, fur and Turkish delights, which still contain a slight trace of the past life and of the passing time. We feel an acute urge to capture these traces, yet at the same time we are already in a place where such ties to conventional reality have ceased to matter or have any impact on anything whatsoever. The frozen objects only hint at something ethereal, outwardly, foreign, yet one has to be ready to witness the deus ex machinа wrecking a catastrophe and wiping us out together with whatever is left in its aftermath.

Monia Ben Hamouda, “Still Broken”, 2017

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