Unit London, January 6-February 13, 2021
(Images courtesy of the gallery)
by Jacob Hicks
The conception of science fiction in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus illuminates the horror of desiring immortality, which is never-the-less sought continuously, from our earliest surviving literature-The Epic of Gilgamesh, (and surely before) to now. After the death of his companion Enkidu, a wild man built by the god’s, Gilgamesh invariably learns that “life, which you look for, you will never find. For when the gods created man, they let death be his share, and life withheld in their own hands.”
Transhumanism, born of and fodder for so many works of science fiction, exudes this same impulse, the longing for physical immortality and the innate terror of death. Could we, as humans, manipulate the world according to our own irrational precepts, our fear of death and our egocentricity, to stave off the loss of self, using technology to metamorphosize into something both us and other?
As I speak, we are doing it. We have always been doing it, since the first stone thrown, stick sharpened, pair of glasses worn. Consider the commonplace practice of replacing bones with titanium simulations. Consider transporting our consciousness inside the rapidly evolving realm of virtual reality. Is our quest against expiration innate and natural or unholy like the Frankenstein’s corpse amalgam? Does it dehumanize and isolate us like the characters in Jeremy Olson’s exhibition, or is it what makes us human?
I bring up these stories, concepts and questions because I see them proposed at a slant, that is to say poetically, in the transformed tomes of humanness that are the characters in Olson’s work. Isolated science fictions, the inanimate animated, and cartoon revelries-both charming and unnerving-inhabit stylish interiors nested in a further distanced dystopian vista parallel to the one we all find ourselves, in the real world, in. Chopped down forests and dilapidated alleyways sit as tertiary views beyond the containment architectures of Olson’s caricatures. They are pacing, gazing or bored in repose in safe recessed equilibriums.
In housesitter, an asymmetrical pipe with asymmetrical breasts and piercing asymmetrical blue eyes- lounging on a yellow and orange retro designer couch-gazes with one eye to a flame burning from a glass oil lamp, and with the other eye at itself in a mirror. Both eyes are turned away from a chemical green sky and looming mountain-scape just outside a round window. The sitter is divorced from what exists outside of its apartment biosphere. It itself is a leaky pipe, some putrid pollution is pooling on a wooden floor.
In boundaries of sentiment, two wolf octopodes in retro science fiction containment ships shyly hold intestine-like tube hands and watch a sunset under a minimalist concrete balcony (which reminds me of the 80’s downtown Dallas brutalist architecture used as settings in the movie Robocop).
In flesh horizon, a menacing green-eyed head of cauliflower grimaces before a deforested landscape. It doesn’t look happy to be exposed to the dystopian elements that its brethren creatures of neighboring paintings are all mostly sheltered from. Hewn tree stumps are tangled below a red horizon.
The characters Olson paints are not cartoons or fantasies, they are surreal amalgams of captive and distorted humans, held hostage by the broader systems of hierarchy and control they unconsciously create and enforce. They recall seminal surrealists like Max Ernst, particularly his image The Elephant Celebes, where machine parts and the debris of industrialization animate into beastly figures before a polluted sky.
These pieces also make me think about the similarities of contemporary privileged upper-middle-class Americans and animals in zoo exhibits as defined in John Berger’s grouping of essays called Why Look at Animals.
The animal and the upper-middle-class American are both privileged in being constantly afforded the necessities of existence-shelter, food, clean water, etc. but both are also trapped in an external system out of their control. Both have the immediate appearance of safety and advantage, a controlled aesthetic made to look like nature for the animal or pleasure as material wealth for the person. Both have the constant and pressing existential threat of instability. For the animal it is the instinctual and omnipresent fear of the intruder, for the person it is the potential to lose the stability of income, safety, or health (which is more and more constantly threatened as our social order degenerates under the weight of a waning democracy and the purposefully uneducated masses). The threat of exposure to the unregulated realities of a chaotic truth outside the illusion of stasis brings both a satiating comfort and an irrefutable frustration at being trapped. I like to think the animal’s dream becomes the desecration of its captor, the American’s anger at captivity is satiated through substance and consumerism, both are their own kind of violence. It is important to understand that the threat of upset to equilibrium is key to the survival of the system itself, it creates commerce for the human who needs to constantly consume goods and services to placate their unconscious discomfort in captivity and it brings the potential of exciting danger for the zoo visitor.
John Berger compared Francis Bacon’s room-bound ghost-faced men to the animal human hybrids of Walt Disney. Think of Mickey Mouse or Goofy, both have clothed human bodies and the head of animals. The thing that is most funny about a man with the head of a dog is his powerlessness, his utterly apparent placeless-ness, tragedy and humor being the same.
Do you remember the cartoons where Goofy is going about the daily business of a 1950’s middle-class American? For example, he is driving to work at rush hour with a male narrator explaining this everyday ritual like an ethnographer. Berger says the disembodied ghosts of Bacon’s compositions illicit the same muse as Disney’s composite characters, the muse of the imprisoned, the caged, the out of place. I see Olson as a direct continuation of this strange lineage, one further down the line that is closer to an imminent unraveling of humanness in the age of the Anthropocene.
As the caged animal we have two options. We can sit in our temporary cells of comfort and frustration and ignore the unraveling, staring at our social media mediated reflection and pretending that this dead end can lead us to immortality rather than to a digital Necropolis.
Our other option is more challenging, because it requires us to sacrifice the illusion of comfort. It is to escape our individual containers by pushing against the tide of dystopian truths with community, humanism, art, education and the sciences, embracing and healing alongside cultures we have so long desecrated, remembering our immortality rests not in sewing new versions of dead pasts together and willing them back to electric life to repeat a tired cyclical history like Frankenstein’s monster, but from planting the memory of our actions while living in the soil of the reality we share.