How artists might respond to a post-COVID society by inventing their own new worlds
Featuring works by ten artists, Earthling at Loughborough’s Modern Painters New Decorators (MPND) began as an experiment by members of the artist-led gallery and studios into the possibilities of ‘worldbuilding’. Worldbuilding has become a key interest among artists adapting to COVID-19 restrictions, who are conceiving new, imagined universes as a result. The sci-fi notion of alternate worlds – whether in videogames, fantasy fiction or the artist’s studio – was the subject of a series of online discussions among MPND’s members throughout lockdown, culminating in this exhibition of works made in the past twelve months.
Amber Jesson’s Nine Maidens (all works 2021) is a series of photographs of mysterious standing stones taken using a pinhole camera, the prints shown among a circle of modest boulders in the gallery. Historians claim that Neolithic people erected such stones as ancient astronomical tools, in an attempt to understand humanity’s place in the cosmos, using light to track celestial movements. Jesson posits the pinhole camera as their equivalent. The resultant inverted images, leaking iridescent light, suggests alternate perspectives. Long exposure times, the fluctuating weather and shifting foliage results in motion blur. In stark contrast to the seeming permanence of these ancient stones, the hazy natural elements in each image instead epitomise impermanence.
James Milner’s Pregnant Homo/Homo Preggo is a modest constellation of votive objects arranged on a photograph on the floor, in which an insect, barbed and rigid, lies alongside a pulpy earthworm. The opposed natures of their bodies implies an embrace more sinister than tender – according to the artist, it’s a‘gentle and violent sensuality’ between queer, libidinous bodies. Penetration is implied by the placement of a silver, pearlescent bead with trailing cord, at the precipice of a plaster dish, suggestive of a sperm or tiny vessel. It’s an invitation to explore this corporeal microcosm, evoking the science fiction adventure film Fantastic Voyage (1966), in which a crew enter the body of the human host in a submarine miniaturised to the size of a microbe.
Pulled is a video of a digital world by Ama Dogbe. Originally made to be experienced interactively, movement through this impossible digital space is fluid and exhilarating. Reoccurring, entangled stick figure motifs, serve as ‘ancient alien’ hieroglyphic symbols of togetherness and recall a past when physical touch was unconstrained. At a time where personal relationships are disrupted, Dogbe uses this joyful encounter to celebrate intimate connections between people, despite distance and restriction.
David John Scarborough’s White Castle is an animation that gradually traces sunrise to sunset, accompanied by an ambient midi soundtrack. Created using stock nature footage and Disney concept art of distant idyllic skies, the result mimics the world outside the window of YouTube’s iconic ‘24/7 lo-fi’ girl; the weather changes but her calendar never advances. In White Castle, milky clouds burst from beyond their undulating outlines over pastoral landscapes, while subtle particle effects imply rain on an inky window after dark. Scarborough’s synthetic nature imagery acknowledges the artificial yet hopeful worlds that have sustained us these last 15 months in isolation.
The term Earthling suggests an examination of humanity from the outside-in; a distancing made all the more relevant in this climate of uncertainty and self-reflection, where COVID restrictions mean we inevitably spend more time in our own social and domestic microcosms.
Despite their claims to envision frameworks for building new worlds, the artists have instead proposed a cartography of natural, social, corporeal and digital spheres profoundly, and perhaps painfully, familiar to us. Earthling is not quite a foundry of new worlds, but a rebuilding of our own.