Young artists on the end of time: ‘You feel the world is changing’

Are young artists falling prey to doom and gloom because of all the misery in the news? Despite the title, the exhibition Sit back, relax & enjoy the apocalypse shows that the artists among the millennials think in their own way about challenges such as populism, climate change and the war in Ukraine. “You can feel that the world is changing, we are facing a future with many extremes and disorder,” says artist Seppe De Roo.

Predictions about the end of time are of all time. The first prophets of doom mainly looked up to an all-powerful supreme being who would decide for himself when enough was enough. The current meaning of the word ‘apocalypse’ is therefore rooted in the Bible, specifically in the ‘Revelation of John’.

Although religion continues to play a role, modern doomsayers see mainly earthly causes for the end of the world. It can all be over suddenly if a nuclear war triggers the nuclear holocaust. Or climate change could cause slow deaths where life on Earth slowly becomes impossible. But the list is much longer. Maybe artificial intelligence is revolting technology, supervolcano eruptions turn off the lights, or we dig our own graves through constant world wars.

No fatalism

Not very encouraging prospects, which as a private person you are also quite powerless over. So maybe we should just pretend we’re watching a disaster or horror movie. And ‘sit back, relax and enjoy the apocalypse’, as suggested by the title of an exhibition opening on 2 September at LaVallée in Molenbeek. “The title is ironic,” says Seppe De Roo, artist but now also curator of Sit back, relax and enjoy the apocalypse. “Don’t expect scenes with zombies like i The walking dead. The exhibition is also far from fatalistic, on the contrary. The intention is to depict young artists’ diverse visions of the future to show the many possibilities for a new world. Because the apocalypse is not only an end, but also a rebirth, a new beginning.”

© Saskia Vanderstichele

| Seppe De Roo and Anna Zanichelli are two of the fourteen artists showing ‘apocalyptic work’ at LaVallée.

Banal zombies actually have no place in the new world as presented in LaVallée, but they do, for example, the futuristic ‘non-human sound creatures’ (non-human sound entities) by British recording artist Jordan Edge. They are hybrid sound sculptures, partly human and partly insect-like, built with artificial intelligence. You will also find harpies, the female-headed birds of prey that we already know from Greek mythology. The British artist Arieh Frosh made motorized sculptures of these figures, which do not have the same negative reputation with him as with the ancient Greeks and Romans (as the embodiment of storms, among others).

Fourteen artists were selected for the exhibition, both artists of international recognition and new talents from Brussels and Belgium. They were all born between 1987 and 1997, i.e. millennials. Sit back, relax and enjoy the apocalypse is the first exhibition set up by Piëdestal, a new non-profit organization supporting young artists. Molenbeek’s young people are also involved through collaborations with integration center Foyer and the association Arts&Publics.

The 28-year-old De Roo himself will include his monumental series of paintings The ascetics display. The figures in the works, which are modeled after themselves, appear in timeless settings reminiscent of a dream world. They could be distant futures, but they also refer to a (mythological) past, such as an imperial coronation or the Leviathan myth. As curator of the group exhibition, De Roo found inspiration in the travelogue door de hel (hell) by the medieval poet Dante Alighieri and the work of the modern French novelist Michel Houellebecq. Not exactly writers, you might suspect of wearing rose-colored glasses when writing.

1810 Seppe De Roo and Anna Zanichelianna 3

© Saskia Vanderstichele

| Anna Zanichelli started with disposable fruit and vegetable nets and helium capsules she found on the street.

De Roo himself, in his own words, was very positive about the future until around the age of eighteen, but then there was a turning point. “Especially since Trump took office, I started to look at things differently, and then the coronavirus pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine had not yet come. Like the Pope, I think that World War 3 has already started, but I think that will develop in a much different and longer way than a mere war You feel that the world is move is, we face a future of many extremes and disorder.”

Joie de vivre

A way of thinking that cultural historian and writer Geert Buelens understands. “I think a lot of millennials are experiencing something like that. They’ve had to deal with a lot of disasters in adulthood. Just think of the credit crunch and of course the climate crisis.” Buelens himself is an expert in the climate problem, and published the book about this at the beginning of this year What we already knew then. The forgotten green story from 1972.

The artists Seppe De Roo and Anna Zanichelli

© Saskia Vanderstichele

| The artists Seppe De Roo and Anna Zanichelli do not call the exhibition fatalistic: “We show the many possibilities in a new world.”

“The difference from 50 years ago is that a large part of the environmental damage was still local. A polluted river near you is an easier problem to solve than the climate change that is now causing obvious problems around the world, such as recent heat waves and droughts. It is understandable that this leads to a sense of powerlessness among young people, and to frustration that previous generations have not intervened enough. Moreover, the greater part of the misery has not yet come, and therefore they will experience more trouble from it. For example, a report by a Swiss reinsurance showed that ecosystems in a fifth of all countries are on the verge of collapse due to dramatically declining biodiversity, leading to a threat of a lack of drinking water, for example. The downfall of millennials and these young artists on this theme is certainly partially realistic.”

It should come as no surprise that the complex relationship between man and nature is an important theme in Sit back, relax and enjoy the apocalypse. “There was absolutely no checklist of social themes for the artists to focus on, certainly not, but these are things that young artists go through and it’s important to mention those things as well,” says De Roo. “Nor do you notice passive pessimism in the works, there is plenty of imagination and joie de vivre in them. As artists, we often use the power of metaphors to playfully express personal insights and create new possibilities ourselves.”

It is also in line with the role that Buelens sees reserved for artists. “People can be discouraged by all the reports and images of climate misery, but artists have a gift for stimulating the imagination. They can pry something loose in your head and show how the world might look in the future and how we can build on it. Art plays a very inspiring role in this.”

According to Buelens, pessimism, such as De Roo’s source of inspiration Michel Houellebecq, is not necessarily a bad thing. “The ubiquitous eco-modernists, for example, have great faith in technological progress to solve climate change, but this is not very likely. Technology must develop extremely fast now if it is to stop the crisis. Another school of thought argues that this optimism is misleading and that it is better to adopt an eco-pessimism. An interesting line of thinking, although you should be wary of pessimism. Pessimism leads to passivity. This realization has already sunk into many young people. Just look at the huge climate demonstrations, where young people have played a big role.”

Artistic recycling

One of the young artists who mainly focuses on this theme is the Italian artist Anna Zanichelli (29), who has lived in Brussels for five years. “I only really became aware of it after I arrived in Brussels,” she says. “I grew up in the northern Italian countryside, in the village of Albinea in Reggio Emilia, where the air was very clean. Here I sometimes felt a lack of oxygen, like when I had an asthma attack as a child.”

Zanichelli made the installation for the new fair fillet puree, for which she sewed disposable fruit and vegetable netting into a thirteen-by-six-meter net that hangs from the ceiling of LaVallée. In it she attached helium capsules that she found on the street. The net of disposable material protects us from these ‘air bombs’ that fall from the sky and threaten the earth. The entire installation consists of waste, typical of her work.

“I am fascinated by waste, and in Brussels I was quickly struck by the diversity of waste I saw around me. I like the different materials themselves and find it interesting to work with objects that have come to the end of one life. With my art I give them a new life. Call it artistic recycling.” She used the helium capsules for fillet puree is not the most common waste. “I understand that they are intended for confectionery, but that many young people use them as a cheap substance. Because the use is not obvious, it seems as if they really fell from the sky.”

How does Zanichelli himself see the future? Are we in the last straight line to the great doom? “I have a feeling that eventually humans will disappear,” she says, “but I’m optimistic that the planet will survive. The idea that the power of nature is going to take over here again is actually comforting. I would love to be there to see it.” (laughing)

The exhibition ‘Sit back, relax and enjoy the apocalypse’ can be seen from 2 to 18/9 in LaVallée,

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