Review: Artists turn L.A. gallery into a museum of nuclear dystopia
The exhibition “Desert Now” is the result of a 12-day, Adderall- and LSD-fueled trip through the American Southwest by three German artists — Julius Von Bismarck, Julian Charriere and Felix Kiessling — who have transformed the galleries at Steve Turner into an idiosyncratic, dystopian museum focusing on the desert as a nuclear test site. It is a provocative ramble.
Darkened and broken up into an arrangement of angular, sand-filled pedestals, the main gallery is laid out like a contemporary natural history display. Instead of cheery, informative dioramas, however, the presentations are sculptural, with nary a didactic panel in sight.
Clearly this is not the romantic vision of the wide-open West familiar from Hollywood movies or utopian rituals such as Burning Man or even the site-specific art projects of James Turrell or High Desert Test Sites. This point is underscored by two pendant pieces in the main room: a video projection of failed rocket launches and a photomural of the Yosemite rock face El Capitan.
The video, which is projected large on the back wall, fills the space with images of near-apocalyptic violence: blasts of fire and smoke and spectacular explosions. Coming one after the other, they comprise a relentless portrait of failure. The flash and scale of the launches is striking, but so is the extreme waste: the surfeit of energy expended, the blasted landscape left behind. This is the wilderness as empty stage, awaiting the fury of our fantasies.
The key to these disparate displays appears in the second room, which contains only a video from the Bradbury Science Museum in Los Alamos, N.M. It documents the Manhattan Project and the nuclear tests that took place there in a chillingly matter-of-fact way. It provides the “aha” moment for the trembling plants, blasted cubes and melted implements in the first room: the desert as contaminated test bed.
Yet there is life. The most hopeful piece in the show at first seems like the definition of futility: a tumbleweed running on a treadmill. The desiccated bush turns relentlessly, caught between the motion of the treadmill and the “wind” from a fan. As it tumbles on its Sisyphean journey, pieces break off; it slowly disintegrates. But, as the gallerist noted, rambling is how the tumbleweed spreads its seed.
Steve Turner, 6830 Santa Monica Blvd., (323) 460-6830, through April 23. Closed Sundays and Mondays. www.steveturner.la
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