Apocalypse, Right Now: Abel Tilahun: Vital Signs
On ViewKatzen Arts Center | American University
January 27 – March 11, 2018
Abel Tilahun’s exhibition, Vital Signs, indulges in a play of scale and materiality meant to momentarily disorient the viewer. It is illusionism on a level at which we question our own perception, falling into a subset of sculpture which includes Duane Hanson, Ron Mueck, George Segal, and Robert Gober. Passing through the curtained doorway into a whirling, circular exhibition space, the viewer is bombarded by Womb (2014): a spectacle of three life-size pewter-toned infants on circular trays affixed to the wall. Across from that, seven similarly life-sized linen-draped male figures silently stand shoulder-to-shoulder along the wall in In Progress (2014-18). Off in the periphery of one’s vision is Heart of Gold (2015-18), a gargantuan and glistening human heart beating animatronically from a rectangular recess in the far wall. Once the initial shock of Tilahun’s hyperrealism has worn off, the viewer becomes aware of the artist’s motives: we are introduced to an Afrocentric sci-fi reality. Born in Addis Ababa in 1983, Tilahun tells a modern-day end-times myth, applying Ethiopian symbols to the frameworks of biotechnology, enhanced reality, and urban sprawl gone haywire.
Vital Signs is a round-up of Tilahun’s major projects over the past five years. There is little impression of chronological span, though, since the artist tends to stretch out projects so that a work he began five years ago is in progress up until the moment it is installed in the space. Earlier projects still have noticeable relevance to current ones. This gives the exhibition the spirit of a series of related displays as in the halls of a science museum. The curation, by Meskerem Assegued, utilizes the unique curved walls and cyclical space of the gallery to initiate, pace, and conclude the plot of the exhibition with cinematic clarity.
As one orbits the gallery and experiences vignettes from Tilahun’s Brave New Abyssinia, a cautionary tale emerges. A series of four CGI giclée prints from 2014 offer a mythic timeline riffing on the theme of the unbridled construction taking place in the artists’ hometown of Addis Ababa over the past decade. These changes have completely transformed one model of African urbanism—with clusters of semi-independent compounds interspersed with more temporary dwellings—into a hybrid Euro/Asian type of city with apartment blocks and modern multi-story commercial structures. The photo-real prints are populated by ghost figures and a bleak sense of desolation, hinting at the IRL sociological and ecological ramifications. This is a fable of modernization darkly personified. Like the planetary weapons of mass destruction that populate sci-fi flicks, such as The Borg (Star Trek), The Death Star (Star Wars) and Cybertron (Transformers), Tilahun’s antagonist is also an angry, uncontainable sphere. We follow the orb from its birth in Whirlwind (2014); to its growth/adolescence in World Conquest (2014); to its destructive maturity in Torn (2014); to its final demise and disappearance into the earth in The Great Hole (2014). This harbinger of Anthropocene disaster is less important to the artist as a character than for the distinctive and poetic circular holes it leaves in its wake, like Wile E. Coyote’s trademark dust clouds and collision craters.
Once we are familiar with the story of the orb as told via the prints, the surrounding installations in Vital Signs become legible as representations of prophetic occurrences that arise in the artist’s fictive universe. Analogous to the ghostly forms in his 2D work, a recurring theme here is the disambiguation of the human form. In Progress’s seven figures aligned in a row are no longer full humans, but an army of zombie construction workers: cyborgs anchored by pairs of meticulously rendered fiberglass feet. Imitation wooden scaffolding of the kind one finds in construction sites all over Addis form the exoskeleton of absent bodies implied by sheets of draped linen. The missing body in Tilahun’s work is enigmatic, yielding comparisons to Gober’s extremities emerging from blank walls. In Heart of Gold the lonely organ futilely pumps (disturbingly responsive to the presence of the viewer via motion-sensor): alienated love directed in no particular direction. The wittiest installation is Ethereal 3 (2017), a shrine to Injera, the sourdough pancake that is an Ethiopian staple. The thin, bubble-pocked crepe is reproduced faithfully in rubber, surrounded by an LED halo of ever-changing hues of yellow, blue, and green. It’s a symbol reminiscent of both soylent-green and orthodox-Christian iconography, a mythological source of nourishment like the horn of the goat Amalthea—the cornucopia—which never ran out of ambrosia to feed the gods.
Abel Tilahun, Womb, 2014. Fiberglass, paint, metal satellite dish, 23” x 32” each. Courtesy of the artist.
The end of the world and its subsequent genesis is chronicled in two multi-channel videos largely and eerily bereft of humans, screening in the darkest recess of the spiral gallery. In the three-channel video, School of Thought (2017), Tilahun’s circular path of destruction reappears. The artist digitally renders a convincing image of the space shuttle bursting through the clouds, a monkey clinging tenaciously to the back of one of the booster rockets. Tilahun mixes symbols of Ethiopian rebirth and self-caricature with classic tropes of space exploration and disaster, creating a carefully choreographed parade of spiritual/religious and culturally encoded images. Self-consciously archaic, the work pokes fun at Western delusions of advanced space exploration: we still haven’t progressed, in terms of manned spacecraft, beyond the uber-symbol of American 1980s Cold War dominance. Alternating projection channels depict stained glass windows, the mangled façade of St. Peter’s disfigured by Tilahun’s trademark circular punch-hole, astronauts spiraling out into the void, and finally a newborn lamb. Not to leave us in a total funk, Tilahun pairs the three-channel projection with a pristine stream of nature vignettes of ice-floes, skies, deserts, and oceans in Solo (2017). The planet is now inhabited by a lone human infant struggling to crawl across a glacier. Is the imagery of an infant going a bit overboard? Perhaps, but this is the creation of a new world after all, and we aren’t included.