Meanwhile, an image from the Zabludowicz’s latest exhibition, World Receivers, stays with me: a Puppies Puppies performer dressed as Disney’s Olaf the Snowman steps outside the gallery and rests against a column, surveying the (notably young) newcomers arriving at the private view. At first, this performance — which activates an installation of paintings and videos, also by Puppies Puppies, centred around the conceit of the Frozen character Olaf in existential crisis — struck me as too on-the-nose, having the air of a fan meme that had been found and re-published for the memosphere (post-ironic Pop Art for the Internet-era). Olaf the Snowman’s existential crisis is, of course, that he’s fated to become a puddle (the Zabludowicz is pumping out the Frozen soundtrack, Olaf singing excitedly: ‘I’ll be doing whatever snow does in summer!’) But through slippery metaphor, I have come to view the work differently: it’s the children of tomorrow — those ‘world receivers’ — who will have grown up watching Olaf and become adults in a big political puddle of nothing, but who must desperately sculpt an identity for themselves nonetheless.
If we took the temperature of the body politic in the UK right now we would find it at the triple point, boiling and freezing at the same time: tune into a live stream of Parliament and you’re sure to hear the Speaker, John Bercow, calling Order! to quell the heated and gurgling voices; join the People’s Vote march and you’ll feel a feverish sense of urgency, one that may or may not fizzle out; in cafes and living rooms, you’ll hear scolding disapproval, frosty observations, cool and detached debates; try and find out what the hell is going on, if any progress has been made, and you’ll find hell has frozen over; and, paradoxically, at the same time the political situation seems to remain the same, criticism and articles seeking to comment on it, such as this one, melt into irrelevance by the minute. It’s a confusing metaphor for a confusing time.
It’s the children of tomorrow — those ‘world receivers’ — who will have grown up watching Olaf and become adults in a big political puddle of nothing, but who must desperately sculpt an identity for themselves nonetheless.
‘Snowflake’, incidentally, is a particularly effective insult because calling someone a snowflake not only shuts down their opinion but ridicules them for being offended that you are doing so.
One could argue that this managing of optimism and despair is nothing new. Perhaps I am being hypersensitive, a Snowflake — certainly Wallace Stevens’ ‘The Snow Man’ elicited an existential crisis almost a century ago:
For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.
For Stevens, the detached, ideal observer does not project her own meaning onto the landscape; instead, she observes the nothingness that is there: the sadness, emptiness, or perhaps plain old gloom facing a stagnant, unmoving, confusing, disorganised political situation. ‘Snowflake’, incidentally, is a particularly effective insult because calling someone a snowflake not only shuts down their opinion but ridicules them for being offended that you are doing so. It’s a double-bind that serves to create even more hypersensitivity and hypervigilance (not only: ‘how can I argue my case?’, ‘was I right in my opinion?’, but: ‘was I so offended, as charged, and how would that offense serve or not serve my position?’, and so on.)
To some, I’m sure I fit the Snowflake mould. But for my own part, as (I suppose) a liberal in early adulthood, I think I have become something like a ‘political depressive’, in Lauren Berlant’s sense of the word: cynical, detached, and yet maybe ‘not really detached at all, but navigating an ongoing and sustaining relationship to the scene and circuit of optimism and disappointment’. Having suffered what felt like personal and major political defeats — the Iraq war, the 2012 rise in tuition fees, almost a decade under a Conservative government — Brexit has become another scene and circuit of optimism and disappointment. I’ve become detached, whilst realising that we are all of us players in the political theatre, in which even opting out is a political gesture. Certainly, I can’t imagine anything like Shepard Fairey’s 2008 Barack Obama ‘Hope’ poster flying in a political campaign today: ‘hope’ as a political discourse has been used up like a finite resource; for now, emotion has been siphoned, the rhetoric fuelled instead by a greyer, more nuanced, more detached emotional vocabulary (for example, ‘hope’ vs. something like ‘momentum’.)
Meanwhile, detached observers abound in the Zabludowicz’s ‘World Receivers’ show. Isa Gensken’s mannequin, draped/dressed in consumerist excesses, legs nonchalantly crossed, watches you from behind a white mask like she knows she’s an alter ego, she knows you’re looking, and she knows she looks great. Chloe Wise’s painting, I Remember Everything I’ve Ever Eaten, is a nude portrait of a woman who is also aloof and looking out, lying with roses on what appears to be cheesecloth. Reminiscent of the symbolic iconographies in Renaissance paintings, the portrait features half-eaten fruit and a carton of ‘Almond Breeze’ milk in the bottom-left-hand corner. Guess we’ll be thinking about consumerism. The cheesecloth announces that just by nature of her being naked inside a frame she has become part of the picnic, and thus an implicit challenge for you to consume. Then there’s Issy Wood’s ‘JOAN CIRCA 2002’, a detailed, Post-It sized (and so easily missed) oil painting of Joan Rivers with oval, black, alien eyes. In all these works, it seems, one is required to observe their ironic, surface-effect at the same time as the devil in the detail.
This combination of scrupulousness and flatness, of detachment and sustained, relentless engagement, is de rigeur for millennials, and even more so for Gen Z, who will be our most immediate ‘world receivers’. If millennials are political depressives who can’t take a joke then Gen Zers are political nihilists, whose levity and stress blows across social media and subreddits in blizzards. You’ll find this attitude crystallised in any number of memes, but how about the one where a kid tries to protest the EU by burning its flag only to find the flag won’t catch because of EU manufacturing regulations. Or the one where the millennial wins a Yu-Gi-Oh! duel against a pro-life baby boomer by playing a card that reads: I wish I’d been aborted. It’s a strange kind of nihilism, because it has its hat in the ring; its pointlessness is the punctum of an increasingly incoherent political scene. As in Zabludowicz, so in Whitehall: both worlds will land with the same recipient. The listeners in the snow.
By Sammi Gale