The world is ending. Is the world ending? It certainly looks like it. Or could it be, as the philosopher Michael Marder has recently suggested, that we are already living after the end of the world? ‘The world has ended, is ending in innumerable ways, and will keep ending for some time to come,’ he writes in The Chernobyl Herbarium: Fragments of an Exploded Consciousness (2016), which I read, coincidentally, having just visited ‘Sump’, the first collaboration between Benedict Drew and Nicholas Brooks.
The centrepiece of this small, immersive exhibition is a 15-minute projected video that pulls the viewer into a messy stream of images and text that recall, if not the apocalypse, an ecological or biological disaster (or a psychedelic geology lesson). We pass through oozing, bubbling and miry landscapes set to the electrical crackling, burps and buzz of synthesized, headachy sounds; we come across ambiguous objects dripping with an oily, sci-fi metallic substance; we see shimmering colours melt into each other like a botched screensaver; we are dropped into what appears to be a petri dish, suddenly tracking micro-organisms; we hover over swamplands that look like out-takes from B-grade horror films (see: Swamp Thing, 1982). It is a bemusing experience, with the video ending abruptly when a spotlight suddenly throws an orange light on a speaker positioned in the centre of the room, which plays an incomprehensible, though audibly urgent, announcement.
What is a sump? The dictionary gives two definitions: a cavity or depression where liquid collects, such as in a mine or cave; or a reservoir for undesirable liquids, such as at the bottom of an engine where spent lubricant pools. But the word has a history in cosmology, too. In medieval times, before Nicolaus Copernicus proposed that the planets circle the sun, a competitive theory was that the earth sat in a ‘cosmic sump’. In other words, it was believed that our little planet was submerged in the slop bucket of the universe.
Sitting in the dark, I found myself thinking about nature or, rather, its corruption. On either side of the video were two screens, one propped up with Jesmonite, displaying abstract images that looked like waterfalls seen through the cracked screen of a smart phone. There was something impressionistic about the experience, as though the artists were imagining Claude Monet’s waterlilies after a radioactive spill. Later, the compulsive and scratchy surrealism of European abstraction came to mind – the art of Wols or Jean Fautrier, where the gestural mark takes on a biological or germ-like quality. But here, instead of paint or ink suggesting decay, video and sound was doing the job.
If nature as it has been conceived does not exist, or indeed gets in the way of serious ecological action (as Timothy Morton, Slavoj Žižek and others have proposed), perhaps Drew and Brooks are suggesting we revisit this idea of a cosmic sump. Not in the sense of returning to pre-Copernican times, but by admitting that there is no such thing as a pure, unsullied natural world. The river is a sump and we are in up to our necks.
In The Chernobyl Herbarium, Marder reflects on the 1986 nuclear disaster. Accompanied by Anaïs Tondeur’s ghostly photograms of plants taken from the exclusion zone, his text explores how the collective psyche is deeply entwined with or, rather, defined by its ecological context. And who, today, can look at nature without noticing contamination? I wonder: if the body returned to art as damaged, sick or abject in the late 1980s in response to, among other things, the AIDS crisis, can we expect nature to revisit art today as pilfered, polluted and irrevocably disturbed?