There's something deeply alarming about the human capacity for denial and distraction. Steffen Zillig hones in on this in his exhibition ‘Orderly Retreat’, which forgoes obvious images of calamity and instead attends to the creeping angst engendered by the many global catastrophes that, while widely reported, remain unseen by human eyes. Within 18 framed pages appropriated from 1970s and ’80s comic books, characters – mostly adult, white and upper-middle class – ruminate upon or ascribe blame for some unfolding crisis. In order to deliver these narratives, the artist has replaced the text with his own German dialogue. Because the characters never repeat from page to page, each work exists as an autonomous vignette. Meanwhile, Zillig's appropriative method gives a novel echo to the unsettling ease with which storylines can be tailored to fit an author's intentions.
Throughout, the impending crisis shifts in nature. Early on, two pompous suits pontificate about the degradation of popular consciousness. While one mourns ‘the decline of the education system [and] the lost pride of ordinary people’, his bow-tied associate snaps back that these so-called ‘ordinary people’ are just ‘small-time fascists like everybody else’. A few pages ahead, fantasies of intergalactic escape begin to manifest, as regular folk panic amidst pluming smoke and falling debris. Nearby in the gallery, an astronaut hovers, projected onto a wall of the gallery. Though intermittently laced with dialogue about dissolving enlightenment ideals, these comic scenes remain ideologically oblique: escapist libertarian types mix with more sober critics of neo-liberalism, the alcoholically resigned and, eventually, white-robed stewards of a future space colony.
Speaking in histrionic proclamations, Zillig's characters seem subtly mocked, and as a result the work takes on a kind of punk-academic attitude that is reinforced by Zillig's matter of fact techniques. Take the projected video Part 1: Soil Samples (You Tubes, Crazy Diamonds) (2017), wherein clustered video windows juxtapose YouTube exhibitionists in every variety: conspiracy theorists, self-made soothsayers, homespun spiritualism, depressive drug abusers, naked yogis. Sluggishly paced and indulging ridiculous conjecture, the video could be an opioid addled cousin to Peter Joseph's 2007 conspiracy theorist wet dream, Zeitgeist: The Movie. Atop his montaged clips, Zillig has superimposed block letter titles: ‘DON'T BE AFRAID OF THE TRUTH’; ‘SEE BENEATH THE SURFACE’. At intervals, amateur musicians play Pink Floyd's elegiac chef-d'oeuvre, ‘Shine on You Crazy Diamond’ (1975), a rejoinder to band-member Syd Barrett's disappearance into mental illness. This choice of song is fraught, swaying between cruel cleverness and incisive reflection; in Zillig's film, its intonation morphs in concert with each passing clip: pitying, judgemental, and sometimes fearful. In one clip, a young person insists upon the presence of ‘Reptoids’ among us; in another, an un-hinged Neo-Nazi pines for his lost ancestors in a snowy clearing. As if wanting to double-down on brutality, Zillig cuts the footage of this sobbing xenophobe with clips of a sickening hooligan fight and additional shots of young men gripping their freshly shorn skulls.
At a time when confederate flags and Sieg-Heiling frat boys clog Facebook feeds, these images bite. But the tricky thing about watching Zillig's video is reconciling these pictures with the other spliced clips. As a morose poetry of socially inflected imagery, the video seems a grim scion of Robert Rauschenberg's mid-century collages: rudimentarily pieced together, with a flatness that sits in sharp contrast to its fractious – and here, delusional – subject matter. But it is the comic works that hold the show. In combining pages redolent of the 1970s and ’80s with dialogue evocative of our early 20th century moment, these works seem to fold time. Moreover, they do so in a manner that balances understatement and an oddly compelling ‘fuck off’ disposition.
Main image: Steffen Zillig, Geordneter Rückzug / Orderly Retreat Part II (detail), 2017, 18 collages, inkjet prints. Courtesy: the artist and Galerie Conradi, Hamburg