Four Directions of Heaven

Dominiek Hoens in De Witte Raaf (The White Raven) Edition 186 March-April 2017. English translation: Emiliano BattistaBottom of Form.

The audiovisual installation Phantom Sun (2017) is the central element in Alexis Destoop’s solo exhibition Four Directions of Heaven. Not only does its title resonate with that of the exhibition, but the work, due to its physical dimensions and the accompanying soundtrack, draws attention immediately.  Surrounding it, a series of photographs and objects punctuate the space.  Projected in a separate room is the video Kairos – Compendium on the Future of Time (2012): a shortened version of a film created in collaboration with Aaron Schuster.

Four Directions of Heaven is a biblical expression – see, for example, the book of the prophet Zechariah, chapter 6 – that refers to the cardinal directions and, here, by extension, to the “world.”  But the title also has other, contemporary, connotations: globalization, or the impact of human activity on the entire ecosystem for example. In addition, the number four has an ominous resonance: if it refers, spatially, to a kind of neutral “everywhere,” it also refers, temporally, to the end time – think of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, or of the visions of Zechariah, which inspired John.

The first impression of Phantom Sun is one of excess. The projection is too wide (8 meters) to be captured in a single gaze, while the peculiarity of Laszlo Umbreit’s sound design (consisting of processed field recordings and synthetic sounds) further challenges one’s perception of the work. Moreover, one’s attention is drawn by the slow, recurrent apparitions of projected text fragments on the floor of the exhibition space. Nevertheless, the work has a clear structure, that of a diptych.

The first part shows images – slow moving, panoramic – of harbour infrastructures along the border of northernmost Norway and Russia emerging through the morning fog. A voice-over advocates new economic models and future developments that will open new opportunities for a diversity of stakeholders. The fact that economic exploitation is possible thanks to the melting of ice and the thawing of frozen grounds is an inconvenience that is left unmentioned by the slick voice.

The pendant textual projection starts with a passage from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, taken from the first letter Robert Walton sends as he sets out to the North Pole: “There, the sun is forever visible […] and diffusing a perpetual splendour. There, snow and frost are banished; and, sailing over a calm sea, we may be wafted to a land surpassing in wonders and in beauty every region hitherto discovered on the habitable globe. What may not be expected in a country of eternal light?"

Thus, the figure of the sun establishes a narrative based on a fantasy about an eternal light in which natural resources bathe, only to lead us into an actual smog that eclipses the sun just as much as the products of enlightened human ingenuity: ships, harbours, factories ... 

Since time immemorial – or, at least, since the ancient Greeks imagined a Hyperborea – the desire to push boundaries (geographically, technically, economically, etc.) has been associated with promises of happiness and prosperity, though in general they have invariably lead to their opposites. Not a dormant reason but a reason condemned to insomnia by eternal light creates monsters.

Whereas the first part of the piece consists of video footage, the second part is constructed around photographs that lay bare the region’s (recent) history. One is presented the sights of abandoned industrial sites and city districts, of scientific and military relics that recall geostrategic conflicts that revolved around ores, oil, and sea routes. Much as these conflicts remain part of contemporary history, in the work they appear to belong to a distant past.

Phantom Sun’s first, "present-day" part revolves around economic development and a subsequent, as yet-to-be defined prosperous future. But the images of industrial installations – where no human is to be seen – are sinister and raise the question:  what, or which, prosperity is one talking about, and at what cost? In the second, "historical" part of the work, the (Cold) war between nations is referenced visually and supported textually by fragments of a personal testimony about life at that time. The first part of the piece indicates that these particular echoes, situated residues, these "distant” sounds – of war-mongering amongst nations, of ideological conflict, of politically motivated architecture ... – have been made obsolete / irrelevant by a supposedly post-ideological, abstract and generalized, narrative about growth and prosperity based on scientific findings. No matter how rarefied, this new narrative does not succeed in concealing what it is actually about: capital paving its way to where no human has gone before.

This didactic division between an ideological-political past (part two) and an abstract, post-ideological-economic present (part one) is problematized by the continuous loop in which the work is presented. For example, the gas masks that conclude the second part evoke both the old enemy and its weapons of mass destruction, as well as the new, ubiquitous pollution alluded to in the first part. Likewise, (old) forms of nationalism (part two), once relegated to the dirt pile of the nineteenth-century history, prove to have resurfaced as an important political factor (part one).

The power of Phantom Sun resides not only in its visual poetry, in the enigmatic, yet meaningful, associations it conjures, but also in the “gap” that eventually makes the work a diptych. The division into a violent past and a potentially even more destructive future is being problematized.  Beyond the "didactic" separation, this gap is a caesura that hits the viewer where he/she stands: here and now, divided between an unfinished past and a future whose inevitability anticipates its end.