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A golden reindeer gallops across a vast checkerboard while a grotesque UFO flies overhead. A duty free store in a futuristic space station peddles night sticks, bulletproof vests, smoke grenade launchers, and other law enforcement accessories in luxurious vitrines. The cushions of a modernist sofa birth a golden calf with Apple pinwheel cursors for eyes. All these surreal scenes and many more feed into and sometimes very literally penetrate each other in “Escape Pod” (2015), the 20-minute short film at the center of Jonathan Monaghan‘s solo exhibition of the same name at bitforms gallery. Other works in the show, including five large-format photos of digitally created and futuristic Fabergé eggs, a small bovine sculpture, and another looping animated film, are all exquisitely rendered, full of sharp details and wry humor. But in “Escape Pod” Monaghan has crafted, using commercial animation software, a beautiful and dystopic mindfuck of Baroque-modernist science fiction.
The animated short is Mikhail Bakhtin-meets-Manolo Blahnik, with boutique interiors and space-age minimalist vehicles butting up against, well, floating butts, gyrating alien phallus things, and bursts of gold and garish rainbow hues. The video’s enigmatic narrative loops seamlessly, following the golden calf as it climbs into an escape pod and travels to an orbiting duty free store; alongside that store is the riot gear boutique, which leads into a security checkpoint for escape pod travelers from which a wiggling space worm takes flight; zooming out, the entire preceding sequence turns out to have taken place inside a golden reindeer, which sets out across a desert expanse, trailed and eventually overtaken by the UFO; when the reindeer catches up to the spacecraft an escalator unfurls and the squirming alien phallus emerges from the deer’s glowing butt, floats aboard, and the whole sequence repeats. Though many of the spaces featured in the video seem designed for (extremely wealthy) humans, none appear, giving the whole thing an ominous, post-apocalyptic atmosphere. Every image and surface is precise and photorealistic, even though the world they depict is completely nonsensical. Monaghan is a one-man Pixar studio creating M.C. Escher-esque circuits of weirdness.
In the exhibition’s other short video, “The Pavilion” (2014), a spinning luxury clothing store with Rococo ceilings lays a series of large, egg-shaped objects. Those pods are isolated and magnified in After Fabergé, the series of 57-inch-tall photographs that line the gallery walls. They look like what Arcimboldo might have come up with if he’d been commissioned to create Fabergé eggs and given nothing but 21st-century consumer goods. They incorporate wireless signal transmitters, modernist footrests and chairs, Starbucks storefronts, satellite dishes, and USB ports, but also tonsils, ornate building façades, and undefined hairy body parts. They are hybrids of gaudy gadgets, yuppie interior decoration, and pulsing body parts. What might emerge if one were ever to hatch is anybody’s guess. A golden reindeer? A Kardashian?
There’s a seductive tone to Monaghan’s post-human futurology. The works in Escape Pod portray a depopulated world of luxury, cyborg creatures, and beautiful but pointless design. Where his earlier videos centered on animal characters, pop culture quotations, and religious iconography, the pieces in this show are resolutely agnostic and cryptic. The most coherent interpretation I could formulate, as I sat gazing at that galloping reindeer, is that these works depict the customized escape vessels used by one-percenters to flee the earth as it falls to ruin. Whatever happened to the pods’ intended passengers, and the 99% of us left behind to rot, I sincerely hope will be the subject of Monaghan’s next video.