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Whether a bang of nuclear annihilation or the slow creep of a pandemic, our potential end-of-world wastelands have their own bleak visual language. In Such Mean Estate, out this month from Powerhouse Books, Ryan Spencer photographed stills from apocalyptic films as one black-and-white, grainy narrative of doom.
The Brooklyn-based artist’s Polaroids are preceded by a prose text by author Leslie Jamison, who ominously broods on the visuals, suggesting the wake of some unnamed disaster. She begins:
What does the sky hold?
Too many birds. Broken freeways. The frail limbs of a charred forest. Blindness if you stare straight at the sun. Helicopters swarming the sky like mosquitoes, then smoked propellers falling past the sign reading BUY LARGE. We did.
The specific films aren’t named, so while a swarm of birds might look like the rapid t-Virus infected crows of Resident Evil, and a lone horse wandering a landscape like a surreal scene from Melancholia, all of the imagery in Such Mean Estate is presented as a collective of cinematic interpretations of the end-of-days. The photographs are printed small, which adds to their anonymity, as does the blurriness of the figures in silhouettes, and the glimpses of rubble. There are images of chaos, with smoke-filled skies and streets strewn with abandoned cars, and quiet ambiguous moments, like a child jumping on a trampoline and charred trees stripped of branches.
The apocalypse, like the beast of Revelation, has many faces in art and media, from Albrecht Dürer’s 15th-century “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” interpreting the biblical end with war, famine, pestilence, and death trampling humanity, to contemporary work like Hiroshi Sugimoto’s 2014 Aujourd’hui le monde est mort (Lost Human Genetic Archive), which considered humanity’s collapse from different perspectives represented by assemblages of found objects — our lives reduced to the refuse we leave behind. In movies, the world dies again and again, and Spencer’s photographs frame this obsession like a slightly out-of-focus, shared nightmare that repeatedly considers what horrors may or may not happen.