New Dark Ages

Stephen Hendee’s exhibit examines the artifacts of a fictional post-apocalypse

In 2026, the sun came undone. Electromagnetic waves destroyed communications, air travel, the world economy. Billions died of starvation. Cities were abandoned. History became myth. Scientific knowledge devolved into lost magic. What remained of mankind reconnected with nature; people returned to the land, taking over farms previously owned by corporations. Performance and memory once again served as the basis of community entertainment. Or at least that’s how Las Vegas artist Stephen Hendee’s excellent, thought-provoking new show describes it.

The Textiles of Dark Age Era North America: True Artifacts and Reproductions, From 2026-2280, which opens Aug. 27 at UNLV, chronicles humanity’s struggle to recover from a post-apocalypse. The show features textiles, clothing and artifacts, with postdated explanatory panels next to each piece providing a narrative of doom, social upheaval and civilization’s return. Dark Age asks questions such as: How would humanity continue without digital technology, such as Google or Wikipedia, to give us our history? How might we preserve our stories? Would there be art?

The exhibit provides its own answers in the form of handcrafted banners, tribal flags and wall hangings—the promotional tools of traveling storytellers reciting works of literature, books that had vanished during The Collapse. Scanned and uploaded, these works were to live eternally in a virtual literary Eden. Permanent power loss changed that. Titles, authors and publication dates of these books are often wrong, as presumably are the now-orally rendered stories.

Two years in the making, Hendee’s massive, colorful textiles are meant to signify books. Minimalist and beautiful, they could easily serve as reprint-edition covers for sci-fi classics. The banners represent just that—for example, J.G. Ballard’s Crash, Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. “Leviathan, Hobbes, 1651” is different, being a famous and even older nonfiction work of political philosophy; still, it’s an instructive tome that fits perfectly alongside 20th-/21st-century speculative novels.

A few wall hangings function as menus, no doubt for a storyteller who knew more than a few tales. There’s a simple list of Philip K. Dick (Blade Runner) selections, which include a few of his major works as well as less-acclaimed pulps. One menu boasts a variety of material, such as, “The Unibomber,” likely a version of the Unabomber Manifesto, and “Zombies, Romaro, 1968,” likely an oral interpretation of filmmaker George Romero’s classic Night of the Living Dead, or perhaps some other movie misattributed to him.

There’s a bit of Mel Gibson’s The Road Warrior lurking in Hendee’s imagination. This fictional era is mythologized similarly to the way we mythologize the Wild West. In this case, people from the future are looking back on a post-apocalyptic past, and we as 21st-century viewers have been time-machined into their future to gaze upon reproductions, oracles and trophies, like the 26 Mayors of Chicago’s scepter, which resembles a shotgun. There’s also a polished aluminum baseball bat that once belonged to a warlord named Olivia of Manhattan.

In the genre of post-apocalyptic fiction, human relationships are typically in dire need of repair. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (Knopf, 2006), for instance, asks if we still have a soul after everything has fallen apart. Indeed, the narrative of the post-apocalypse mourns the loss of empathy due to the distance between people, a distance fostered by technology, suburban sprawl and our increasingly spoiled behavior. It’s a distance that, ironically, the wasteland can mend. Despite a disturbing setting, the post-apocalypse narrative celebrates a return to our essential humanity, even if we feel there’s no other option but to, as in Nevil Shute’s On the Beach (Ballantine Books, 1957), sit behind the wheel of a car and down a cyanide pill.

Ultimately, Hendee’s Dark Ages offers light at the end of a grim tunnel. This is an exhibit that praises man’s ceaseless ingenuity, his inherent creativity, his fierce striving for community even after all our gadgets, after our so-called civilization, has been brushed aside by God’s fickle hand. As U.S. wars of imperialism grind on and the U.S. economy continues to wither, there isn’t a better time than right now to experience Hendee’s work. And there’s irony in its being displayed inside UNLV’s Marjorie Barrick Museum of Natural History; the museum’s collection is based on Mesoamerican art and artifacts. Clearly, Hendee, a UNLV art assistant professor, takes perverse fun in tapping into an institutional desire to record and exhibit the history of certain areas and peoples. The artist has added his own artifacts representing a fictional continuity of mankind through an incredibly gloomy period. Let’s hope and pray that his future-history never comes to pass.

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