Finding the Dystopian heart of Milton Keynes…
Dystopia is a concept with a long association within the tradition of art history. For many an artist, the bleak vision of a mechanized, monotonous, alienated future is a place at the forefront of the mind, a place scarily easy to envisage, and therefore a constant meme within our society. And for the eccentric Norwegian artist Hariton Pushwagner this is all too true.
Soft City (detail), 1969-76
Pushwagner’s defining work, Soft City, a 154 page graphic novel, which forms the core of, and lends its title to the current exhibition at the MK Gallery, unashamedly confronts convention, delivering an epic satire on the mechanics of capitalism, the loss of the individual and the drab environments of an Orwellian future. Focusing on one family, husband, wife and baby, Soft City takes us on a journey through a day in their life. The rudimentary linear drawings lend themselves perfectly to the task in hand, using his sparse bleak palette, Pushwagner creates a world built on a production line. Repetitive scenes of suited men in cars heading to work draw out the routine monotony of daily life. The cold, automatic lifestyles, and distant family relationships are all poignantly captured in the penned in strips. Reminiscent of Orwell’s 1984, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, Alasdair Gray’s Lanark, and countless others, Pushwagner draws off art history, science-fiction and contemporary culture to create a wonderfully intricate, and powerfully dark alternate universe. While life marches along as a construct of automatism, thought bubbles penetrate the frames with images of fighter pilots – perhaps a memory from a distant life, perhaps a yearning for an unreachable dream – but as thoughts they are doomed to remain. This is a life of control, a life where there is no place for individuals and late comers, a place where ‘If you don’t make it you’re fired, If you’re fired, you are finished’.
A Day in the Life of Family Man (detail), 1980
Pushwagner uses a mix of dark humour and strong messages to deliver a heavy-handed satire on the greed and hierarchical power structures. For this exhibition the artist has designed a work in the form of a giant pop mouth covering the gallery entrance, a visual link to the theme of a world hungry for power and the spectacle, this exhibition will literally swallow you up.
Other works in the exhibition play with similar themes. A Day in the Life of Family Man, this time with the introduction of a garish pink into the colour scheme, depicts scenes of daily family life, each with a distinctly Pushwagerian makeover, many of which foreshadow what has come to be. Whole walls are engulfed by television screens, to which husband and wife sit sipping tea enslaved to the set. Life is sustained by a concoction of drugs, one to make you stay awake, another to help you sleep, and undoubtedly many others just out of shot.
All of Pushwagner’s works have a very cinematic quality to them and it is easy to imagine them in the form of a moving image, with a strong linear narrative. Indeed, Soft City, has been transformed into an animation, on display at the gallery, where the pages come life, bringing home the themes of mass production and alienation seen in the printed form.
In the final room of the gallery are a group of works entitled, The Apocalypse Frieze, a series comprising of seven paintings, which as the name suggests are probably the darkest of all the works on display. The paintings are all obsessively intricate, and repetitive, consistent with the theme running throughout. Probably the most dramatic of the seven is Jobkill a work evocative of many things. In an art historical sense, the work is reminiscent of works such as Pieter Brugel the Elder’s Triumph of War (c.1562), or indeed Goya’s equally grotesque imagery in his Disasters of War series (1810-1820), or even more recently calls to mind the Chapman Brother’s Hell (2000). Pushwagner creates a catastrophic vision, part Nazi concentration camp, part arms-factory, part war-zone, in which piles of skeletons and bodies writhe between gun turrets, machinery and a sky swarming with fighter jets.
At a time when western capitalism is under heavy scrutiny as the economy struggles and the gap between rich and poor continues to expand, Pushwagner: Soft City seems to pose numerous questions about contemporary society, showing a bleak vision of our possible future, but also perhaps suggesting that it is not to late to do something about it.