© image taken from: https://66p.pl/en/after-the-end-without-a-beginning-jacek-zachodny

OPENING: After the End, Without a Beginning. Jacek Zachodny

curator: Łukasz Kropiowski

When, at the beginning of the last decade of the 20th century, the Charter of Paris for a New Europe was signed, ending the Cold War and proclaiming the beginning of a “new era of democracy, peace and unity,” the future seemed bright. Mankind seemed to be destined for the safe haven of globalisation, which would allow us to wallow in the luxuries of capitalism, the benefits of liberal democracy and a happy ending to history. In the late 1990s, Thomas L. Friedman put forward the reassuring “golden arches theory,” claiming that countries in which McDonald’s opened a branch would turn into lands of peace. It was based on the simple premise that “people in McDonald’s countries don’t like to fight wars anymore, they prefer to wait in line for burger.”[1]

In the third decade of the 21st century, no one – not even the consumer queuing for a nutritious hamburger – shares this enthusiasm. Instead of visions of prosperity, the spectres of climate catastrophe, crises (financial, migratory, pandemic) or armed conflict are looming larger than ever before. Book titles no longer herald the end of history, rather the end of civilisation. Meanwhile, Jacek Zachodny refers in his latest work to the acute sense of the end of the world as we have known it so far; an experience of an era in which “old myths are collapsing, new ones are yet to emerge.”

Is there a polite way to wake a sleeping man, Norwid wondered.[2] Apparently not; for if one were to wake him up by dropping the lightest rose-leaf on his face, it would be a very exquisite or poetic thing to do, but it would not be polite, for in the end one has to interrupt the sleeper’s dream – and interrupt it at once, not slowly, but suddenly, moving him with one movement into another reality and another obviousness. It is therefore not possible to move anyone from one obviousness to another in a polite manner, and a certain brutality seems to be inherent in such work. Zachodny is unlikely to win a medal in the category of politely awakening dreamers – his exhibition After the End, Without a Beginning depicts a reality in which all the black scenarios have come true. However, it is not the artist’s “brutality” that should be surprising here, but the fact that we are asleep, wallowing in outdated dreams, while the alarm bells are ringing and all the lights are flashing red.

Collapsology lists the most common causes of the collapse of civilisation: war, growing social inequalities, unsustainable exploitation of resources, climate change, natural disasters, disease, long-term cognitive decline, the unwillingness of societies to make the necessary changes. Let us compare them with the challenges currently facing humanity, as signalled by various fields of research: the return of power politics, militarism and fundamentalisms, increasing social inequality, human-induced changes in the geoecosystem and atmosphere affecting the climate and the chemical composition of the oceans, deforestation, loss of biodiversity, dwindling non-renewable resources, soil erosion and depletion, lack of action to effectively prevent the overflow of the “planetary sewer and garbage dump” and to curb gas emissions that cause temperature rises. The parallels are all too striking…

A scientific discipline called “synthetic-failure palaeoanalysis” was invented by literary fiction in order to diagnose the causes of humanity’s inaction in the 21st century.[3] It focuses on failed civilisations, with a particular emphasis on the interconnectedness of social, physical and biological systems. Zachodny creates a kind of a palaeoanalytic museum – he looks at our civilisation from a future perspective, presenting a “mock-up” of the post-catastrophe landscape: scorched earth, piled remains of life before the disaster, a crater with a strand of light hovering above it – the cause of annihilation, or perhaps, on the contrary, the harbinger of a new stage in the cycle of the extinction of one species and the birth of other dynasties, which has been going on for millions of years. The colourful missile-totems and the mandala made up of targets are evocative motifs that we could find in the souvenir shop of the Museum of the Future as key rings and designs on bags and pins, which would probably be an accurate conclusion about human character. The exhibition is completed by an altar with the remains of a dolphin. This marine mammal has become one of the kitsch icons of the age of unbridled consumerism, with its image appearing on countless products (amid palm trees and sunsets) or being used as the name of sports teams and, shamelessly, of gas extraction companies. It is bitterly ironic that it has also become one of the symbols of the “great extinction” caused by the activity of our species.[4]

The artist uses a fictional setting to show the real consequences of the human lifestyle. Humans are almost absent, as if they had wiped themselves out to complete the act. The exhibition can be seen not only as a dystopian museum of the more or less distant collapse of civilisation, but also as a symptom of the current shattering of “adaptive optimism” – the certainty, prevalent until recently, that our capacity to adapt is almost limitless. It seems that the longer we repeat after Thatcher that “there is no alternative”[5] and cling to the current socio-economic construct, the less chance there is of a happy ending to the human story.

[1] T. L. Friedman, The Lexus and the Olive Tree, New York: Anchor Books, 2000, p. 253.
[2] C. K. Norwid, Milczenie, in Pisma wybrane, vol. IV, Warsaw, 1980.
[3] N. Oreskes, E. M. Conway, The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future, New York: Columbia University Press, 2014.
[4] The rate of species extinction is now tens or even hundreds of times faster than it has been for the last 10 million years and is still increasing. As a result of commercial fishing in the Indian Ocean, some 4 million dolphins (80% of the population) have lost their lives over the past 70 years. Tens of thousands of dolphins and porpoises living in the Black Sea have died as a result of the war in Ukraine (they are now threatened with extinction).
[5] Although Margaret Thatcher did recognise the threat of global warming, she prioritised policies subject to the laws of the “free market,” according to her own slogan coined in the early 1980s: “There Is No Alternative.”