999 Words

Engine of Survival: notes on Nicolas Grenier’s future visions

The future was undoubtedly Leonard Cohen’s purview.

Montreal’s perpetual poet laureate seemed to possess an uncanny ability to diagnose and prognosticate what was to come. His 1992 song entitled “The Future,” from the album of the same name, is a blunt indictment of the tortuous human path Cohen foresaw. “Things are going to slide,” he growls ominously in the chorus; “slide in all directions.” The filmmaker Oliver Stone used this song to superb effect in his 1993 film, Natural Born Killers, a sendup of serial-killer celebrities and the American media’s creed, “If it bleeds, it leads.”

Stone’s satire of murder and media was an attempt to hold up a funhouse mirror to the geopolitics and popular culture of the not-too-distant day, as if to say, behold what you shall become. There was a sense at that time that over-the-top satire would be enough, that the public would inevitably decode this cinematic harbinger, this prolonged Saturday Night Live skit, anticipate the dangerous future toward which we were tumbling, and change course. But that didn’t happen. The film instead encouraged the sardonic acceptance of death and destruction as tabloid entertainment. And Cohen was right: the future was murder.

Nicolas Grenier’s outstanding new works of sculpture, drawing, and painting, now on exhibition at Bradley Ertaskiran, echo Cohen’s dire futuristic warnings. Charcoal drawings on paper depict chessboard scenes of toppled deities; abstract op-art paintings pop out into three-dimensional space; two prominent statues placed on pedestals in the gallery’s center fuse famous figures: the Statue of Liberty melds with Vladimir Lenin, and Siddhartha with Jesus Christ in extremis. Surely, some form of Cohen-esque poetry is at work in conventional artistic traditions being deployed in the service of subverting cultural conventions.

There is an undercurrent throughout Grenier’s oeuvre that all bets are off. The old yardsticks of human civilization are being uprooted and the twin columns of ideology and religion — those once-permanent measures of human progress — are irrevocably transitioning into hybrid, mutant forms. They are unrecognizable, and yet still indispensable. A fundamental theme of the show, entitled Esquisses d’un inventaire, is the sense that the winds of change themselves have changed. An alternate title for this collection could have been the Cohen lyric: “The blizzard of the world has crossed the threshold and it’s overturned the order of the soul.”

Although they are technically excellent, even nearing perfection, Grenier’s illusionistic paintings, in particular, hint at a devolutionary impulse in operation in the historical record. Seemingly clean lines upon closer inspection reveal the jagged imperfections of the painting process — and of the media themselves. The canvas’s flat surfaces are enlisted to do more than simply represent images; the two-dimensional plane does triple duty here, transcending its function as a purveyor of paint and jumping valence into the realm of performance. What the paintings mean is a matter of interpretation. What they do is not.

It is noteworthy that Azza El Siddique’s enormous and slowly corroding two-headed cobra is on display in the gallery’s basement bunker space, as if symbolically manipulating the inner workings of the underworld just beneath Grenier’s superficial interface. In its repose, the snake evokes a majestic ferocity, poised just as easily to kill its prey or turn on itself. The opposite of Ouroboros, the fabled serpent devouring its own tail, this creature of revisionist mythology has no tail to devour, and no orifice from which to expel its own venomousness. It is pure appetite, the world serpent now eating for two.

Throughout the twentieth century, and every century before it, there was a broad cultural assumption that the future would be an improvement upon the past, that each generation would be better than its ancestors, that technology would aid humanity, and that the word ‘progress’ possessed some intrinsic, universal consequence. In the twenty-first century, we are witnessing the first iteration of a new, millennial generation in which progress is synonymous with stagnation and retrogression, in which technologies reflect human failures, and in which the monolithic future has shattered into shards of potential futurity.

This new-normal, doomed-future mentality is a result of what the late cultural theorist Mark Fisher described as “consciousness deflation” or: the systematic and deliberate destruction of individual and collective social agency. The ability to imagine better futures has been replaced with the inability to imagine such things, and with the assumption that time is but a slow march towards oblivion. Of course, capitalists are among the first to advance this assumption, because nothing is as profitable as despair. Keeping large populations of people in ignorance, with some hint of remembrance for a time when the future seemed bright, is a tenet of Control.

One of the biggest challenges of foretelling the future is effectively communicating a prophetic vision. And one of the biggest curses of the psychic mind is not having an answer. How to tell the others? Nostradamus predicted the future in cryptic metaphors. Leonard Cohen wrote poetry and recorded them as songs. Oliver Stone set them to ironic, brutal images. And Nicolas Grenier paints, draws, and sculpts complex concepts simultaneously into aesthetically pleasing and thought-provoking works of art. Creation, not destruction, will save our future. And the best modes of communication are also the oldest.

Although Leonard Cohen is championed by today’s wokest, he was hardly of that ilk, decrying the rise of drug use, frivolous sex, and abortion, and pointing to a perversion of more traditional morals as the culprit for humanity’s imminent descent. Yet, there is a crack in Cohen’s crusty façade, and that is how the optimism gets in. If we are to survive as a species, Cohen suggests, we need to love without conditions, without borders, and without prejudice. There is no roadmap for that future. It is unprecedented. It is literally off-the-grid. That is what I see Grenier’s works signalling as well: where we’re going, we don’t need roads.

Verily, the only path to the future is back.◼︎

Esquisses d’un inventaire continues at Bradley Ertaskiran through 22 April 2023.