The Apocalypses of the “Fleeing Shadows”
Henry Jesionka made a high stakes gamble with this exhibition. After months, even years of preparation, he was present at KULTUM for its setup in recent weeks with an unwavering consistency. For a long time, it was hard to know whether and how his concept, sketched years ago, would come to fruition as an "outside observer". Whether it might all be too much, too complex, and too simple at the same time. The high stakes gamble posed a risk – over which the artist triumphed. And with him, the people who will see this exhibition. It is now – in cooperation with the festival La Strada – on display at the KULTUMUSEUM during the summer weeks of 2023. It also showcases Jesionka's decades of experience in dealing with images, sculptures, and spaces.
To say that Henry Jesionka "is preoccupied with questions about the impact of scientific research and development on our societies" would be an understatement. He went all-in, seeking the ancient questions of myths, of becoming and passing away, of Promethean Titanism, and the subsequent punishment of the gods – which are, devoid of myth and rooted starkly realpolitik: annihilation is not only conceivable as a myth but also really possible, even likely – if we do not all take a stand against it. Jesionka erects a memorial to the harbinger of the possibility of our self-extinction, the physicist and father of nuclear fission, J. Robert Oppenheimer, placing him, the "American Prometheus," in the Vesica Piscis or mandorla, which was reserved for Christ for centuries, even surrounds him with "relics" and presents him at the end of the narrative, encompassing three exhibition cells, as an almost fluorescent black shadow on the wall, dandyishly and intellectually conversing with a cigarette, while his chair, which he must have just sat on, still stands. These are the reports from the energy flash, hotter than that of the sun, the atomic bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki of August 6 and 9, 1945: They erased hundreds of thousands of lives in seconds. What was not wiped out into nothingness was thrown as a shadow on the wall with an energy hitherto unprecedented in human history. "Fleeing Shadows" is the title of this exhibition. An elegy is dedicated to these shadows in the same room. Especially those shadows in the present, whose attempts to flee reach us daily and whose plight threatens to politically shatter the rich, western societies.
"Trinity" was the cynical title of the first atomic bomb explosion, which J. Robert Oppenheimer named the detonation on July 16, 1945, in the New Mexico desert. Henry Jesionka dedicates a room-high monument to him, whose mandorla-shaped circling also contains time capsules that document the process of nuclear fission, by using paintings from archival photos. The Prometheus, the Titan, the man, the "crown of creation" — almost kitschily, the artist positions a gilded crown, dripping from its spikes, over Oppenheimer.
For Jesionka, "Trinity", this unimaginable monstrosity, is the key to making extensive use of Christian iconography in this concentrated narrative. "Quis Deus?", or English, "Who is (like) God?" is the question which was given to the archangel Michael as a name. Henry Jesionka runs through this question from A to Z along unfathomable cognitive abilities which simultaneously entail potential total extinction hidden in the shadow.
Some "last things" tumble around the nanoseconds of photos of nuclear fission which circulate like relics around the forefather of this fission in the first room and finally around the impact of this energy. The very impact which presses the smoking physicist as a black shadow against the wall in this exhibition in the third room.
They also revolve around two large sculptures in the second room – one is a polished aluminium casting, which shows the Challenger carrier rocket that exploded 73.191 seconds after the ignition in 1986. The other sculpture – only about 3 seconds later – is referred to as "T= +76.437", which is a patinated and polished bronze casting.
The forms are – of course as two-dimensional images – burnt into the collective memory as a media image. From those, the artist has built two 3D models and laboriously cast the two sculptures. The "last things" also revolve around the insights about "black holes" and their titan of knowledge Stephen Hawking, an icon of human intelligence, who, due to his illness, also became an icon of communication with artificial intelligence. Hawking, who perhaps saw (or calculated) as much of the infinite dimensions of the cosmos as no one else and nevertheless denied a God. This also implies the next mega-threat, which, of all people, Hawking warned of (and which Wenzel Mraček unearthed in his text on this exhibition): "Unless we learn how to prepare for, and avoid, the potential risks, AI could be the worst event in the history of our civilization." Hawking, who was born in 1942 and died in 2018, proved as early as 1975 that "Black Holes“ absorb everything but themselves, in contrast, they radiate outwards. In other words: the calculated "nothing", the total vacuum, cannot be the absolute nothing. Not even physically. This "black radiation" is physically perceptible, as mentioned, in the last room. But it is a different one than the one Hawking meant. It is the nuclear fission made possible by human intelligence, which releases as much energy as the sun continuously demonstrates.
Shouldn't we also think of the sun metaphorically? As light of the light, for example, as an eternal image, as the consolation of good news, as a redeeming lamb? Henry Jesionka also embeds such overtones in his three rooms. If one looks closely, he also navigates the fine, yet radical balance of aesthetics and ethics in his exhibition. Not only does he add "Dolly the Sheep" to the icon of Stephen Hawking (Could it not also be an "Agnus Dei"?), his "Elégie" for the fleeing also cries out for the sun of justice. In front of the stranded, shattered wooden boat are two intersecting circles of barbed wire, which likely remind us of Christ's crown of thorns and not the dripping crown of the first room. Their intersection forms another mandorla – or a "vesica piscis". This iconographic symbol of eternity is now dedicated to those who perished on the crossing of the Mediterranean. The side facing the viewer shows a lead hand; it contains quotes of refugees. A gold hand is back to back against it, which we cannot see except in the mirrors behind it, deep inside the smashed boat: In it, however, the viewer also sees their own reflection. Sentences from the Sermon on the Mount are written on the reflected gold hand. "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness..., blessed are the hungry..., blessed are the mourners..." Et cetera. "They will be...!" (Mt 5)
For Henry Jesionka, art is inextricably linked to a message, one that he unmistakably codes with Christian symbols. He is not ashamed of this, on the contrary. As a media scientist, filmmaker and visual artist, Jesionka has gained an anchor in Christianity, whose codes he now implements in a way that not only takes up the last questions of old theology, but rather those of the survival of humankind itself. However, simply raising questions does not suffice for Henry Jesionka. It's about recognition. And about a decisive, responsible action, not to interpret the apocalypse apocalyptically in the godless sense, but as the final revelation.