A New York Artist Examines Our Media-Saturated View of Society’s Collapse
Jesse Hlebo sends dispatches from an apocalypse that’s being ignored in real time. Working in a visual vocabulary of scorched plywood and torn drywall—like a Gordon Matta-Clark for the Internet Age—the young New York artist creates visceral documents of an uncertain world.
Hlebo’s latest show, “In Pieces,” the first at Edel Assanti’s new location in London’s Fitzrovia, was inspired in part by two very different kinds of violence that bookend the contemporary cultural climate: desperate Black Friday fights streamed on World Star Hip Hop and grand juries choosing not to indict police officers in the murders of unarmed black men. For this site-specific installation the walls are covered in burnt slabs of cheap, industrial plywood. With no narrative to explain their weathered state, the result is a jarring disconnect between the minimalist beauty of the compositions and the inherent violence of their creation. Something, it seems, is amiss.
In the center of the room sits the 2015 piece In Pieces (for Sebastian), a video embedded in burnt plasterboard and propped up on found wooden palettes, which plays a loop of content from recent disasters and riots from around the world, sourced from the internet. The unrelenting loop of lo-fi amateur footage and videos of Hurricane Sandy, the Boston Marathon bombing, and fighting in Ukraine and Gaza blend together in a kind of parallel-universe, user-generated answer to the horror porn of the 24-hour cable news cycle.
But Hlebo isn’t only interested in the disintegration of societies—and the type of graphic imagery that comes with it. His work serves to question the very way we experience that disintegration today: from the propaganda put out by the mainstream press to the uncertainty posed by user-generated social media reportage and images disseminated without context. “In the amalgamation, there’s just so much,” the artist has said. “There’s constant documenting, constant streaming … People don’t question its validity or where it comes from.”
The video has a certain YouTube aesthetic, with its overwhelming waves of neverending information reminiscent of the world of videos blaring in bits and pieces just a click away. The architectural fragments around it, however, provide a quieter meditation on a culture collapsing. The burnt pieces appear almost like torn photographs or drawings salvaged from a fire, allowing the viewer to project his or her own narrative onto the image’s creation. As the artist has said: “Looking into the fragment of a mirror is the last remaining way to see our reflection.”