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Ben Rivers’s dystopian films light up the Renaissance Society

The British artist’s first U.S. solo exhibition imagines a postapocalyptic future through the lens of a disturbing present.

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The films of London-based contemporary artist Ben Rivers resemble elaborate works of science fiction. His solo show "Urth," now on display at the Renaissance Society, is filled with imaginary worlds inhabited by shaken and isolated societies. Each piece, projected throughout three adjoining rooms in the gallery, is a chilling portent of a future devastated by climate change and miserable with human solitude.

Though rooted in moving images, Rivers's work also features writing, photography, and drawing; the approach likely derives from an artistic background not entirely focused on film. Growing up in Somerset, a secluded county in the British southwest, Rivers moved away after graduating high school in 1990 to attend Falmouth School of Art in Cornwall. Over the course of his three years there, his specialization in painting quickly transformed into an interest in sculpture, which eventually led him to discover film, now his preferred mode of expression.

"It encapsulates everything," he said during an artist talk with Solveig Øvstebø, the Renaissance Society's executive director and chief curator, following the opening of "Urth" last month. "The first films I made after art school were more about places. And more about the places that people had left behind: the ghosts."

The exhibition's title piece, Urth—a site-specific installation specially commissioned by the Renaissance Society—envisions a woman's survival in an artificial environment after the actual planet has been deserted. The film depicts the woman's lonely existence in an oxygen-drained and famine-stricken Biosphere 2, where she claims refuge in the face of an irreparably destroyed earth.

"I liked the idea of these different temperate regions and people attempting to live inside that, and be separate from the world," Rivers said during the artist talk. He spoke of Biosphere 2, the site of the highly publicized closed-system ecological experiment that took place in Arizona's Sonoran Desert in the early 90s. Though certain aspects of the experiment's wayward design were contentious, its fundamental premise—to test whether human survivors of a planet-wide cataclysm could survive by maintaining and residing in an earthlike artificial habitat—motivates Urth.

"I just started thinking about that place in 50 years' time or something, had there been another experiment," Rivers said. "At a certain point, communication with the outside world disappears, the people in there either leave or die, and there's just this one woman left. She's literally the last woman on earth, stuck in this fake earth which is just clinging on, clinging on to life."

This stubborn evasion of imminent human extinction is discernible in each of the works exhibited at the Renaissance Society. In Slow Action, Rivers overlays footage captured on "islands" with original text from science fiction writer Mark von Schlegell. The series, inspired by the 150th anniversary of Darwin's On the Origin of Species, unfolds as four 16- millimeter films depicting isolated postapocalyptic locales are projected simultaneously onto four panels in the gallery: the volcanic province of Lanzarote, one of the Canary Islands; the abandoned mining community of Gunkanjima, near Nagasaki; the Polynesian reef nation Tuvalu; and Somerset, a reimagining of the artist's native home. Across the hall, Things—an autobiographical travelogue that takes place in the confines of Rivers's London apartment—boasts nouveau roman influences, CGI, and the humorous trials of a fearless woodland garden visitor.

Like the other films in the exhibit, Urth (which also features contributions from von Schlegell) is rich with subtle literary, cultural, and artistic allusions. The name "Urth," which derives from an Old Norse word that roughly translates to "fate," is mentioned in philosopher and ecotheorist Timothy Morton's 2016 book Dark Ecology. Rivers and von Schlegel also drew from Victorian dystopian fiction such as Mary Shelley's The Last Man.

For Urth, visitors listen through headphones to the voice of narrator Janice Kerbel, a fellow London-based artist whom Rivers recruited for the role. Through this individualized viewing experience, each observer experiences the film in solitary and sympathetic parallel with its expiring protagonist, the surviving scientist whose journal-entry narrations indicate a gradual descent toward insanity. For audience members, the effect is haunting: the woman's hysterical realization of her failure to survive is all that remains.  v

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