How many times can the world end? If the current abundance of post-apocalyptic fiction is anything to go by, too many times. Coming out of this crowded field of contemporary art and popular culture is David Blandy’s exhibition ‘The World After’ at Focal Point Gallery, Southend-on-Sea. The show takes as its subject Canvey Wick on Canvey Island, Essex, the site of a partially built oil refinery that was abandoned after the oil crisis in 1973. A case study in regeneration, the Wick is now a 93.2 hectare nature reserve, and one of the most important areas in Britain for endangered invertebrates. For over a year, Blandy has worked with local gaming communities in Southend to write a fictional future for this site, resulting in a film, an installation and a Dungeons and Dragons-esque role-playing game.
As is the case with most contemporary dystopias, Blandy’s apocalypse is environmental. A catastrophic man-made ecological collapse has rendered the earth’s surface uninhabitable and the surviving humans have retreated to underground ‘havens’. The film-set-like installation in Gallery 1 gives a hint at what this ‘surface world’ might look like. Black gravel fills the floor, half-submerging crumbling polystyrene pillars and disused iron girders. An oversized polyhedral dice sits in the corner, its 8 sides curiously blank. Is this a scaled-up game board? The film combines live action footage of Canvey Wick, with a poetic voiceover, juxtaposing the understated beauty of the natural world with fantastical tales of plant and human mutation. The intention is to pull at the heart strings - that caterpillar flailing on a leaf could be gone tomorrow - but it is arguable if it does. There’s a tendency for the imagery and the story to stray into the generic, keeping the narrative from being fully immersive.
In Gallery 2, Blandy has created a timeline for ‘The World After,’ detailing the wars and alliances of the future societies. A small reading room sporting books on Canvey Island, the anthropocene and sci-fi titles, also hosts the rule book for Blandy’s fantasy role-playing game. One wonders if it might be better to see these works first. The history of Canvey Wick is engaging, and the film feels more plausible when grounded in historical fact.
Sadly lacking from the exhibition is Blandy’s characteristic wit, which would have brought a new angle to this well-trodden territory. His notion that table-top role-play games hold potential as a space to reimagine models of cooperation and collective working is thought-provoking, and it would have been interesting to see this play out in his time spent developing the game with the local community. In the end, the main fault of the show lies with the work imitating science fiction rather than transcending it. Taking the end of the world as a given, it skips over the inconvenience of humanity’s demise in order to get on to the world-building afterwards. It’s easier to imagine what comes after the apocalypse than it is to prevent it happening.