Climate Change and the Return of Fascism in the 21st Century

The Haunting yet Hopeful Vision of Kahn & Selesnick

If early 20th-century physicians presented optimistic visions of humanity’s capability to prevent or forestall death due to once-common diseases, and later 20th-century artists reflected humanity’s capacity to inflict widespread death through war, genocide, and nuclear weapons, how would 21st-century artists come to understand humanity’s long-term relationship with death? For humans, animals, and plants are not only living things, they are mortal things. Our awareness of our own mortality is frequently cast by philosophy, psychology, and art as integral to how we make decisions about how to live. This awareness, however, ebbs and flows. Sometimes death is the furthest thing from our minds, while at other times we are acutely aware of it.

The works by the artist duo Kahn & Selesnick presented here offer a vision of death as a companion throughout our lives. It is a being who is prone to human habits - it likes to have a cup of coffee - and it may participate in events with humanity. Yet, unlike the predatory Death seen in prior works, it is a neutral being. Death here represents a “God’s-eye” view of life and the world, alongside similarly potent figures including the Green Man - a force of regeneration with whom Death symbolize the cycle of death and rebirth - and the Fledermaus, the Bat - who represents Death’s twin, Sleep, and the dreams which accompany it. Death is presented as constant presence in life, one with whom humanity maintains a dialogue. Richard Selesnick noted, “If there’s a model, I’d say it’s sort of like The Seventh Seal, where the Knight is constantly having this dialogue with Death and engaged in a game and a rapport with him.”[1]

Kahn & Selesnick work across multiple media, including drawing, painting, printmaking, and photography, as well as scene, object, and costume design. Furthermore, they are storytellers whose visual work has long been complemented by complex narratives. The engaging and evocative historical fictions of their early work (Eisbergfreistadt, The Circular River, The Apollo Prophecies) simultaneously stimulate credulousness and doubt. In both early and later works, the artists succeed in creating new archetypes that appeal to the subconscious and stir deeply personal emotional responses. The artist and scholar Antoinette LaFarge contrasts the historical inclination of the early works with those exhibited here, writing that this group, “centers on the adventures of ‘Truppe Fledermaus’, a carnivalesque cabaret troupe whose members are deeply concerned about the future of the world.”[2]

Nicholas Kahn elaborated on how their Dances of Death address those concerns, saying, “I think we unleashed ourselves in the most recent project, trying to do it with the French Revolution as a theme – how many ways we can really tell this in a new language and talk about the Green Revolution and climate change, mixed with the need for political change, and fear of the combination of climate change and political fascism.”[3] The works balance deadly seriousness about current and future global threats with hopefulness and humor. Kahn further observed, “There’s the Jewish tradition of laughing in the face of all that is most terrifying, and certainly coming out of the Holocaust the only way to face it was with absolute humor. So, we approach the approach the absolute horror of climate change and fascism with humor as much as possible, but it’s as serious a business as we could ever be facing.”[4] Just as a sense of human agency in warding off death led to the recognition of human culpability in the deaths of others, the admission of responsibility opens up the possibility of changing negative behaviors.

[1] Nicholas Kahn & Richard Selesnick interview with the curator (June 16, 2022).

[2] Antoinette LaFarge, Sting in the Tale: Art, Hoax, and Provocation. (DoppelHouse Press, 2021), p. 171.

[3] Kahn & Selesnick (June 16, 2022).

[4] Ibid.

Climate Change and the Return of Fascism in the 21st Century