Photos and Review by Caspar Gajewski
End times are many-named, having been called Frashokereti, the end of history, Armageddon, the place of the last battle, and Dabbah, the planet-killing comet. Even if apt, compared with these eschatologies, our nomenclature is boring: climate change.
“Someday, all this,” Queens-based artist David Opdyke’s most recent work, is a better name for these portentous times. It is being shown at the Climate Museum’s current pop-up in SoHo. Comprised of some 400 hand-painted postcards from early twentieth century America, the mosaic measures eight by 11 feet and appears, at first glance, like a Google search image result for “tranquil vacation spots near me.” Think again.
Up-close, close enough to make a security guard shudder, mostly rural postcards resolve into Opdyke’s added scenes of apocalyptic pageantry. Tentacular presences poke out of wheat fields, decimating crops, or ensnare boats, dragging them beneath the water’s surface. Fire wreathes the crests of skyscrapers, and monstrous banalities, grown titanic—giant monarch butterflies, caterpillars and crows—sack cities. Signs flutter, ragged and exhausted, in still winds: “GO BACK,” “This is not our problem,” “Let us in.” The work is a biblical revelation, postlapsarian.
Just a little light sightseeing at the end of the world: “Which Airbnb did you say, honey, burning tower or crumbling cliff?”
Is “Someday, all this” gorgeous? Yes. Does it engender shame? Yeah, that, too. It terrifies as it titillates. For a generation raised on a steady diet of environmental dystopias and now living through one, the piece satisfies all of our apathetic yearnings to just let go. And yet. Take a step back, put distance between yourself and it, and peer at the pastels that rear up like a rainbow after a storm. There is something pastoral there, something to be saved.
Opdyke was born in post-industrial Schenectady, New York, just five years after General Electric relocated its manufacturing facility from there to Fairfield, Connecticut, leaving thousands jobless. His artwork is haunted by evacuations of this kind, empty, mute manifestations of impersonal but life-destroying systems: extractive capitalism, environmental despoliation, consumerism, American militarism.
“Oil Empire,” released in 2003, was an astonishing grid of Gordian pipes in the shape of the United States. In 2006,“Prospect” arrived, a crowning achievement in his diagnostic library of human ills, a bas-relief, a slab of geology, striated and strange. In the middle of his wall to end all walls is a thin line, a nod to the irradiated KT boundary: a stratum of plastic and metal, the materials that, if we perish, are likely all that will remain to identify us.
In 2019, when “This Land,” his first of three postcard murals to date, was given its vernissage, something had changed, utterly. Gone are the finger wagging polemics against bad faith politics. Knackered, Opdyke’s anger had transmuted into love and concentrated figuration, focusing his mind on the people affected by systems rather than the other way round.
“Someday, all this” is moving precisely because it is not haunted. We are alive, however tenuously, in his ravaged worlds. Jostling alongside signs decrying “NO CLIMATE REFUGEES” are clarions to community: seeking respite, a flotilla of sailboats scythes through water, backpacked travelers hump along uprooted roads, undeterred, a phalanx of bare-chested men fish for food, sporting for survival.
The Climate Museum bills itself as an “activist museum.” At the current pop-up visitors are encouraged to write letters to their congressional representatives, their family or friends, on reprints of Opdyke’s postcards, which the museum mails at no cost. In that milieu, there is something numinous in “Someday, all this.” The postcards become prayers.
Apocalyptic visions are not new. In 1830, Jonathan Martin released “London’s Overthrow,” prefiguring Opdyke’s works. Above the city a lion laments a burning, damned London, messy, pillaged by marauding armies, sentient flames and divine symbology.
Fifty years later, Nietzsche wrote, “God is dead. And we have killed him.” The Judeo-Christian worldview was collapsing under the strain of Darwin’s piercing gaze. Ideologies both hopeful and hateful arose to supplant it.
In the following century, after the two World Wars, after the Green Revolution and “Silent Spring,” an American chemist named James Lovelock looked at Earth and felt cosseted. He leveraged science to propose an essentially animist idea: the Gaia hypothesis, which states that Earth is a self-regulating, complex organism. Read: alive.
“Someday, all this,” still holds its center, precariously. Frayed bungee cords are painted crisscrossing through each postcard. If you step back, there is a bit of the vestigial animism of the Gaia hypothesis at play within the piece. Neither the art nor the Earth is alive, of course, but they linger in us.
At the center of the mural stands a half-naked toddler, his back turned on us in rebuke. He is on a beach, at the end of the world, peering out at the horizon. The sun might be setting or rising.
Opdyke’s postcards, sent forward by some tachyon technology, might be the warning our progenitors would have mailed to us, had they known what they were summoning. But now, in the light and full of knowledge, we knowingly send these to our grandchildren in greeting. “Lo,” we say, “welcome to your new world.”