Journey to The Blazing World at S|2 London's Exhibition

Journey to The Blazing World at S|2 London's Exhibition

From 4th December 2019 to 30th January 2020, S│2 London will present The Blazing World; a group exhibition touching upon notions of utopia, ritual, failed hope and technology. The show is accompanied by a reprint of the second half of Margaret Cavendish’s 1666 prose fiction of the same name.
From 4th December 2019 to 30th January 2020, S│2 London will present The Blazing World; a group exhibition touching upon notions of utopia, ritual, failed hope and technology. The show is accompanied by a reprint of the second half of Margaret Cavendish’s 1666 prose fiction of the same name.

M argaret Cavendish’s fictional prose text of 1666, The Blazing World, is considered by many to be the first ever published work of science-fiction. With strong utopian and early feminist undertones, it is truly a landmark piece of literature. As the Duchess of Newcastle, Cavendish held extraordinary privilege for a woman in her era, befriending many notable philosophers and academics and being the first ever woman invited to the Royal Society. This event was so controversial and Cavendish’s character so divisive, being nicknamed ‘Mad Madge’, that another woman would not be invited for another 300 years.

“...and if any should like the World I have made, and be willing to be my Subjects, they may imagine themselves as such, and they are such, I mean in their Minds, Fancies and Imaginations; but if they cannot endure to be Subjects, they may create Worlds of their own, and Govern themselves as they please.”
Margaret Cavendish, 'The Blazing World'

The Blazing World begins with the abduction of a young woman taken far away from home by a merchant on his ship. Nearing the North Pole, the abductor and his crew perish and freeze to death, while the protagonist is saved ‘by Providence’ in a cosmically decreed levelling of injustice. Alone, the young woman floats into another world where night and day are indistinguishable as the skies are filled with constantly blazing stars. In this Blazing World she encounters the native hybrid organisms of the land: bird-men, worm-men, bear-men and mermen, and is taken to the world’s Emperor and made his Empress.

As Empress with supreme power, the protagonist marvels at the different technological advancements and strange landscape of this land, engaging its people in philosophical debates on existence, matter and morality. In need of a companion and a scribe, the Empress implores ‘Immaterial Spirits’ to seek out an individual from her home world worthy of this role and to connect her to the soul of that person. The Spirits choose one Margaret Cavendish, and the second half opens over the pair’s correspondence of the war raging back in her home nation.

The futuristic and the antique collide in a modern reading of The Blazing World and throughout S│2 London’s latest group exhibition of the same name. Exploring ritual, failed hope and technology, The Blazing World at Sǀ2 is a diverse presentation of works by: Stano Filko, Peter Hujar, Marguerite Humeau, Charlotte Johannesson, Clementine Keith-Roach, Arik Levy, Charlotte Prodger, Paul Thek, Tishan Hsu, Nanda Vigo, Anna Zemánková.

The Blazing World text took enormous risks for its time, discreetly satirising many contemporary academics and their theories. A few decades prior to its publication, the suggestion that there were parallel worlds to our own could result in execution, so the very existence of the text signifies the great shifts in the cultural psyche of the era. The story is full of references to recent inventions such as microscopes and the submarine and even imagines the use of engine-powered boats.

The exhibition at Sǀ2 London explores the interplay between the technological and the handmade, as the mirrored stainless-steel surfaces of designer Arik Levy’s LogCorner series carve through the installation space, linking each gallery to the next. Meanwhile, the natural life shown in Anna Zemánková’s colourful surrealist botanical drawings and the wild flowers hosted in Charlotte Prodger’s Signal/Sun and Verkehrs/Melon vessels, come into conversation with the contrasting themes of decay and ritual in death depicted elsewhere, as well as the hyper-futuristic installation pieces.

Artist Tishan Hsu’s conceptual artwork explores how the body merges with the visual language of technology in almost retro-futuristic ways, as shown in two works from 1987 within the Sǀ2 exhibition titled Body Battery and Low Band Width. These two artworks focus on the affectual potential of technology on humans through the format of Hsu’s signature distorted ‘cells’ that blur the boundaries between the virtual and the physical.

The distinctly futuristic quality of the glasswork in Italian artist, architect and designer Nanda Vigo’s Cronotopo and Cronotopo (N.771), from her Chronotops series, reconnoitres in which concepts of time and space as sensory experiences are explored. Vigo’s childhood love for science fiction inspired her later desire to become a ‘space architect’, an aim that is evident in the retro ‘space-age’ features of her design work. At the time of Cavendish’s visit to the Royal Society, ‘science’ as a discipline was not strictly defined, but it was loosely understood as ‘natural philosophy’.

The Blazing World was written in a transitionary stage between classical conceptions and the scientific breakthroughs of the past 300 years. In the Sǀ2 London exhibition, the digital tapestries of Swedish artist Charlotte Johannesson exemplify a bridging between the ancient craft-making of the loom and modern technology, as well as juxtaposing the stereotypically feminised work of tapestry weaving against the supposed male objectivity of computer science. The works of Clementine Keith-Roach and Marguerite Humeau bring ancient craft, mythology and ritual to the very centre of their sculptural works. The anthropomorphic urns of Keith-Roach conflate the contemporary body and the ancient earth. An ageless sphinx ‘death mask’ by Marguerite Humeau – 35000 A.C (Sphinx Death Mask) – refers to a mythological era, celebrating the embodied human labour of bronze work while at the same time evoking futuristic and almost alien aesthetics.

The Blazing World examines the death and decay of an old-world order, themes also elegantly woven into the practice of Paul Thek, and immortalised in the photographs of fellow artist and Thek’s lover, Peter Hujar. Both artists feature in the S2 exhibition, with an Untitled 1969 work by Thek, from his celebrated ‘meat cable’ series, pointing to the measuring of flesh as an abstracted form of the body often associated with war and other acts of violence against the body. Alongside this work are black and white photographs of the Catacombs of Palermo taken by Hujar in Sicily during a trip with Thek. These haunting images evoke themes of decay and different worldly rituals in death and remembrance.

While the narrative of The Blazing World takes the reader on a fantastical journey through parallel worlds, hybrid organisms, and technological advancement, the resounding conclusion is a rally to the reader to “create Worlds of their own and Govern themselves as they please”. This imaginative call to arms represents Cavendish’s belief that artistic creation allows self-liberation. In the S2 exhibition, the structural sculptures of post-war neo-avant-garde European artists Nanda Vigo and Stano Filko are both heavily inspired by cosmology and the artists’ desires to imagine new forms and languages.

Stano Filko developed the System SF east of the Iron curtain, as an alternative contemporary art canon in response to the closure of many traditional art institutions under the Soviet regime. This system was the cosmological, ontological and ecological structure to Filko’s art practice and his own personal epistemology. Much of Filko’s work is heavily political, questioning how worlds are made through the symbolism of ordinary objects such as those used to form his metal assemblage Model of Observation Tower series. Vigo’s use of glass in her artwork plays with refraction, illusion, transparency and the immateriality of light and space, while her use of different symbols from a cosmological alphabet throughout her work express her belief in the generative qualities of light.

The text The Blazing World has many modern-day critiques given that Cavendish’s utopia, albeit very controversial and revolutionary for its time, is set within existing patriarchal and obvious imperial parameters. A woman from another world becomes supreme Empress, as the previously established power eagerly steps aside. She ordains that every race and species in the world have a job suited to their ‘nature’. Finally, she intervenes with her home world’s war and puts in power who she deems most suitable, the King of her own home nation. Charlotte Johannesson’s digital tapestries, included in the S2 exhibition, provoke debate about notions such as globalisation and nationhood, evident in her works World, Guardian?, and To Space as they question our planetary position, humans’ responsibility on Earth and our place in the universe.

Escapism through ritual is a large part of Czech artist Anna Zemánková’s practice. Her surrealist botanical multimedia drawings became a channel for the artist to the deaths of her children and her husband with whom she had a difficult marriage. Zemánková’s works were first internationally exhibited in the landmark 1979 Outsiders exhibition at the Hayward Gallery, London, with her use of intricate detail, penchant for patterns, and lack of formal training characterising her as an Outsider artist.

S|2’s exhibition The Blazing World presents artworks spanning over a century, all in their own ways illuminating ideas of utopia, ritual and the fragility of human hope similarly to Cavendish’s earlier text. Visitor’s paths are directed from gallery to gallery by the mirrored angles of Arik Levy’s log corners, on this simultaneously futuristic and ancient journey. The earliest work shown is a circa 18th Century stone lingam from India, while the most recent is Clementine Keith-Roach’s Icon made especially for this exhibition in 2019. What is ancient relic and what was made yesterday become easily confused and interchangeable. Exposing just how enduring our curiosities and rituals surrounding innovation, destruction and hope are.

Contemporary Art

About the Author

More from Sotheby's

Stay informed with Sotheby’s top stories, videos, events & news.

Receive the best from Sotheby’s delivered to your inbox.

By subscribing you are agreeing to Sotheby’s Privacy Policy. You can unsubscribe from Sotheby’s emails at any time by clicking the “Manage your Subscriptions” link in any of your emails.

arrow Created with Sketch. Back To Top