arts writer
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Plouton

Alexis Destoop

PLOUTON

CATALOGUE ESSAY | CHAUFFEUR GALLERY | AUGUST 2018

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There are no eyes here
In this valley of dying stars
In this hollow valley
This broken jaw of our lost kingdoms
– T. S. Eliot

Alexis Destoop’s multilayered photographs excavate the interfaces between (neo)colonial, ecological, economic and geopolitical environments. Through his lens, the Belgian-born Australian artist captures the landscape not as a sublime natural object but a scrutinised human artefact; a contentious zone where borders and frontiers collide.

In his new exhibition, ‘Plouton’, Destoop draws from a research project in the European High North – a desolate wilderness along the Norway-Russia border riddled with the scattered geopolitical remnants of the last century – from WWII and the Cold War to the Soviet Revolution and Fall of the Union. Here the catastrophic impacts of climate change are felt with searing clarity, yet at the same time this conflicted landscape nurtures titanic opportunities that push the arctic frontier northwards with unstoppable colonising force.

Created on a site owned by Russian mining company Nornickel – who also have holdings in Western Australia – the works visualise the concealed aesthetics of economic expansionism against a dystopian backdrop of ecological exploitation. The dialectics of the mining industry are filtered through the titular lens of Plouton – the ruler of the underworld and giver of riches in classical mythology. As global resource companies extract wealth from the earth’s core, a new kind of post-mythological pantheon is erected; presided over by transnational corporations.

Appropriating typologies, archetypes and tropes, Destoop’s photographs reconfigure and short-circuit the workings of the image. They function as lures and foils; seductive screens that guide you, face first, into constructed wastelands. Antechambre (2017) depicts a surreal vestibule in a bar in Zapolyarny, its faux gold curtain physicalised in the gallery space via velvet drapery that engages the viewer in a dance of revelation and concealment. The painterly textures and bronzed palette bring to mind Baroque, Flemish and Mannerist traditions and yet, ironically, this formal nod to painting is the result of a technological malfunction – Destoop’s camera had frozen in the icy winds and formed condensation. The picture pulsates with a soft, smouldering glow – equal parts industrial smog and celestial aura – which seems to fade before our eyes as the scene descends to darkness; the final flicker before the curtain falls.

This motif of darkness continues in Inverse Operations (2018) and Sanctum (2018), photographs made at the onset of the Arctic winter in the high tundra. Otherworldly mountains of rubble and debris from a largely disused mining operation evoke Mesopotamian ziggurats and Egyptian pyramids, wedging a sense of the sublime and the divine within the dystopian. Destoop inverts the dying winter light in Inverse Operations to form a spectral, golden haze, while Sanctum’s distant glow emanates from a factory – a man-made sun in this hollow heart of darkness. Here, Romanticist sublimity has mutated into a kind of anthropogenic sublime – a reverse engineering that shines a prophetic light on a post-natural world. Uttered with the icy breath of this altered landscape are Eliot’s words: ‘This is the way the world ends / Not with a bang but a whimper.’