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“Kahn & Selesnick: The Apollo Prophecies”

The first thing you notice about “The Apollo Prophecies” is just how unprophetic it is. Two looming mannequins stand guard at either side of the front-window display at Irvine Contemporary, each apparently representing a different era of science fiction past. One looks to have wandered in from some ’50s B-movie. It’s dressed in a nearly convincing space helmet, a less impressive flight suit, and perfectly silly rubber gloves and boots—obvious army-surplus gear dressed up with flashes of silver spray paint. The other looks a half-century older, pure H.G. Wells. It wears a long, woolly coat, World War I aviator’s goggles, and a big glass fishbowl of a helmet. Over its mouth is a beaklike protrusion in which small spheres are suspended—a primitive breathing apparatus, obviously. On its feet are terribly British rubber boots attached to little wooden snow—er, moon shoes.

You’d be forgiven for believing the men responsible for these figures, Nicholas Kahn and Richard Selesnick, are refugees from the local fantasy con. At times, their art seems like the handiwork of overcommitted hobbyist shut-ins, people who spend long hours down in the basement constructing their own highly developed yet inaccessible worlds of weird pseudoscience and hallucinatory imagery. But to their credit, their work also tries very hard to be toughly intellectual and thoroughly engaged, a comment on the shared myths that shape our culture and, more important, on the deskilling of human activity that often follows the advent of new technology, in everyday life as much as in art-making.

“The Apollo Prophecies” came out of a residency that the artists did together at Princeton in 2002, during which they began to imagine a lost Edwardian lunar expedition. In Kahn and Selesnick’s world, a crew of its forgotten explorers has settled in a small village on the moon, awaiting the foretold arrival of the mighty Apollo 11 astronauts, whom they regard as gods. They pass the time by designing helmets for each predicted member of the Apollo crew, cavorting with mammoths and space monkeys, and moving moon rocks around.

The adventure—told through a large group of Lunar Studies (2003), eight digital photomontages, a video installation, and, yes, a number of grade-Z-science-fiction props—begins with The Liftoff (2004). Like each of the photomontages here, it’s an incredibly long and narrow print—12 inches by 84 inches. In the lower left-hand corner, a gleaming, cigar-shaped rocket rises, peeking out from a dense cloud of smoke and dust. In the center, the same rocket is shown streaking across the sky, trailing dramatic flames behind its oversized fins. Underneath, jumpsuited technicians attend to some mysterious listening device—a bundle of knotted tubes like coiling silver intestines, bringing to mind one of Tim Hawkinson’s awkward and impractical machines. From the end of each silver tube, a cone or funnel projects; these are all being trained on the rocket as it makes its way toward the moon, dimly visible in the right-hand third of the picture.

The action in these panoramic images plays out from left to right, episodically, along the meniscus of the Earth’s horizon. Different moments in time are shown against a continuous background, as in a Renaissance fresco cycle or a comic book. This technique is used most dramatically in Entire Apollo Prophecies Narrative (2004), a 2-inch-by-11-foot print that seamlessly combines all eight of the series’ already elongated images. Because it requires a sequential reading—not to mention a bit of squinting—the piece emphasizes the essentially literary nature of Kahn and Selesnick’s idiom. And despite the work’s minuscule height, it owns the back room of Irvine, drawing the viewer’s attention ineluctably toward it, away from any number of noisier visual statements. This piece drives it home: As fabulists, if nothing else, the two artists excel.

The moral of their story, apparently, is that the past remains inaccessible and mysterious, despite our best efforts to preserve and understand it. In Lunar Stroll (2004), one of the Edwardian astronauts stands alone in the center of yet another absurdly elongated rectangle, surrounded by nothing but heaps of faintly glowing powder. He aims a frail-looking device, all twine, wood, cogs, and gramophone horn, off into the left-hand margin—toward the neighboring image in the narrative, Lunar Landing (2004). In that piece, the Apollo 11 astronauts peer into the narrow mouths of strange metallic viewing devices, each part cannon, part inverted telescope. Two distant eras attempt to regard one another across vast, barren distances—not unlike, say, two artists struggling to position themselves in relation to their long-dead but still-present forebears.

It’s a compelling, complicated visual metaphor—though less so when you realize that the Edwardians are played by the artists themselves. With their little wooden villages, marvelously wonky devices, and woolly mammoths serving as beasts of burden, this earlier generation of astronauts seems charming and ingenious. Their apparent admiration for the Apollo 11 astronauts is difficult to explain. The newcomers seem underdeveloped and anonymous; everything about them, from their vehicles to their spacesuits, looks hastily wrapped in uniform coats of silver mylar. In most of the images, they’re obviously represented by figurines—anonymous action figures pretending to be people, blown up to human scale by Photoshop.

Getting to hear these astronauts speak in the accompanying video installation doesn’t humanize them much. A tiny monitor is situated in the mouth of a life-sized prop version of one of the cannon/telescope things seen in Lunar Landing, constructed of puckered sheet metal, rusting nails, and peeling, ineffectual silver tape. Its clumsiness is a jarring contrast to the slickness of the prints—and to the quaint but presumably finely crafted devices of the Edwardians.

No surprise, then, that seeing through the eyes of an Apollo astronaut is like sitting in on an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. The camera moves slowly across the surface of a model moon, following the movement of a satellite dish on the lunar rover—which is being pulled by a very visible string. In the audio portion, the artists bizarrely ham it up. They drawl urgent nonsense, calling out to Houston, talking about monkeys, coughing, breaking up through an ocean of reverb. Basically, the Apollo 11 astronauts are drunken, whooping rednecks. Whatever marvelous science they have, their ability to understand is stunted; their powerful technology is all bluster, smoke, and mirrors.

Other props are similarly low-budget. In the second room at Irvine, a toy moon hangs in the fireplace from wire; a small stuffed baboon sits next to it, wearing a distressed, plasticized spacesuit. The lack of any compulsion to persuade the viewer of these objects’ realness is diverting, but it also means that the props flirt with childish irrelevance. This is a shame. There’s almost—almost—a persuasive, intuitive logic underpinning this invented history. Kahn and Selesnick come quite close to an effective examination of the creative act, and of our relation to history and myth. But the artists are all too eager to show that their sympathies lie with the old rather than the new, with simple handicraft rather than the mechanical reproduction that, in one way or another, has shaped the discourse of modernity for more than a century. They also have a bad habit of cracking themselves up whenever they’re on the verge of actually revealing something.

Not that comedy need be irrelevant or distracting, of course. But self-parody has become reflexive in contemporary art, a necessary hedge against an artist’s own eventual irrelevance. Kahn and Selesnick, don’t forget, created their meditation on the expressive limitations of new technologies largely with computer software. They probably meant that to be the greatest joke of all. But it’s really the ultimate hedge. As beguiling as “The Apollo Prophecies” sometimes is, it amounts to no more than an elaborate, pointless spoof of the handmade art it venerates.CP