A very strange carnival has arrived in town.
It features a menagerie of wildly esoteric performers. The Reluctant Conscript. Plague Doctor. Rider of the Apocalypse. Reginald “Bathead” Perrin. The mysterious Melora.
Most of the artists are in the process of polishing their acts while others, like the King of Weeds, remain stuck in the experimentation stage. What is he going to do? Juggle?
The only real certainty about this traveling sideshow, which goes by the name Truppe Fledermaus, is that its premiere performance will never be seen by a live audience other than the insects and wildlife encountered during its remote wanderings.
Nor will there be a performance in the traditional sense. This is a carnival of the mind created by the fabulist creative team of Kahn & Selesnick.
That doesn’t mean there is no hard evidence to prove the troupe’s existence. In fact, the astonishing array of color and black-and-white prints and the troupe’s delightfully nonsensical (fictive) playbills and posters displayed at Jackson Fine Art through November 5 provide explicit documentation of the team’s latest excursion into uncharted territory.
Nicholas Kahn and Richard Selesnick, who have been collaborating on eccentric photo-novellas and sculpture installations since 1988, are self-proclaimed absurdists, inspired by Dada, surrealism and the novels and plays of Samuel Beckett. Over the years they have amassed a fervent following for their elaborate photographic fictions staged as anthropological studies of lost civilizations or previously unexplored worlds.
Among their more famous efforts are Scotlandfuturebog, a postapocalyptic epic shot on the Isle of Skye, Ireland’s Beara Peninsula and the bogs of Cape Cod; City of Salt, a miniature world of ceramic salt-encrusted stupas and minarets located in Death Valley; and Mars: Adrift on the Hourglass Sea, in which images of Mars taken by NASA provide the inspiration for a future world exploration by female astronauts who represent the last hope for their self-destructive civilization.
Truppe Fledermaus carries on the tradition of past collaborations with a unique timeline that consistently blurs the boundaries between the past and the future. The setting could be postapocalypse, but the performers, with their richly detailed clothes and masks, could be from the late-Victorian era.
It’s a vision of a world possibly on the verge of extinction with only these traveling players left to live out their final days before rising waters consume them.
Doomsday scenarios are usually no laughing matter, but Kahn & Selesnick spice the work with macabre humor and a sense of madcap playfulness. High Water Mark is typical: various troupe members armed with ladders scurry pointlessly over and around a giant boulder in a bog.
Cartesian Theatre takes a more overtly surreal approach in its depiction of a solo entertainer (his head is represented by a birdcage inhabited by puppets) performing for no one in an empty landscape.
While the British duo is clearly having fun, there is no denying the foreboding air of Truppe Fledermaus, which often critiques the state of contemporary civilization on this place we call planet Earth and the human inhabitants who cause wars, ecological disaster and the annihilation of various species.
Critics cite the influence of the likes of Edward Gorey, Salvador Dali, Terry Gilliam and German Expressionist cinema (à la The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari), but the duo’s flights of fancy and cautionary mythology are unlike anything else.
Also on view: Carolyn Carr: Vestibule and Ruud Van Empel: New Work. Through November 29.