Robert Boyd, Xanadu

Xanadu by Robert Boyd is the first part of the We The People, a series of solo and group exhibitions showcasing the best of contemporary emerging artists from New York, curated by Gregory McCartney, presented in the Context's offsite spaces at St Columbs Hall

Culled from hundreds of hours of archival footage including that of doomsday cults, iconic political figures and global fundamentalist movements, Robert Boyd’s synchronized 4-channel video installation Xanadu tweaks, condenses, and re-frames modern events into seconds-long image bites, representing a history of apocalyptic thought as a series of MTV-style music videos within a setting reminiscent of a discotheque.

Having peaked in the late 70s at a high point of Carter-era optimism, disco was formed from an amalgam of black, Latin, and gay subcultures. Vilified at the time for its seeming promotion of male effeminacy (i.e. homosexuality), its embrace of a proactive female sexuality, and its racial non-distinction, disco, with its voracious capacity to sample and reshape excerpts from multiple musical genres, had the ability to reduce “everything to its surfaces […] so that the profound and the inane have an equal opportunity to stimulate.”* Robert Boyd’s Xanadu exploits the duality that disco provides and combines it with the organizational structure of disco’s visual reincarnation—the music video—to dramatize recent social and political events.

The choice of disco reverses the classic 70s punk vs. disco dichotomy, in which the harbingers of “no future” were clearly the self-disenfranchised punks. In Boyd’s construction, supported by extreme and often violent footage meticulously gathered over the course of several years, we see a current worldview in which mass annihilation and the Apocalypse are solidly in the hands of those empowered by their people. His choice of dance music suggests a volatile segue from the “feel good” generation of the late 70s to the current “feel bad” generation of the 00s. Taken as a whole, the Xanadu videos insinuate that humanity is not apathetic about its own demise but, on the contrary, is furtively engineering it through a form of collective self-destruction.

Introducing the theme of the Apocalypse, Boyd’s video “Heaven’s Little Helper,” 2005, begins with an excerpt from Masada, a 1981 mini-series about the Zealots, a sect of Jews who defended their right to be free from an oppressive Roman regime through an act of mass-suicide. Fast-forwarding into “family” footage of seemingly wholesome hippies and children dancing in natural settings, Boyd marks the end of sunny popular culture in the U.S. with iconic images of the Manson Family. Continuing in this vein, the video incorporates archival footage of some of the most infamous doomsday-cult gurus and their devout disciples including the Hello Kitty-flanked Shoko Asahara of Aum Shinrikyo, architect of the sarin gas attacks on Tokyo subways; the Reverend Jim Jones of the People’s Temple; Marshall Applewhite of Heaven’s Gate; and David Koresh of the Branch Davidians.

“Patriot Act,” 2004, takes a global historical sampling of iconic leaders of the Left and Right since World War II to stage a secular milieu of “followers,” insinuating that genocide can take place only through collective effort. The speed of the video accelerates as images of parades and victory celebrations rapidly devolve into images of war and genocide, leading to the video’s cataclysmic end. Edited between views of numbed and orderly masses, startling images of violence and death, both iconic and suppressed, are deployed. Caught in the blur are images of the men who have redefined the political landscape of the world from some of the most pivotal moments in history.

“Judgment Day,” 2006, chronicles the rise of fundamentalist religions around the globe, including audio and video excerpts from Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell of the Christian Right in the U.S.; Ian Paisley of Northern Ireland; Islamic fundamentalists Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama Bin Laden, and Ayatollah Khomeini; Daniella Weiss and Eliezer Waldman of Israel’s Gush Eminum; and Hindu nationalists Bal Thackeray and L.K. Advani. The video depicts their desperate, increasingly violent, and sometimes successful attempts at establishing theocracies. Further leveling the terrains of religious and political extremism, “Judgment Day” blurs the already indistinct lines between civil necessity and fanaticism, and the shattering consequences thereof. The video also contains the only original footage in the exhibition, an excerpt from the artist’s own video of the World Trade Center collapse.

The series’ culmination, “Xanadu,” 2006, is a three-channel video that begins with George W. Bush’s post-9/11 address to the nation, in which he declares the end of the “feel good” era and the beginning of a new one. This era, the artist suggests, is Xanadu—a conglomerate of our fears, paranoia, and prejudices—an envisioned Apocalypse in the process of being actualized.

Serving as both the prologue and epilogue for Xanadu, Boyd’s “Exit Strategy,” 2005, features Rapture-ready prophets such as Charles Manson, Brenda McCann of Manson’s Family, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, Shoko Asahara and Luc Jouret of the Order of the Solar Temple. Addressing topics such as death, suicide, the President, and the dire state of the world as they perceived it, the video contains audio and video excerpts from some of their final hours, including Jim Jones’ suicide sermon at Jonestown, David Koresh’s 911 call with the FBI, and Marshall Applewhite’s farewell video, among other tragic and telling moments.

By contrasting the familiar and the fringe, the popular and the notorious, Boyd’s Xanadu suggests a displacement between the euphoric idyll promised by disco and the chilling reality of collective human brutality.
( Text by Lia Gangitano )

* Tom Smucker, “Disco: a soundtrack for communal ecstasy,” The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, 3rd ed. (New York:Random House, 1992).

Exhibition previews Friday19 October @ 8pm, and runs until 24 November, in St Columbs Hall's old Orchard Gallery space and main theatre

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