A humanlike figure made of moss and flowers rows a boat, while another is covered head to foot in crows. A third form is composed entirely of fish.
Originally conceived as an operetta to be told in photographs, "100 Views of the Drowning World" eventually took on a life of its own far beyond the initial intention. Longtime artistic partners Nicholas Kahn and Richard Selesnick, the artists responsible for the project, had set out to tell a story about the extinction of bats due to white-nose syndrome, a fungal disease decimating the bat population of America.
Their idea was that the story would be an allegory performed by Truppe Fledermaus, a traveling theater troupe in full costume, featuring characters dressed as death, bats and fungus.
"Before we knew it, it had expanded to include all kinds of other characters," explains Kahn, "and the story became as much about the characters' somewhat thwarted attempts to stage these dramas as it was about the drama itself."
Currently on exhibit at Candela Books and Gallery, the project was formulated from the beginning as both an installation and a book published by Candela and available at the gallery.
The book's format is modeled on Japanese artist Hiroshige's "One Hundred Views of Edo," a series of individual pages not bound together traditionally, but enclosed in a band so the images can be arranged in any order the reader chooses. It alternates photographs of the troupe, its travels and performances with corresponding text narrating the story..
Inside the gallery, visitors find themselves immersed in the bizarre world the artists designed, including a costume from one of the photos, shot through with arrows and hanging from the ceiling. Also on display are large format posters made to commemorate the performances.
"It's humor and whimsy on its most basic level," explains gallery owner Gordon Stettinius. "But it's almost like they're trying to bend the work back on itself."
The centerpiece of the exhibition is an unframed grid of images from the book laid out on the wall, as if a book had been deconstructed and installed as an art object. Anyone purchasing the book would have the option of doing the same, with each version turning out wildly original, depending on which prints were used and how they were arranged.
"We like that when the images are installed on the wall, the viewer sees them all at once," Selesnick says. "The eye then moves around the grid to form nonlinear or more intuited connections that speak to the theme-and-variation manner in which the groups of images tend to operate, rather than in strict, linear narratives."
Behind these fanciful concepts are two collaborating artists who've been working together since they met at art school in St. Louis in the 1980s, collaborating primarily in the fields of photography and installation art while specializing in fictitious histories set in the past or future.
"We were both into history and world building when we were growing up," Kahn recalls of his hobby collecting coins and Selesnick's collecting stamps. "I had a fictional kingdom in my backyard and Richard built a model train diorama in the attic with his grandfather." This intertwining of fictional worlds and invented histories, along with the element of play, is something that still strongly informs their work today.
The process usually begins with the two meeting to discuss ideas and the plot they want to do before making sketches and eventually heading out into the field to take photographs. Often extensive post-production work is needed to fully realize the original idea. Sometimes images are simply improvised on the spot and other times, they're discovered in post-production by combining images from different photo shoots. Both participate in all aspects of producing the image, but Kahn generally takes the lead in finding costumes and objects, while Selesnick tends to do more of the photo editing.
"For us, the projects are most rewarding when they become a process of discovery," Selesnick says. "We often have only the vaguest idea where we're going and try to have faith in our own subconscious impulses that we'll end up making sense of it all." S
"100 Views of the Drowning World" runs through Dec. 23 at Candela Gallery, 214 W. Broad St. candelabooks.com.