Xenogenesis: A journey into the anthropocene

Image Credit: IMMA, The Otholith Group Xenegenesis Exhibition

Tessa Ndjonkou details how London-based art collective The Otolith Group shakes up IMMA with a retrospective of their work on what it means to be human, yesterday, today and tomorrow.

Since its inauguration in 1991, IMMA, the Irish Museum of Modern Art has been a safe place for contemporary artists to break boundaries and redefine what it means to make art. However, every few years or so comes a body of work that is so irreverent and all-encompassing that it has the ability to stop one in their tracks. 

Such is the case for the London-based Otolith’s Group first solo exhibition in Ireland, Xenogenesis curated by Annie Fletcher. The Otolith Group, named after the calcium carbonate structure of the inner ear, was founded in 2002 by Anjalika Sagar and Kodwo Eshun who have drawn from their academic careers and identities as members of both Asian and African diasporas to imbue their works with social and political commentary. 

The exhibit, which arrived in Autumn of 2022, was named after and heavily inspired by the seminal works of pioneering African-American science-fiction writer Octavia Estelle Butler and explores the global crises that we have inherited from colonialism. In order to achieve this, it sheds light on modern manifestations of various systems of oppression such as racism and homophobia and explores how they transform space, time, environment and the human body through audio, film, image installations and writing.

Throughout the exhibit Sagar and Eshun imply that environmental changes, systemic oppression and technological advancements transform us in ways we cannot even begin to fathom

The 1987 trilogy Xenogenesis by Octavia E. Butler, renamed Lilith's Brood, details the journey of Lillith Iyapo as she awakens on a spaceship surrounded by the Oankali, an alien species who has managed to save all remaining life on earth, but at a price; to combine their genomes and create a new species that is both human and Oankali, blessed with the qualities of both and flawed by none. This process gave its name to the revolutionary trilogy and is used to refer to the production of offspring or of a generation that is completely separate and different from its parents. Applied to present society, the term is fitting to express how each new generation is different from the last because of the intervention of its forefathers. Throughout the exhibit Sagar and Eshun imply that environmental changes, systemic oppression and technological advancements transform us in ways we cannot even begin to fathom. 

Through a cross-section of the work the Otolith Group has produced between 2011 and 2019, Xenogenesis peels back the layers of the anthropocene to ask: what was there before us ? What will survive us and just what have we achieved ?

Xenogenesis goes above and beyond what you would expect a modern art exhibit to achieve

With a labyrinthian exhibition that refuses to abide by the rules of time, Sagar and Eshun demand their audience to look to the past to understand the promises and trials of the future. The time and space continuum is warped in this exhibition that begins with ultra modern on-screen pixelated representations of humanity, moves on to fossilised species, and then leads us into the insides of the devices that sometimes imprison us: smartphones. While making sound remarks on the absurdity of late-stage capitalism and consumerism, Xenogenesis questions how the constant advances in modern technology have impacted human consciousness. In a pitch black room illuminated only by the light of the screen, you might feel the inexplicable urge to throw your phone across the room, to put as much distance between it and you, to reject it and reconnect with your humanity in the purest sense. I know I did.   

In a 2004 interview for In Motion Magazine, Octavia E. Butler, reveals that the Xenogenesis trilogy was inspired by the Reagan administration and the imminent threat of a nuclear war. Specifically, she parallels the Oankalis fascination and coveting of human intellect with the United States desire to surpass the Soviet Union by any means necessary throughout the Cold War. She considered that as mankind  “We’ve one-upped ourselves to death, just our tendency to one-up each other as individuals and groups, large and small”. Her words reveal the human need to hierarchize, classify and imbue value onto things and eventually people to create a racial capital anthropocene. Sagar and Eshun reprise her idea and use modern technology to demonstrate just how unnatural and alienating that process can be, making the entirety of the exhibit sit on the cusp of what you’d normally see in a contemporary museum. The main goal of the exhibition is to present the effects man’s existence has on the world, and to propose an outcome of what would happen if the intervention had no limits. In doing so, Xenogenesis goes above and beyond what you would expect a modern art exhibit to achieve. 

Faithful to Octavia E. Butler’s legacy, Xenogenesis deconstructs the process of the creation of the Other, as a figure of what is foreign, unknown, and therefore, threatening. The exhibit demonstrates how populations have sought to dominate those who were different from them through the creation of systems of oppression. It is only limited by present-day technology and memorabilia from the past such as stamps from recently independent British Colonies, and a 43-minute piano performance by Julius Eastman that made me question if I’d ever heard music before in my life. 

The exhibit is incredibly rich but short enough so as not to be overwhelming. However, I wish it could have been longer and would have absolutely no trouble seeing it again. There is no doubt it is one of the most unique and thought-provoking exhibits you will ever see and it makes a worthwhile addition to IMMA. Its residency has been extended until the 12th of February 2023, so make sure you go see it before then.