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Elisabetta Benassi at Peter Freeman

Installation views, Elisabetta Benassi: The Drowned World (11 January – 9 March 2024), Peter Freeman, Inc., New York. Courtesy Peter Freeman, Inc. Photography by Nicholas Knight.


By DAVID JAGER February 26, 2024

The Ballardian Oeuvre has long proved an inspiration for both film and visual artists. There have been many movies, such as “Crash”, his exploration of a subculture of sexual car crash fetishists, famously translated into an Cronenberg film. Last summer, Lisson gallery in London featured painter Sarah Cunningham’s densely abstract readings into Ballard’s novel ‘The Crystal World’, where its protagonists slowly turn into crystals. Overall, he is known as ‘the other Burroughs’, a British author whose dark visions of alternate and dystopian futures are always guaranteed to thrill and disturb. 

So, it’s no surprise to find another Ballard inspired exhibit at Peter Freeman. Elisabetta Benassi’s current show, ‘The Drowned World’, includes print, drawing, sculptural and mechanical artifacts in response to the Ballard novel of the same name. Just as Ballard does in his writing, Benassi is attempting to create an ‘archeology of the future’, lodged somewhere between post-apocalyptic science fiction, modernism, and dream narrative. 

It is precisely Ballard’s liminal positioning- his fiction is famously incantatory, hallucinatory, and fragmentary- that has made his work unclassifiable overall. Yet it is the also the quality that has made him such an appealing source of ideas for artists. Benassi seizes admirably on Ballard’s slipstream view of reality, relishing in his capacity to create unsettling scenarios. Just like the fictional world’s he evokes, Benassi’s sculptures are as much maps of our current malaise as they are predictions about the possible future of civilization. 

Installation views, Elisabetta Benassi: The Drowned World (11 January – 9 March 2024), Peter Freeman, Inc., New York. Courtesy Peter Freeman, Inc. Photography by Nicholas Knight.

To this end Benassi has no trouble in permeating the gallery space with a thick atmosphere one can only describe as ‘Ballardian’. It is bleak, littered with artifacts and machines that simultaneously dredge up apprehension, misgiving and wonder.  A life-sized Giraffe skull, cast in Bronze and resting atop a pair of red rubber gloves on a metal stool, “Study for Michelangelo’s Head”, greets gallery goers upon entry. The renaissance reference is mystifying, as is the exotic enormity of the animal skull. It carries a brute presence that is mildly jarring, as if we are being reminded of something unthinkable that is about to happen.  

The large back space is also devoted to four enlarged skulls, sequentially titled “Fixator I-IV”. They are the enlarged skulls of a Dugong, Puma, Rhinoceros and Mole. Each is placed in its own metal chassis, similar to the medical bars-fixators- that are used to hold broken or fragmented bones in place. It’s as if Benassi is directly referencing the fragmentary nature of Ballard’s experimental and dystopian narratives, which in turn call to mind the way in which our own unreliable narratives are buttressed together by constructed frameworks. The skulls are placed on wheeled platforms, much like fossils in the storeroom of a naturally history museum. Benassi borrows generously from the aesthetics of natural history and the authoritative visual language of ‘science’ in this show. We believe we might have stumbled into the naturalist wing of some abandoned museum from the future. It lends the whole an undertone of sinister authenticity.  

The giant skulls are a nod to the plot of the novel, which is largely a report by an ecologist in the future swamps of Europe. Having grown up in the melted circle of the arctic, now largely subtropical, the narrator reports the resurgence of giant reptiles and megafauna. The skull artifacts thus blend paleo history of a far-flung past or future, a nod to the enormous disruptions that occur in a span geologic time. In a further nod to the novel, we find a first edition speared to the wall by a tribal fishing harpoon. Is it from a Ballard narrative, an actual indigenous tribe, or a model of something our post-apocalyptic descendants will use? We are left to decide. 

Part of the show is interactive as well. ‘The Feast of Skulls’, featuring two Morse Code lamps, is a throwback to WWII era technology that has similarly sinister industrial undertones. Placed in a diagonal in opposite corners of the room, they are motion activated, flashing and clicking out an ominous message in morse code if you step near them.

Installation views, Elisabetta Benassi: The Drowned World (11 January – 9 March 2024), Peter Freeman, Inc., New York. Courtesy Peter Freeman, Inc. Photography by Nicholas Knight.

The effect is predictably alarming and disorienting. The clunky, industrial WWII era machinery, the bright lights suggesting trespass and surveillance, the machines clicking what might be an warning. We may as well have slipped sideways into a dystopian dimension, some desolate eco wasteland we cross at our own peril. The temporal and dimensional dislocation that is a constant theme of Ballard’s writing once again comes to life here, and you find yourself treading cautiously. 

It has been stated often that Ballard is a moralist, offering disquisitions on the inevitable catastrophes that await us in post modernity. In my readings of Ballard, however, I find him far more ambivalent. He is not so much predicting the coming catastrophe as he is exploring our dreams of future collapse- combined with the very real collapses of the last century- continue to haunt us in ways that are far from linear or expository. Perhaps collapse doesn’t exist at some future point at all, but is merely the human condition. Benassi seems to revel in this ambiguity as well. 

The spectre of a grotesque post human future is simply a generalized malaise that is the medium in which Ballard swims with equal parts foreboding and fascination, revulsion and fascination. Benassi has done well in creating yet another exploration of this dreamlike state of disbelief, horror, and muted wonder. Walking through we can’t help but think “The world is falling apart around us. How horrible, how mesmerizing, how strange.” 

But there is another vein at work here, given that the sculptural objects here are artifacts that may have been reconstructed from a novel. You can’t help but think of our current film and television industry, and the ever-accelerating way in which it brings the fantastical and often dystopian visions of past authors to life. Are these artifacts from a new Ballard Movie? The question reminds us that we not only that we face the very real possibility of an actual dystopian future. We are also awash in media representations of the same- post human wastelands, zombie apocalypses, alien invasions- and rely on them for entertainment. As we wander through this show of possible catastrophe in our current wealth of imagined catastrophes, we have to ask: are we alarmed, are we pleased, or are we entertained? WM


David Jager

David Jager is an arts and culture writer based in New York City. He contributed to Toronto's NOW magazine for over a decade, and continues to write for numerous other publications. He has also worked as a curator. David received his PhD in philosophy from the University of Toronto in 2021. He also writes screenplays and rock musicals. 

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