The Renaissance Society is currently showcasing Urth, London artist Ben Rivers’ first solo exhibition in the United States. A collection of moving image works, Urth derives its name from an Old Norse word, meaning “fate.” The three films on display confront this idea by looking at the relationship between humans and their environment; in particular, Rivers grapples with the lure and impossibility of utopia.
The collection is dark in more ways than one. Upon entering, the viewer moves from the bright fluorescence of Cobb to an unlit space with a main viewing area and two dark passageways leading to hidden rooms. There are no benches or chairs from which to watch the pieces that run on a continuous loop, seemingly existing for themselves and not a human audience.
In a 2013 interview, Rivers said his work was born from “a desire to make cinema that is not a representation of the world but that comes from actual people and places—and is then transformed through cinema into something that isn’t the world.”
The films and the space that houses them are uncanny, teetering just outside the realm of realistic representation. The pieces share an air of eeriness and desertion, a lack of human presence despite their investigation of human issues.
One film, Things, is a stream of video and stills, at times set to music, at others to an interview from Late Night with David Letterman. Projected in one of the enclosed rooms, the piece is paired with framed sketches, stills, and photographs from the film. Divided into four sections named after the seasons, it is an exploration of the artist’s home, from an estranged perspective. Rivers takes what is known and familiar and combines them in a way that is unfamiliar, even to himself.
Slow Action, a 45-minute work consisting of four screens and audio narration, is tucked away in the second enclosed room. In it, Rivers explores his theme of utopia by imagining a futuristic island living in complete isolation. In the same 2013 interview Rivers asks, “What does utopia mean? There is certainly not one answer.” Rivers investigates this question in an extreme circumstance. While the projections show deserted landscapes and the masked civilians of Rivers’ secluded island, the narration works through the role of desire and human nature in the quest for an ideal civilization.
The focal point of the exhibit is Urth, a 19-minute film commissioned by the Renaissance Society. The film is imposing; it is displayed in a projection four times the size of the other films and greets the viewer at the entrance of the exhibition. Urth is also the most enticing of the three projects. Though the viewer may encounter the film at any point in a 19-minute loop, the story is clear. The work imagines a scientist maintaining an artificial ecosystem after the earth outside has been destroyed. The audio captures recordings of her final days in the structure. The visuals, entirely filmed in the University of Arizona’s Biosphere 2 research facility, complement the narrative with lush recordings of nature trapped in a man-made structure.
While the exhibition initially strikes one as bleak, there is a beauty and hopefulness laced throughout. In the 2013 interview Rivers stated, “There is a sort of hope in the films I’m making, from looking at possible ways of being, further down the line.” In the reexamination of home and the imagination of a future planet, Rivers gives a new take on what it means to be alive. What do we do when our environment becomes foreign? And when we ourselves become foreign to our environment? The pursuit of those questions continues to be rich with possibilities for this artist.
Urth is on display at the Renaissance Society (fourth floor of Cobb) through November 6.