With smeared windows, lights turned down low and walls dappled with murky green, San Mei‘s gallery space is transformed into the bowels of a Louisiana bayou for 'not yet’, the latest completely collaborative exhibition of Laila Majid and Louis Blue Newby. Alongside the harmonious cohabitation of their own practices, they draw from an ever-expanding pool of collective creativity, including for this exhibition interdisciplinary designer Elliot Elder, illustrator Alice Bloomfield and musicians Jennifer Walton and Dan S Evans.
Gleaming Dibond panels punctuate the muddy depths, UV printed with faded depictions of muscled mouse-men or cartoon gym bunnies with weighty breasts, all entangled or entrapped by the entrails of an encroaching abstracted swampland. In addition, a wall-mounted terrarium is abundant with living biological life, a miniature maquette of the intended environment complete with a large purple pitcher plant, mouth agape.
The exhibition’s principal moving image artwork, south florida sky, is composed of two distinct yet interlinked sequences, both concentrating on the DC Comics character Swamp Thing. Under the direction of writer Alan Moore, illustrator Stephen Bissette and inker John Totleben, Swamp Thing’s golden age in the 1980s saw the herbaceous hero reimaged as an entirely non-human entity, an anthropomorphic mass of vegetation merely imitating mortal form. Alongside the common comic superpowers of immense strength and regeneration, Swamp Things’ ability to accelerate the growth of other plant life was prominent, as was the use of their powers to not only protect their surrounding swamp from illegal polluting but also to promote wider environmental and ecological concerns.
The initial part of south florida sky revolves around the reanimation of a recovered comic panel from The Saga of Swamp Thing #35 (1985), in which we find Swamp Thing sitting on their grassy bog bank caught in a moment of post-coital self-reflection, as if perched on the corner of a bed, their lover lounging beside. This particular scene follows the famed ‘Rite of Spring’ storyline, which saw Abby Cable (née Arcane, nephew of Swamp Thing’s nemesis Anton Arcane) declare her love for the plant-based protagonist and engage in carnal communion akin to intercourse, yet free from the constraints of corporeal concern. After ingesting a tuberous root sprouting from Swamp Thing’s torso, Abby enters a psychedelic hallucinogenic state whereby she is able to view the world from the perspective of her marshy mate and accept her inherent connection to nature.
In recent times Swamp Thing, and in particular the romantic storyline of ‘Rites of Spring’, has undergone a queered process of disidentification, in part due to the innate androgyny or hermaphroditic ambiguity allowed by their botanical biological makeup, as well as their representation of the ‘othered’ experience thanks to that essential ‘thingness’ that sadly leaves Swamp Thing suffering the same superficial shunning that often befalls other so-called ‘creatures’ such as Shrek or The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Majid and Newby embrace and amplify this queered reclamation of the enduring comic character through a muted voiceover with scripted subtitles, constructed as a patchwork of found paragraphs and salvaged sentences. Phrases from novels published by writers of the New Narrative movement that emerged partly in response to Stonewall riots and the AIDS epidemic, snippets of academic studies into the practice of ‘tea-rooming’ (‘cottaging’ in British parlance) and citations from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (another frequent subject of queered co-option) coexist against selections from Moore’s Swamp Thing story itself.
The second sequence of south florida sky employs the embryonic technology of machine learning, with Majid and Newby feeding a neural network stocked with images of Swamp Thing, swampland and swamp-life into a generative adversarial network (GAN). The resultant moving image documents the output of the GAN programme, a seemingly unending supply of ostensibly similar images, an ever-revolving Rolodex of uninterrupted evolution. We glimpse recognition amongst the mass of bodily or biological matter, as limbs sprout and shrink, eyes pop and recede into sockets, teeth protrude and retract. Scales fill the screen only to subside seconds later, fleeting figments that form and fade in frame, waxing and waning at the whim of the GAN. Such rapid transfiguration recalls time-lapse photography, whether growth or decay is unsure, as the boundaries blur between fact and science fiction, fantasy and physical, Swamp Thing and the real thing.