Superflex, “Flooded McDonald’s” : The art world welcomes its own masters of the disaster flick

Time Out New York

Disaster films have been a Hollywood staple since 1970’s Airport (if not before), and given the apocalyptic mood of the country—two wars, the economy in free fall, TV being invaded by the mooks of Jersey Shore—they are now more popular than ever. The art world, however, seems to have resisted the disaster genre—at least until now, with this brilliant New York debut of Bjørnstjerne Reuter Christiansen, Jakob Fenger and Rasmus Nielsen, known collectively as Superflex. Don’t expect rock ’em, sock ’em epics like Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day or 2012, however. This Danish group’s approach is slow, deliberate, mesmerizing and meta: They take civilization’s end as a path to the sublime.

Before getting into the particulars, though, an admission: Sometimes an exhibition so completely fits the tenor of the times, it’s easy to overlook the larger question of whether or not the work is actually, you know, great art. While Superflex’s video skills are indubitably mad, and their themes open-ended enough to give these pieces a decent shelf life, it’s possible that my enthusiasm results from seeing our moment distilled so completely. Still, that’s not nothing, and indeed, the three projected videos here ineffably channel the free-floating sense of anxiety and menace bedeviling not only the wounded giant that is the United States, but the entire planet.

The exhibition kicks off with Burning Car, which delivers on its title, starting with a side shot of a silver Mercedes of considerable vintage (about 20 years old, judging from the style). The ride is in otherwise good condition for about 30 seconds, but then an incendiary bomb goes off in the backseat, and the vehicle is soon engulfed in flames. And that’s pretty much it for the next nine minutes: You watch as the Merc is immolated, reduced to a blackened hulk. For the most part, the camera keeps a respectful distance, occasionally moving in to observe details like paint blistering on the rear fender. There’s no sound except for the roar of the accelerant-induced conflagration. You start to notice the order in which various parts give out: The upholstery goes first, as one might guess, but it isn’t until late in the game that the fire gets hot enough to melt the suspension and send the car crashing down on its tires.

Superflex sardonically plays to the pyromaniac in us all, presenting an image that’s as comforting as it is unnerving—the WPIX Yule Log lit by an IED. Nothing is more compelling, the piece seems to suggest, than the prospect of our own destruction, which is, of course, why the Book of Revelation is such a fun read.

The same idea prevails in The Financial Crisis (Sessions I–IV), though in it, Superflex goes from fire to ice, turning down the temperature with close-ups of a middle-aged man in wire-rimmed glasses. He coolly asks us in European-accented English to imagine various scenarios relating to personal ruin: losing your house, losing your job. He asks us to picture what it must be like to be billionaire financier George Soros as he’s guided in his various investment machinations by the invisible hand of the market. It all sounds vaguely unreal and nightmarish, and sure enough, at the end of each “session,” the man snaps his fingers and says, “When you wake up, you will feel happy and refreshed.” It turns out he’s a hypnotist, and we are being put under to cure our addiction to capitalism—which, unlike smoking, is one habit that seems impossible to break.

The pièce de résistance is the titular video, Flooded McDonald’s, and like Burning Car, it presents a catastrophe in real time. The sequence opens on an exact replica of a Mickey D’s, complete with cash registers, deep-fryers and soda machines. We enter a restaurant abandoned in midmeal, with food in varying stages of consumption on the tables. The air vibrates with the hum of fluorescents and refrigerators, the camera calmly roaming the place until suddenly, water gushes in from under a door and slowly begins to rise.

It’s hard not to think of Hurricane Katrina while watching this, but what makes the video memorable are the strange still-lifes created when items like a Ronald McDonald statue or a coffeepot become unmoored by the growing inundation. At one point, as the camera bobs underwater, your field of view is filled with a cloud of french fries; soon, you start thinking less about New Orleans and more about Jackson Pollock. The genius of Flooded McDonald’s—and the show as a whole—is the way it reminds us that art history is just as fragile as the rest of a society prone to cataclysms, real and fictional.

By Howard Halle