Taking a break from most things academic, sharkskin boy and I caught a showing of Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men last night. A fantastic movie that continued to haunt us after we left the cinema—and initiated a long conversation as to the merits of various other apocalyptic movies of the past so many years, such as Blade Runner (1982), The Handmaid’s Tale (1990), and 28 Days Later (2002; not to be confused with the Sandra Bullock flick 28 Days from 2000, which was apocalyptic in a very different sense)—there was one scene that particularly caught our performance-arty fancy.
A little summary: The year is 2027, and no children have been born for 18 years. The world is in a state of self-destruction, illustrated by a collage of nuclear bombs, insurrection, and general terror throughout the globe. Britain remains the only functioning society, though it has become a semi-totalitarian state, caging illegal immigrants and instituting refugee camps outside its borders, in which violence and poverty reign. Consequently, there is a civil war going on within Britain between the “natives” and “’fugees.”
Speaking to current issues of immigration as well as the pervasive curbing of basic human rights in the name of national security, the changes between our reality and the reality projected in Children of Men, as Slavoj Zizek notes, “do not point toward alternate reality, they simply make reality more what it already is. I think this is the true vocation of science fiction. Science fiction realism introduces a change that makes us see better. The nightmare that we are expecting is here.”
But, on with the art. There is a scene, fairly early on in the movie, in which Theo Faron (Clive Owens) is visiting his cousin Nigel (Danny Huston), who is a Ministry Official capable of granting Theo some travel papers. As Theo’s car was pulling into Nigel’s enclave, sharkskin boy jabbed me in the side (he has particularly pointy elbows; it was rather painful, actually) to croak into my ear, “That’s the TATE!” And, indeed, I believe it was, as no other building in Britain, or anywhere, looks like the entrance to Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern.
In this devastated world, where women are infertile and Nigel’s own son is cybernetically connected to a computer and fed bowls of pills—to remain young, I presume, though it is not made clear if there are other, more insidious forces at work here—there is still a safe place for art. And we are treated to images of Michaelangelo’s David, Picasso’s Guernica, as well as a floating pig sculpture outside the window (online searches all seem to suggest that this is only a reference to a Pink Floyd album, though my art-heart yearns for it to be a real piece and feels quite confident that there was something about this in Artforum recently...).
The irony within this scene is that Art—the high kind one visits in museums and such (I didn’t notice any performance art relics, but I’m sure Marina Abramovic was cryogenically frozen in the fridge)—must be protected, preserved, and kept in a hermetically sealed enclave accessible only to the most elite few, even as humanity descends into chaos outside the compound’s walls. Setting this in the Tate Modern only accentuates the disparity.
To suggest that this moment also follows Zizek’s idea of the film amplifying the current reality treads dangerously near a Right-wing validation of cutting arts funding. Yet it does, via the art that was kept (the hypothetical Marina notwithstanding), perform a certain reification of the type of art that might be valued over something as basic as human life.
Then again, it might just mean that someone needs to get on with making that floating pig...