Content note: death, burial and suggestions of violence in a horror context
“You awake in the grave of another…”
Uma Breakdown’s game, Earth A.D., is embedded at the heart of their exhibition of the same name. The game, a lo-fi demake of another game (hi-res, made on unity and set to launch in early 2023), is played on a Raspberry Pi and gamepad attached to a metal frame part-covered in muslin. It resembles an emergency, makeshift shelter, located some way into a crypt-like environment. In the space’s consuming darkness, the game’s lime-green and black graphics flutter and fill the tiny world of the Pi. Playing in the first person, you observe your body from the neck down, trapped in a coffin, thrashing your hands and racking your brain for a way to curse, claw or bust your way out. The wincing pixels thicken at climatic moments, jamming up the screen and threatening to froth over. As your hopes fade, the game’s unseen narrator reflects that “you could try again, but maybe the outcome would be worse?” Somehow this burial is not the end; you have the option to play through another cycle.
The prospect of fresh burial haunts the exhibition through handfuls of real earth, borrowed from Wysing’s wild acres, scattered over coffin-like structures built from wood and metal. In a short film accompanying the exhibition (which you can access by clicking here), Breakdown discusses live burial as a motif in gothic literature that Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick identified in The Coherence of Gothic Conventions (1986), a key text in Breakdown’s research. One such story examined by Sedgwick is Edgar Allen Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher. The reference reminds me of, years ago, gently spooking myself reading Poe’s short story while on shift as an invigilator for a production of Titus Andronicus. Actors kept running on and off stage with a graphic array of bloody ‘injuries’, in a gruesome revenge tragedy that happens to end with a live burial.
In the exhibition, Breakdown approaches the burial not as an end-point in storytelling, but rather as a catalyst of transformation with the coffin acting as an agent of care. Breakdown describes it as a “reparative device”, an incubator that allows Dracula to go on living. In Nosferatu (1922), the silent vampire film that recently had its centenary, Count Orlok sleeps in his coffin during the day, protected from lethal sunlight. He carries it with him when travelling, cocooning himself in its safety when journeying by coach and boat— – a portable exoskeleton that allows him to thrive. Placed within the coffin structures of Breakdown’s exhibition are works on paper whose translucent colours and overlapping layers reveal impish beings: sharp-toothed, transient creatures that at times appear spooked by our presence. Some sprout branches like hair, creatures of the forest, others hang melancholy in the night sky, moon-like, perhaps fading as the sun rises. Steel-cut tendrils coil and react with knots in the coffins’ wood, making them appear eye-like and quizzical. I am drawn to a bat made from stained burlap, swaddling its wings around itself to form its own diamond-shaped coffin, eyes squeezed shut.
In the other coffin structures, machine fragments or perhaps fabricated body parts are placed within the soil: sculptures made from concrete rebar, muslin, rope and bioresin, as well as steel geometrics. They exist in a landscape shared with visions of a bipedal dreadnought quoting Warhammer 40,000. In the game, the dreadnought is a cyborg created in an ancient past using lost technologies that are impossible to replicate in the present. Its pilot, very sick and almost at the point of death, lives in a coffin that is placed inside the robot, with the ability to live eternally in its machine body. Living through massive epochs of time, the pilot can be consulted on long-forgotten pasts by future generations. In an animated pixel drawing beside the Earth A.D. demake game, the dreadnought looms huge over a rocky terrain, heaving itself up to the light as though staggering while its pilot learns this immense new body. Intended as a war machine within the Warhammer game, Breakdown centres the idea of the dreadnought as “an Oracle, the idea of a sick or disabled person, not as a thing that has to be repaired, but a thing that can be adapted around and then become an important source of information.” The emphasis on care by Breakdown in subverting the dreadnought’s function as a war weapon, where it is instead a machine that preserves life and is valued for its far-reaching perspective by a community, feels connected to their notion of “radical solidarity.” This is the idea of “looking out for someone without having to know who they are. Specifically trans community and solidarity…continuous mutual support”.
Reconceiving the dreadnought’s story, and suggesting alternative emphases in its narrative, Breakdown shows their interest in “stories that are broken and unstable”; stories that are live and responsive to our presence, as we are to them. Fragmented, changeable stories are everywhere in the exhibition. Pinned to almost everything are urgent tracts, written in jagged stanzas. One reads: “LYING STILL IN ST—ONE NORMAL WILL/FAILURES NEED/STILL SOUL ACT WILL ALWAYS BE WATCHED WATCHED OVER/<3”. This could be the jabberwocky speak of sleep-talk, just as readily as the oblique, arresting prose of automatic writing. It’s not clear who can steady us through this broken puzzle: scrawled on glass is the portentous message that “THERE IS NO VIRGIL HERE”. If there is a guide to be found, it is that cited by Breakdown in making the exhibition: Glenn Danzig, The Misfits lead whose track Earth A.D. gives the show its name. The song’s lyrics hint at the horror of Wes Craven: “You bet your life because the hills have eyes.” Breakdown makes direct reference to that film in the script for the Earth A.D. game, but also embraces the unpredictable elements in Danzig’s storytelling, lyrics that “exist purely in terms of vibes… they’re terrifying to read, and they’re fascinating.”
Before I played the demake game, Craven’s The Last House on the Left (1972) was in my mind already from studying Breakdown’s vast, layered projections on muslin, and the wall-mounted digital drawing viewed through one of these projections. In the wall work, seen through the textured phantasms of the projection, details that flicker into view include a disembodied set of guts, and what appears to be a freshly plucked, palpably meaty heart, causing certain scenes from Craven’s film to repeat on me. Breakdown does not shy away from horror’s disturbing, grisly aspects, but these are seen as part of a universe that also has room for sympathetic, tenderly executed spooks. The beseeching eyes of a bandaged mummy, red at the eyelids, lock onto yours; a claw plunges upward out of the earth, a frozen jumpscare and a victorious liberation from burial. In their gloaming, the projections draw me in moth-like; I want to get up close and walk around and in between them. At the exhibition’s entrance and at its culmination, holograms loop just below ceiling height, vivid animations sustained on jets of air. Looking on these directly, they are fantastical, like Victorian phantasmagoria. Most of the time, they occupy peripheral vision, a space in horror cinematography where the clues often lie.
In the exhibition, each broken off part seems to swell or propagate, tendril or tentacle-like into its own creature, like an earthworm torn in two to regenerate (if only that were true). Every entity is allowed to thrive, and horror sits in harmony with affection and tenderness. Breakdown reflects that “in horror there’s nearly always these moments of care… There’s always moments of love.” This is even true in The Last House on the Left, amid the extended, unspeakable torture gore: words of reassurance shared between the two young women under attack, the hippie re-christening of one of the perpetrators. In Earth A.D., the tenderness toward the source material and the ability to challenge and reconstitute its parts, shape an environment of care for the dead and the undead. Only the living need fear burial.
Elizabeth Brown is a curator and writer. She was recently interim curator of contemporary programmes at Kettle’s Yard and has worked with Wysing as assistant curator and on several projects subsequently, providing care and support for artists. At Wysing she curated Robert Foster-Jones’s solo exhibition An echo imprinted (2021) and supported artist residencies and programming including two British Council Net//Work Residencies. In 2022 she co-curated Howardena Pindell: A New Language at Kettle's Yard. Previously she has worked with MK Gallery, South London Gallery, The National Gallery, the Arts Council, Bold Tendencies & Hannah Barry Gallery and Modern Art Oxford