Pulling the wool over ones eyes leaves the belly cold

Lizza Littlewort’s work has always awed me.  She has the guts to be political and legible in her work at the same time.  This may seem like an easy combination, but so much contemporary art shies away from one or the other, either being mindlessly personal or having a simple point obscured beyond interpretation.  Legibility doesn’t preclude eloquence as this book, The World Didn’t End in Disaster, amply shows.  It’s a grim story, but it is well told by an artist fully in control of the tools she uses: the tone of the text and that of the illustrations are perfectly matched, the colour pushes the pace of the story and the line is as dreadful and funny as the content.

Lizza too has a simple point: We’re being fucked by big money and it’s consensual. And she says it slowly and clearly like we are stupid. Which if her point is true, which it is, we are.

The book begins with NASA’s discovery of a new habitable planet called Saturnalia, where humans can escape Earth’s rising temperatures.  Saturnalia, expert Dr Latham of the Kepler Science Observatory tells us, means joy.  Appropriately, it also refers to the ancient Roman festival in honour of Saturn the god of agriculture and harvest. In those days it was one of the most raucous and anticipated festivals: the ropes that normally bound statues of Saturn’s feet were untied, tomfoolery, eating, drinking and merrymaking followed. Work was suspended, gamboling and sexual acts encouraged. Slaves were allowed to throw dice and other privileges normally granted to citizens, like wearing special citizens’ hats.  Everyone wore tracksuits instead of togas. Traditionally held from the 17th until the 23rd of December, rumor has it that the Christian festival of Christmas was placed at this time to subvert the persistent celebration of Saturnalia during the Great Handover from Paganism. The traces of this resilient festival, however, can still be seen still in humans running amok in malls around the last month of the year.  We need to bear in mind that, much like current social hierarchies, Rome was a highly stratified society which offered the illusion of a democracy.  The power still remained in the hands of the few, id est the rich. The festival culminated after several days (the length changed according to ruling emperors varying fear of the reckless abandon, Augustus said three days, Caligula five) in an enormous feast in which roles were overturned. The masters served the servants and slaves. It has been theorised that the festival was significant in that it defused rebellious sentiment among the downtrodden working population, while maintaining the status quo.  The worst part of the whole giddy thing is that even the caution-to-the-wind-iness and topsy-turviness was a glaringly obvious show.  The servants still chopped, peeled, marinated, sprinkled Ina Paarman’s spice mix, cooked, basted, set-up tents and moved the chairs and tables for this feast.  They were willingly fooled for the sake of a one-night spectacle.  And afterwards ground back into the dust, smiling.

Indeed, the Saturnalia is a good metaphor for Lizza’s story, although it is set many thousands of years since Saturn last had his hands unshackled.  In The World Didn’t End in Disaster, the planet Saturnalia and its inhabitants the Saturnalians represent a break for poor people, a source of hope, of change and subversion.  They pay for the welcoming stadium, and soak up the spectacle.  But it turns on them in the end.  As the stadium seals itself off from the world they are well and truly screwed. Its reassuring to know that several thousand years later the status quo has remained just that.

Saturn himself is a interesting god, in the context of this book.  Saturn was one of the Titans, a fearsome ruler of the skies, until it was prophesied that he would be deposed of by one of his children.  To prevent this he ate each one as they were born.  You might be familiar with the famous Goya painting of this myth, although I prefer the lesser known one (left) by Rubens, in which Saturn is portrayed as cold and calculating, remorselessly murdering the innocent to save his power.  The legend ends with one of the kids, Jupiter, escaping, and starting a war, which almost destroys the universe, but dethrones his father.

This pleasant little legend gets a nice spin, when we see Lizza has written this book in the style of a children’s story.  Although I believe her original intention was the hope that, like kids whose spongy brains absorb the morals at the end, we might get something out of it, it also provides a rich metaphor. Speaking to us like we’re kids makes us seem thick, lolling dumbly on Mommy’s lap, but also innocent, while the CEO’s and celebs become creepy.  Within this tension is the possibility of enormous violence, not explicitly shown, but hinted at.

Using the mode of a kiddy book also allows many opportunities for satire.  The image of friendly Daryl and Merril from Fox News is my favourite, though it’s a close contest between generous Rex W Tillerson and smiling President Giuliani for second.  Satire isn’t only apparent in the visuals, it is embedded into the very nature of the storytelling style. The tone, hysterically upbeat, is spot on.  It mimics the tone of TV, the main disseminator (appropriately, fox is a synonym of trick), and it mimics the tone of happy compliance in our heads.  At some point the unstoppable chirpiness stops reading as satire.  As the people become more and more deluded, it tilts on mania which is commonly followed by a crushing suicidal depression. This bipolar stance characterises the book. It is funny and serious, light and grim, teasing and frightening, fictional and accurate.

Lizza’s own dilemma is ironically summed up in this: the tension between creating and not, between saying something and no-one listening.  The audience for art has to be coddled, but not saying something is perhaps even worse, it allows those CEO’s to seem normal.

It would be too easy to interpret this story, like one can with most satire, as bitter, cynical and ironic.  And no doubt, all those traits are abundant.  However, being familiar with Lizza’s work in general leads me to see these qualities more as justified anger, healthy realism and perceptive wit.  One could also drop the term paranoid. And indeed it is a paranoid story, but as Woody Allen (or was it William Burroughs?) said: “Just because you’re not paranoid, it doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.”

In conclusion, a small observation: Martha Stewart’s pie matches the stain of the stomped lone protester matches the ghastly sky as the screens fade.  The tale is told in this harmony of colours alone. And with that, my silent applause.