Nick Kahn and Richard Selesnick's latest series of magical realist photographs is populated by bats, Greenmen, and death dancers—characters from Truppe Fledermaus, an imaginary carnival wandering the countryside, performing for animals. As always in Kahn and Selesnick's work, there is playful boundary-blurring of genres, time, and history.
But one of the initial inspirations for this Bat Troupe was something all too modern and close to home: white-nose syndrome, the devastating fungus affecting bats. The disease prevents the mammals from hibernating properly and has killed an estimated 80 percent of their Northeast population. Kahn and Selesnick imagine the bats, prevented from sleeping peacefully, being wracked by nightmares of apocalypse. Subtitled "A Hundred Views of the Drowning World: Rising Waters and Madness in the Greensward," their Truppe characters toggle between freak show-like and Cassandras of modern life, speaking to imminent extinctions.
A fantastical story is conveyed, but it's up to the viewer to connect any dots. "We have always thought of ourselves as fundamentally absurdists," Selesnick says. Storytellers perhaps, but with a fractured narrative; he uses the analogy of birdsong, "a sort of anxious twittering that is both less and more than a language."
Giulio Camillo's 16th-century Theatre of Memory, a philosophic and architectural construct of how to store and retrieve memory, influenced their vision of the Truppe. "With each project, our characters seem to be pushing around ever growing piles of luggage," Selesnick says. Yet their proclivity for setting scenes in bleak landscapes, especially marshes and tidal flats, is born of a "desire to be outside of time." These landscapes, he adds, provide "both an escape from the cultural narrative and also a blank stage on which we can perform our own narrative." The performances are an antitheater, with animals and insects for audience.
Kahn lives in Hudson, Selesnick in Rhinebeck, and both were drawn to the Hudson Valley initially by Carrie Haddad and her gallery. While living here puts them a bit far from beloved tidal flats, the Hudson itself is tidal, Kahn notes, and though the density of trees makes it challenging to find open, barren landscapes, their work has been inspired in new ways. The Greenman series, Kahn says, was born of their proximity to so many trees, as well as reverence for Frederic Church's Charter Oak.
There's a recurring Edwardian-through-1940s feel in their work—though they met at Washington University in St. Louis in the `80s, both are British citizens; Kahn's grandfather, a WWII cameraman, was an early inspiration, and one of his box cameras got them started in Truro, Massachusetts.
"Truppe Fledermaus" includes text and posters describing invented performances, as well as a 3-D installation of characters. It is part of the "Storytellers and Conjurers" exhibit at Carrie Haddad Gallery in Hudson, through December 8. (518) 828-1915. Portfolio: Kahnselesnick.com.