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Danh Vō’s studio, Güldenhof, Germany was rescued at sea by a Danish tanker and taken to a refugee camp in Singapore. Hung on the bunker wall was a photograph, taken on Christmas Day 1979, showing a young Vō and his siblings at the camp. With this gesture, Vō locates his Chicxulub event in the past as well as the future, suggesting that it is not a single, cataclysmic episode, but rather one that is semi-permanent and repeated over and over again.

If Vō’s bunker is for Chicxulub survivors, it’s for those who have turned against the empire and come to watch the lag burn, a necessary hideout for those on the receiving end of US aggression. Some of that violence, like the Vietnam War, is well documented; other forms of coercion have taken place out of sight, in what Immerwahr calls America’s ‘hidden empire’.

The story of this camou laged empire begins in the 19th century, when the US claimed over a hundred uninhabited islands in the Caribbean and Paci ic. Next came the 1898 Spanish-American War, when Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines came under US rule – a victory marking the emergence of the US onto the global stage. Imperialist acquisitions continued across the century’s turn – Hawai’i, Panama, Samoa, the US Virgin Islands – a collection of pinpricks and territories which became known as ‘the Greater United States’.

Even so, from the beginning, US politicians have always had an aversion to using the ‘c-word’, as Immerwahr calls it, and ‘colony’ was shunned in favour of the gentler-sounding ‘territory’, which didn’t undermine the US’s vision of itself as modern, democratic, libertarian and, most importantly, moral. By 1945, the US administered a vast and sprawling collection of strategically located atolls and archipelagos, ‘a pointillist empire’ that, as Immerwahr explains, refused to register in the US popular consciousness.

In recent years, with the ascendancy of Donald Trump, the US has come to suffer a kind of identity crisis. Human rights’ abuses, a corrupt administration and white nationalism are no longer ‘hidden’ from its citizens. By locating Chicxulub in the US, Vō re lects on this psychological crisis, whereby America’s sins – old and new – are dancing into view, a set of facts about the nation that are not so much ‘new’ as ‘newly exposed’. If the empire’s antics are dif icult to make out from the mainland, however, they are impossible to miss from the zones of colonial rule, and Vō’s show was also a reminder that the myth of American exceptionalism was only ever convincing to – mostly white – Americans.

Visions of the end of America are far from new; in fact, they abound in what amounts to a Hollywood obsession. The industry has staged the end of the world – which usually means the end of New York – again and again. A genre of ilms in which the Manhattan skyline is crushed predate 9/11. The elaborate Chrysler Building is a popular choice for on-screen obliteration, sometimes by a giant meteorite, as in Armageddon, 1998, or else by the US military itself, as in Godzilla, 1998. Other ilms that stage the sacking of New York span the postwar era and include Planet of the Apes, 1968, Meteor, 1979, Escape From New York, 1981, Independence Day, 1996, Deep Impact, 1998, The Day A er Tomorrow, 2004, and I Am Legend, 2007, to name a few. A recent, electrifying incarnation of New York’s demise is found in a 2018 novel by the Chinese-American writer Ling Ma, Severance. It tells the story of a ictional pandemic emerging from China and travelling around the globe via consumer goods. Shen Fever, as the infection is named, is transmitted by fungal spores picked up in factories and inhaled by consumers. One of the dangers of Shen Fever is that it is dif icult to detect – early symptoms appear no different from a common cold. A er a three-week incubation period, symptoms worsen: headaches lead to memory lapses until the sick begin to blankly repeat familiar tasks. Eventually they become low-functioning zombies, who keep going to work and performing admin tasks. As well as an incurable sickness, Shen Fever also functions as a metaphor for the gothic exploitation at the core of capitalism (networks of oppression that are, like the US empire, so o en hidden). For months, across the summer of 2011, nobody in New York takes the fever seriously. It is considered a fringe outbreak and largely ignored, in part due to suppressed reports coming out of China, and also as a result of the ruthlessness of free-market business-as-usual economics, regardless of human cost. Employees, who barely make their in lated Brooklyn rents, can’t afford to stop working. The companies they serve won’t pause production.

Ma’s protagonist is a millennial named Candace Chen, who works at a publishing corporation, Spectra, which manufactures wares in China. As the novel opens, she is producing a Bible marketed at pre-teen girls, which comes with a gemstone keepsake freebie. That necklace is made in such dire conditions that workers in Guangdong, the gemstone region of China, are dying of lung disease. However, it is not Bibles that Spectra is producing, at heart, but capital. ‘The most Gothic description of Capital is the most accurate,’ wrote Mark Fisher in Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? (Reviews AM333), as if describing Ma’s conceit. ‘Capital is an abstract parasite, an insatiable vampire and zombie-maker.’

Malls feature across the novel – sanctuaries before and a er New York’s Chicxulub, where citizens shop to forget the pandemic and where survivors take refuge. (In this way, the malls echo Vō’s bunker, with its rooms stocked with branded artefacts: alongside the Carnation Milk and Coca-Cola packaging were crates imprinted with the Johnny Walker logo, Gloria Lait and Beefeater Dry Gin.) Malls are also where the fevered go, continuing to mindlessly stack shelves and si through rails. This is how the fever plays out in a society addicted to consumption – itself a kind of fever. Naturally, fashion masks in black or leopard print, or with the Supreme logo, abound. Ever benevolent, Spectra provides employees with a personal-care kit – limsy cardboard boxes holding respiratory

Art Monthly no. 442, December 2020 – January 2021


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