Viewing Matthew Fishel’s silent animated short “In The End, We Were Never So Different” in the School 33 Art Center’s gallery feels a little like stumbling into the middle of a meditation session—like you’re interrupting something reverent, and you’re not sure exactly what you’re supposed to be doing or if you’re even supposed to be there.
The Washington, D.C.-born, Baltimore-based artist’s film is a soundless, eerily beautiful video that uses the 3-D modeling, animation, and rendering software Autodesk Maya to produce animated depictions of two Cold War bombers (an American B-52 and a Soviet Tu-95) flying quietly together across a mountainous but sparse arctic landscape. Watching the bombers silently soar together above the gray slopes and valleys begins to feel oddly peaceful, serene.
Growing up in D.C. in the early ’90s, Fishel was like lots of kids: into combat figurines, namely GI Joes, for a spell, and trading cards. But the collectibles he favored didn’t center on baseball stars or Garbage Pail Kids. Instead they were also about war, specifically the 1991 Topps Desert Storm trading cards series (something it would seem could only happen in the ’90s), which he found, well, particularly thrilling.
“I had trading cards [that featured] Norman Schwarzkopf, Colin Powell, B-52s, and cruise missiles,” Fishel remembers as we chat via Google Hangouts from his girlfriend’s family’s house in Tennessee. “I was really excited about the [Gulf War].”
Fishel’s fascination with mass-scale conflict began to bleed over into a passion for bombers, jet fighters, and later, international politics. He became taken with the real-life history of these types of strategic bombers, which flew for the first time in 1952. “They were like long-lost twins separated at birth,” he says. “They were both made with the mission of carrying bombs to the other [party’s] continent and dropping them on cities. [But] neither of them actually did that.” He appreciates the changing nature of the bombers’ purpose over time; both types “transitioned into other roles and they both actually are still in service.” He calls the bombers “long-running, multi-generational entities.”
Nothing quite as theatrical as bomb-dropping happens in Fishel’s video, though. In fact, nothing really happens at all—there’s no perceptible sense of time, or place, or when, why, or how. There’s no perceivable end, or middle, or beginning, either. Fishel says that quiet, contemplative vibe was the effect he strove for in the film, but that’s about all he consciously hoped audiences might take away with them from “In The End . . .” “If they feel a sense of calm or peace in the presence of war machines designed to kill millions of people . . . that’s great,” he says. Still, “some part of me says, ‘I hope it’s compelling enough visually that [people] get interested and want to ask questions,’ but I don’t actually expect that of people,” Fishel admits.
“In The End . . .” cleanly encapsulates both the artist’s palpable passion for the more “arcane and weird” subjects he loves (think B-52s and bomber trivia) and his longstanding interests in broad geopolitical concerns and modern quagmires (think “ecological destruction,” “global warming,” and “whether to compost our food”) that touch everyone on this planet. Fishel studied art and art history as an undergrad at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, and went on to compose video loops and animations as a second-year grad student at the Maryland Institute College of Art, where he graduated in 2010. “I was looking for a way to make moving images in a fine-art context,” Fishel says. Since then, he’s produced a number of well-received video and animation projects, such as 2013’s animation installation “RELAUNCH,” at Arlington Art Center’s Tiffany Gallery and 2011’s animation loop “Mother Duck,” which featured an F4 Phantom (a Vietnam-era fighter-bomber used by the Navy, Air Force, and Marines).
His short, Fishel explains, covers “retirement, moving on, changing relationships”—simplified lessons responding to the complex problems we’re all forced to repeatedly address amid today’s intensifying political scuffles for land, people, and resources. “Even situations like Israel and Palestine . . . will [probably] one day come to an end. Maybe not in our lifetime, but there will be some unforeseen breakthrough in government that we’re not anticipating,” he says. “We never really know. I think we’re still careening toward something that we don’t anticipate.”
“I hope people like it enough to watch it for a minute and get something out of it, though I don’t have a clue what that would be,” the artist, who took about a year to finish the project, goes on to note. Of course, it’s impossible to tell how many folks who visit “In The End . . .” will “get” it. Though at heart its message seems simple, open for each viewer to determine on their own, I needed the accompanying printed explanation to help focus my attention on what I was seeing and determine how to respond to it. The planes flying together evoke feelings of kindness and friendship, capturing the simple relief of having a buddy to navigate through life’s sometimes seemingly endless monotony with you. ν
“In the End, We Were Never So Different” screens at the School 33 Art Center Gallery from now until Oct. 25. The gallery is open Wednesday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.