Prophecy is tricky. Somehow things seldom seem to begin, unfold or end quite the way prophets predict. Because of the volatile nature of prognostication, its practitioners often limit themselves to oral utterances, which can be easily lost in the gulf that divides what is said from what is meant or remembered.
Such pussyfooting is not George J.E. Sakkal's way. He is an artist with a vision, a full-blown vision of technological meltdown come Jan. 1. And he has turned it into a wild, weird and worrisome collage titled "Y2KAOS."
Sakkal's grim, deliberately provocative work is the centerpiece of his vibrant but discomforting solo exhibition of collages at the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts in Hagerstown. The show, titled "Space, Time & Survival," is actually a mini-retrospective of Sakkal's painterly collages, which he makes from cut-up photographs taken from back issues of National Geographic magazine.
The exhibition traces his stylistic and technical development through the soft, impressionistic color modulations and strongly architectural elements of works such as "Color Gradation" and "Urbanesque" in the mid-1980s. Sakkal's technique differs from most collagists' in that he cares little for the image of the original photograph. His primary concern is the color it contains.
"I was experimenting with ways to advance collage as a medium, to paint using paper as the pigment," Sakkal says. "It has been a process of experimentation. But I feel I've really made some advances, and I'm looking forward to really pushing the medium in the years ahead."
In the month ahead, however, Sakkal isn't looking forward to anything except a colossal mess. That notion, which he articulates in imagery and words, hangs over the exhibition like a dark cloud and makes his earlier works seem rather wan. The focus on Y2K may strike some as cynical and calculated, but no one can accuse him of lacking the courage of his convictions or hedging his bets. Bowl games aren't part of his vision.
"I know some people just write me off as a nut," says Sakkal, an Ellicott City resident who trained as an architect and has a master's degree in urban planning from Harvard. "Their eyes glaze over when I talk about it. But it's what I really believe, and it comes out in my art. We're not talking about something that's the equivalent of a three-day snowstorm, as the government agencies would have us believe. It's going to be a disaster."
Since Sakkal works for the state of Maryland's retirement agency, he can't stand next to his artwork explaining the implications to each viewer. But he has provided a label that spells things out.
It reads in part: "Y2KAOS predicts that the 21st century will begin with a global, technological catastrophe that will serve to substantially reduce the quality of life as we know it. How long it will take to restore the nature of things is anyone's guess. If we learned during the 20th century to live with 'the bomb,' perhaps we can grow in stature to understand and overcome this, yet another of civilization's hapless milestones. Hello, George Orwell, wherever you are."
To reinforce that message, Sakkal has uncharacteristically incorporated some recognizable imagery in "Y2KAOS," such as police with machine guns, rivers of blood, highways and byways paved with useless computer chips and a chimpanzee staring in puzzlement at a head shot of Bill Gates. It's a dark, complex and eerie collage, part comic book, part Hieronymus Bosch, with a dash of M.C. Escher and some millennial bizarreness thrown in. The artist has also chosen to display it upside down.
"The chimp is thinking, 'Hmmm, what the hell is this?' " Sakkal says. "I think when history looks back at our technological revolution, we'll seem like Neanderthals. Society just hasn't grown and matured at the same pace as the technology. You can see that in the way the planning for Y2K has been handled. It wasn't a secret that this would happen. We've known since the 1970s. But no one did anything until it was too late. Hopefully, we'll learn and grow from the catastrophe."
Obviously, many people disagree with Sakkal, including his wife, who works as a Y2K compliance official for the federal government.
"She disagrees to a large extent," Sakkal says. "Her advice is to let my art speak for itself."
If one can look past the doom and gloom, other, gentler, more appealing aspects of his work come through. The smaller-scale, less frenzied abstractions, such as "Bensonhurst I," which evokes the colors, textures and flavors of street life in that Italian American neighborhood in Brooklyn, is a lovely, lyrical piece. "Winter Dry Dock" catches the inherent melancholy of a boatyard filled with winterized vessels and furled sails.
But focusing on the positive isn't easy once one has seen the darkling days that loom ahead. Maybe the key is adding a good book to that Y2K shopping list with its kerosene, batteries and canned goods.
Charles Mackay's brilliant "Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds," first published in Britain in 1841, might be an appropriate choice. As the author wrote of the panic that gripped the world as the year 1000 approached, "It was universally believed that the end of the world was at hand; that the thousand years of the Apocalypse were near completion, and that Jesus Christ would descend upon Jerusalem to judge mankind. All Christendom was in commotion. A panic terror seized upon the weak, the credulous, and the guilty, who in those days formed more than nineteen-twentieths of the population."
Words to ponder, even if by candlelight next to a camp stove on the first day of the New Year, one day before George Sakkal's show ends.
George J.E. Sakkal at the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts, City Park, Virginia Avenue, Hagerstown, through Jan. 2. Tuesday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sunday, 1-5 p.m. 301-739-5727.