Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 5, 2015
Sarah J. Montross, ed. Past Futures: Science Fiction, Space Travel, and Postwar Art of the Americas Exh. cat. Brunswick, ME and Cambridge, MA: Bowdoin College Museum of Art and MIT Press, 2015. 136 pp. Cloth $29.95 (9780262029025)
Exhibition schedule: Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Brunswick, ME, March 5–June 7, 2015
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Nancy Graves. Fra Mauro Region of the Moon (1972). From the series Lithographs Based on Geologic Maps of Lunar Orbiter and Apollo Landing Sites (1972). Ten lithographs. Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Cambridge, MA. Gift of Anne MacDougall and Gil Einstein in honor of Marjorie B. Cohn (M26547). © Nancy Graves Foundation, Inc./Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

Science fiction and space travel are only one facet of this unusual and ambitious exhibition, which brings together an array of disparate artworks addressing multiple intertwined subjects ranging from the cosmic and geologic to the technological, social, political, and environmental. Curator Sarah Montross proposes four broad themes for organizing the multiplicity of works: the “new man” of the technological future; space travel and its depiction through visual technologies; American landscapes and time travel; and utopian/dystopian futures. The layout of the exhibition largely corresponds to these topics, and simultaneously creates marked divisions between work by artists from the United States and the larger number of works by Latin American artists. Argentinians are by far the most prominent of the latter, but the exhibition makes no substantive distinctions between artists from different Latin American nations. In her catalogue essay Montross describes the exhibition as promoting the scientific and futuristic visions of artists from Latin America, a region long associated with stereotypes of primitivism and “backwardness.” Furthermore, the exhibition explores “art related to the scientific imagination that exemplifies dialogues and tensions across the American continents in the years leading up to and during the Cold War. In the process, the clear dividing lines between north and south, alien and human, and past and future are cast into doubt” (exhibition catalogue, 16). This curatorial aim is not successfully realized in the exhibition, which segregates themes by region, presenting only Latin American artists in the “new man” and utopia/dystopia sections, and largely limiting the American landscapes and the time and space travel sections to artists from the United States.

The first room presents an eclectic array of works by Latin American artists addressing space-related themes, while a display case of science-fiction books published in the region indicates their popularity. An impressive group of the Chilean painter Roberto Matta’s large luminous “inscapes” populated by fantastic figures and vehicles conflates the landscape of the imagination and the infinite possibilities of interstellar space. Most of the works in the room are presented as examples of the “new man” of the technological future. Images of figures gazing upwards by the Mexican artist Rufino Tamayo suggest the eternal fascination of the heavens and make implicit connections between the space age and prehistory, yet another of the exhibition’s expansive themes. A suite of intaglio prints, Awareness of Love (1966) by the Chilean Juan Downey, alludes to a space-age creation myth in which floating cyborg figures perform obscure acts of generation and give birth to the universe, while the Paraguayan Carlos Colombino’s large wood relief Cosmonaut (1968) depicts a helmeted head reminiscent of Pre-Columbian deities.

In the second room postwar works by the Argentinian Expressionist Raquel Forner address humanity’s future transformed by space exploration in bold colorful images of mutant hominid and vaguely feline creatures she associated with aliens, astronauts, and outer space. Her vibrant Astronaut and Witnesses, Televised (1971) confronts a pair of black-and-white photographs: Garry Winogrand’s humorous image of people photographing a NASA launch, Cape Kennedy, Florida (1969), and a 1961 Associated Press image of Fidel Castro riding in a car with the Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagaran, who had come to Cuba to celebrate the nation’s revolution. This juxtaposition encapsulates the exhibition’s overarching goal to reveal connections between postwar art and politics in the Americas, space travel, and the pervasiveness of mass media, which held the entire world in thrall to the spectacle of space exploration. Like the exhibition as a whole, the proximity of the works is largely suggestive and fails to establish substantive connections between the images beyond the general subject of visual technology and space travel. The introductory wall text in this room differentiates artists from the United States who employed scientific sources and imagery from Latin American artists who relied more on fantasy. Although some of the artworks on display seem to support this claim, it comes disturbingly close to the stereotypes the exhibition intends to overturn.

Most of the works in the second room fall into the general category of lunar and terrestrial landscapes by artists in the United States, including Vija Celmins, Michelle Stuart, and Nancy Graves. The latter’s 1972 series of ten large color lithographs based on United States Geological Survey maps of the moon’s topography is a revelation. Cartographic information forms a base for the artist’s subtle patterns of colored dots, which create remarkable visual effects. These are patterns without order, random shifting colors that convey nothing but aesthetic impressions yet hover on the verge of significance. Graves transformed maps of solid surfaces into suggestive interstellar spaces, clouds and clots of gently glowing colors into which an incorporeal being might penetrate.

Nine large chromogenic prints of Robert Smithson’s Yucatan Mirror Displacements (1969) dominate one wall of the second room. The photographs illustrated his essay “Incidents of Mirror Travel in the Yucatan,” which described a trip through Mexico as if it were a science-fiction journey into a mythical landscape of the past. Surrounding Smithson’s work are several smaller pieces and documentation of site-specific works by Smithson and other artists, such as Michael Heizer, Dan Graham, and Peter Hutchinson, who were also interested in science fiction. Most of these works address the loose theme of geologic landscapes that provoke imaginative associations with the extra-terrestrial and time travel. In some instances their relevance to the exhibition seems tenuous, and their inclusion appears based more on the artists’ prominence or because they worked in Mexico at some point than on any evident artistic engagement with science fiction or space travel. A display case in the center of the room presents ephemera, including science-fiction books that influenced Smithson and Life magazine photo essays on the moon landings. Also here is Erich von Daniken’s popular 1970s book, Chariots of the Gods, which claimed that large prehistoric sites, including Peru’s Nazca lines, must have been designed by visiting space aliens able to view them from the skies above.

The third room is devoted to work by Latin American artists addressing the theme of utopia/dystopia. The most striking image is Argentinian Emilio Renart’s large ink-on-paper Drawing No. 13 (1965), a meticulous abstraction of roiling dark gray thread-like lines suggesting layers of flowing liquid and sprouting delicate bursts of fine white floss like explosions of milkweed. It is an apt metaphor for the artist’s desire to capture, according to the wall text, “a conception of the universe based on generative life forces and the development of consciousness.” Juan Downey’s drawings exhibit a comparable sense of universal vitality; they show his proposals for electronic sculptures that would respond to electromagnetic pulses or the breath of human participants and capture the heartbeat of the universe.

More chilling are the plans and drawings of the Argentinians Horacio Zabala and Luis Fernando Benedit, who were both preoccupied with designing spaces of imprisonment. These works seem tangential to the exhibition’s overall theme of science fiction and space travel. Zabala diagrammed simple prison cells that float on water, are buried underground, and elevated on posts, while Benedit sketched plans for elaborate animal habitats and mazes, as well as the fabrication of mechanical tropical fish. While Zabala’s and Benedit’s works may serve as plausible metaphors for the contemporary oppressions and repressions of Argentine society, their fellow countryman, poet and artist Gyula Kosice, pursued a long-term utopian project with more universal concerns. Kosice’s Hydrospatial City (ongoing), represented here by two large drawings and a small suspended plexiglass model in the classic domed disc shape of a flying saucer, was designed to house the Earth’s excess human population. Powered by water, it was not only a fantastic technological solution to overpopulation, but also a form for realizing a new reality. Kosice labeled areas in the city according to poetic use in a manner resembling contemporary Situationist plans for a new urbanism. These designations include the “place of fading phenomena and its objective justification” and the “embracing place, reduction of infinity,” as well as the “place for connotation and universal theory of speech, as an action.”

Kosice’s clear plexiglass model for the Hydrospatial City is an example of what the term Space Age Art usually connotes, as are several works in the final room of the exhibition. A glowing red translucent rocket form, Untitled (1970), cast in polyester resin by U.S. artist Frederick Eversley, evokes the wonders of modern plastics so often linked to the technological optimism of the period; so, too, do the large Op Art abstractions, Sphere Spatio-Temporelle FSW 7561 and BS 5723 (1975), of hovering striped orbs in brazenly artificial acrylic colors by the Paraguayan painter Enrique Careaga. These colorful plastic works face Marilyn Bridges’s black-and-white aerial photographs of the Nazca lines and Chichen Itza from the 1980s, the past as seen from an airborne technological present, which was also the vantage point of Von Daniken’s hypothetical extra-terrestrial designers of these ancient sites.

The final work in the exhibition is a contemporary project, SEFT–1 (2006–14), by Mexican artists Ivan Puig and Andrés Padilla Domene. A video recounts their creation of a futuristic vehicle that travels along Mexico’s abandoned train tracks. Visiting now-isolated villages and journeying into sublime landscapes, the project combines the sociological, historical, and anthropological concerns of much recent art with hints of Smithson’s conflation of geologic pre-history, futurism, and environmentalism. The video ends with people standing on an abandoned station platform with the word “Esperanza” (Hope) painted on the wall behind them. As with so many works in the exhibition, time twists in on itself.

The extensive variety of themes and artists displayed provides many suggestive avenues for contemplation and interpretation, but it also leads to a sense of incoherence for viewers seeking a sustained narrative or interpretation of the ostensible subject of the exhibition. In-depth connections between artworks and science or science fiction are limited, as are substantive interpretations of individual works, especially in relation to their specific historical contexts. Despite repeated references to contemporary social and political concerns in both wall texts and catalogue essays, these remain allusive rather than specific. This is somewhat understandable given the range of works presented, which is both the exhibition’s main weakness and its greatest strength.

Kim Grant
Associate Professor, Department of Art, University of Southern Maine

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