Mid­cen­tury sci-fi art

Past Fu­tures: Science Fic­tion, Space Travel, and Post­war Art of the Amer­i­cas

Pasatiempo - - CONTENTS - Paul Wei­de­man


a Maine ex­hi­bi­tion of works by artists from the Amer­i­cas and a book of the same name, daz­zles view­ers with its va­ri­ety and emo­tional ex­tremes. De­pic­tions rang­ing from cud­dly to sin­is­ter re­flect the artists’ in­tu­itions of mankind’s des­tiny as the latest news about the Cold War, the rise of science and tech­nol­ogy, and es­pe­cially the space race oc­cu­pied news­pa­per head­lines.

The works cho­sen for Past Fu­tures were made be­tween the 1940s and the 1970s. The show hung at the Bow­doin Col­lege Mu­seum of Art in Brunswick through June 7, and is col­lected in a book col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween the mu­seum and MIT Press. Artists re­sponded to the above move­ments and to the cor­re­spond­ingly dra­matic ex­pan­sion of science-fic­tion books and movies ei­ther with marvel or pes­simism: Some had faith in tech­nol­ogy’s abil­ity to im­prove so­ci­ety, while oth­ers had in­creas­ing anx­i­eties about gov­ern­ment sur­veil­lance, de­hu­man­iza­tion, and nu­clear an­ni­hi­la­tion.

Just con­trast two pieces in the show: Love & Life by Ar­gentina’s Delia Cancela and Pablo Me­se­jean, in which child­like astro­nauts joy­ously float among flow­ers and clouds, and scary vi­sions such as Con­vict

the Im­pos­si­ble by Roberto Matta (known as Matta) of Chile. It’s a de­pic­tion of a quasi-hu­man crea­ture with rows of sword­like teeth erupt­ing from a huge mouth and one eye with a dull, pen­e­trat­ing gaze; this is an ex­am­ple of one of cu­ra­tor Sarah J. Mon­tross’ themes: the specter of a hu­man/ma­chine hy­brid or “new man.” Mon­tross is the An­drew W. Mel­lon post­doc­toral cu­ra­to­rial fel­low at the Bow­doin mu­seum. She also edited the book Past Fu­tures, pen­ning the first chap­ter and adding three chap­ters by Miguel Án­gel Fernán­dez Del­gado, Ro­drigo Alonso, and Rory O’Dea.

The artists rep­re­sented in the ex­hi­bi­tion and in this lav­ishly il­lus­trated book also en­gaged with the pol­i­tics of the day, which in­cluded a move for an en­hanced union of North Amer­ica and South Amer­ica to counter per­ceived threats re­lated to the growth of com­mu­nism. Early in her chap­ter, Mon­tross men­tions Pres­i­dent John F. Kennedy’s 1961 Spe­cial Mes­sage to Congress, which car­ried ideas about space travel — he an­nounced NASA’s goal of send­ing a hu­man to the moon by the end of that decade — and about U.S. aided im­prove­ments promised in Cen­tral and South Amer­ica. “An over­ar­ch­ing con­cept for me was that the very mo­ment of the ‘dis­cov­ery’ of the Amer­i­cas was an alien en­counter of a dif­fer­ent kind. I’m in­ter­ested in the ways that dis­cov­ery gets re­peated,” Mon­tross told Pasatiempo. “And Kennedy gave speeches in which he al­luded to Colum­bus’ dis­cov­ery as akin to the dis­cov­er­ies to be made in the fi­nal fron­tier.”

Mon­tross in­tu­ited sub­stan­tial dif­fer­ences be­tween the ex­pres­sions of Euro­pean and U.S. artists and those in Latin Amer­i­can na­tions that were col­o­nized by Euro­peans. “There is also a strong aware­ness, of course, in the Latin Amer­i­can literature and cul­ture to­day of the pre-Columbian cul­ture, and that is a no­table fea­ture in Latin Amer­i­can sci-fi: nar­ra­tives that have to do with go­ing back in time and en­coun­ter­ing con­quis­ta­dors and Maya cul­tures.”

Mon­tross came to the topic of the ex­hi­bi­tion by way of Chile’s Juan Downey, who was a sub­ject of her Ph.D. dis­ser­ta­tion at New York Univer­sity’s In­sti­tute of Fine Arts. “He’s bet­ter known as a video artist, some­one work­ing with new media, but in his very early work in the 1960s he’s rep­re­sent­ing cy­borgs and fig­ures float­ing through cos­mic space, so it in­trigued me why he made those leaps. I also had a spe­cial in­ter­est in Robert Smith­son and Peter Hutchin­son and other land artists who trav­eled to Cen­tral and South Amer­ica and over­laid is­sues of time travel or science-fic­tion tropes onto the Latin Amer­i­can land­scape.”

The con­cepts of ex­trater­res­trial travel and alien en­coun­ters had spe­cial mean­ing for Latin Amer­i­can artists who re­lo­cated to the United States and for U.S. artists who trav­eled to Cen­tral and South Amer­ica, be­cause ev­ery­thing looks dif­fer­ent when you get away from home. In her book, Mon­tross il­lus­trates this idea with a quo­ta­tion by Vilém Flusser, a Cze­choslo­vakian philoso­pher who em­i­grated to Brazil in 1941. He wrote that the rou­tines and cus­toms of ev­ery­day re­al­ity are stripped away when we travel. So much of what the mi­grant ex­pe­ri­ences can be un­usual and un­set­tling, just as a hu­man hand

and fin­gers might be seen as “an oc­to­pus-like mon­stros­ity” by a Mar­tian.

Another point hing­ing on per­spec­tive comes from Raquel Forner, an Ar­gen­tine who be­lieved that view­ing Earth from outer space could ac­cen­tu­ate a sense of in­se­cu­rity and even up­set man’s ar­ro­gant com­pla­cency about life. The “as­tro-be­ings” in Forner’s works “were meant to en­cour­age hu­mankind to con­sider their fate on earth,” Mon­tross writes. Thus may brother­hood and stew­ard­ship of the planet sud­denly seem more im­por­tant. In his chap­ter in the book, Del­gado says Latin Amer­i­can artists have gen­er­ally es­teemed tech­nol­ogy for its po­ten­tial boons to hu­man­ity. He adds that the space race was seen as hope­ful be­cause it pro­vided op­por­tu­ni­ties for in­ter­na­tional co­op­er­a­tion and world peace.

On the cover of the book, a fu­tur­is­tic ve­hi­cle is shown on a rail­way trestle in a lush jun­gle en­vi­ron­ment. This is a pho­to­graph of the SEFT-1 pro­ject, in which Mex­i­can artists Ivan Puig and An­drés Padilla Domene fab­ri­cated this car to travel along derelict rail lines while col­lect­ing sou­venirs of the jour­neys and doc­u­ment­ing en­coun­ters with other hu­mans. SEFT-1 is the last work Mon­tross dis­cusses in her chap­ter. “One of the ques­tions I grap­pled with — and that ac­tu­ally prompted the ex­hi­bi­tion — was ask­ing how artists vi­su­al­ized the fu­ture in decades past,” she said. “So I wanted to end the dis­cus­sion with look­ing at how artists are us­ing fu­tur­is­tic de­sign to­day. It struck me as very dif­fer­ent from the purely utopian or dystopian imag­in­ings that char­ac­ter­ized the ’60s, be­cause the way in which the fu­ture ap­pears to­day is used in a crit­i­cal way to go back in time to re­visit places that once sym­bol­ized the fu­ture but no longer ex­ist, like that Mex­i­can rail­way. Another com­mon theme in a lot of this work is the con­nec­tion be­tween the or­ganic and the tech­no­log­i­cal and whether artists rec­og­nize or dis­turb those bound­aries. That cover im­age is fully in an eco­log­i­cal world, but there’s this in­ser­tion of tech­nol­ogy within it.”

Some of the artists’ vi­sions are very trippy and are ex­pressed in such a va­ri­ety of forms that it is easy to be­lieve the idea of science reach­ing into outer space was just a pro­found spring­board for cre­ative flight. “Yeah, I think it freed a lot of artists to re­ally imag­ine new pos­si­bil­i­ties, and much of what we’re look­ing at oc­curred at a time of coun­ter­cul­ture ex­per­i­men­ta­tion, and those things are re­lated in my mind.”

Past Fu­tures also presents La ci­u­dad hidroes­pa­cial (Hy­drospa­tial City). In this 1974 pro­ject by Gyula Kosice, an Ar­gen­tine artist who em­i­grated from Hungary, he en­vi­sioned hu­mans trans­formed by tech­nol­ogy to the point of free­dom from the tra­di­tional con­cerns about food, shel­ter, and cloth­ing. His plas­tic-disc habi­tats, float­ing thou­sands of feet above Earth, have in­te­rior spa­ces that ac­com­mo­date some­thing be­sides prac­ti­cal func­tions. He la­bels one of the spa­ces “Cher­ish­able duty in re­gions over­whelmed with con­cepts.” Another is “Place of pro­cure­ment of gifts and toasts to hy­droal­lu­sions.” Mon­tross said Kosice was “in­di­cat­ing new places for liv­ing in pure poetic ex­pe­ri­ence.”

The artis­tic vi­sions cov­ered in the book also sur­face in the do­mains of sculp­ture, theater, comic strips, and dance — and hu­mor could be an im­por­tant in­gre­di­ent. A dance per­formed in 1965 at the In­sti­tuto Tor­cu­ato Di Tella in Buenos Aires was ti­tled Marvila la mu­jer mar­avilla con­tra As­tra la su­per­pilla del plan­eta Ul­tra y su mon­struo de­struc­tor (Marvila the marvelous woman vs. As­tra the su­per sneak from Planet Ul­tra and her de­struc­tive mon­ster).

“Past Fu­tures: Science Fic­tion, Space Travel, and Post­war Art of the Amer­i­cas,” edited by Sarah J. Mon­tross, was pub­lished this year by Bow­doin Col­lege Mu­seum of Art and MIT Press.

An over­ar­ch­ing con­cept for me was that the very mo­ment of the “dis­cov­ery” of the Amer­i­cas was an alien en­counter of a dif­fer­ent kind. — cu­ra­tor Sarah J. Mon­tross

Matta: Un­ti­tled, circa 1951, oil on pa­per, mounted on wood panel; above left, Gyula Kosice: Un­ti­tled, 1971, pen and brush with wash over graphite; above right, Eric Ray King: Mu­si­cal Con­struc­tion for an As­tro­naut Evolv­ing To­ward His Capsule, 1966, acrylic paint and plas­tic ob­jects on wood; op­po­site page, left: Mario Gallardo: Macro­cos­mic Mean­ing: “Au­to­mated Tower” (de­tail), 1971, ink; top cen­ter, Nancy Graves: Fra Mauro

Re­gion of the Moon, 1972, litho­graph, 1971 ink

From top, Al­berto Greco: Date With Greco

on Venus, 1960, mixed media and col­lage; poster for the film Con­queror of the Moon, 1960; Hen­rique Alvim Cor­rea: il­lus­tra­tion for H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds; im­ages cour­tesy Bow­doin Col­lege Mu­seum of Art

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