Midcentury sci-fi art
Past Futures: Science Fiction, Space Travel, and Postwar Art of the Americas
SCIENCE FICTION, SPACE TRAVEL, AND POSTWAR ART OF THE AMERICAS,
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