Interplanetary exploration, alien life, and living on the moon are among the themes obsessing artists who use science fiction to comment on matters closer to home
In 2003, Russian artist Leonid Tishkov fell in love with the moon and vowed to stay with her forever.
As the story goes, the moon descended from the sky and appeared in the thick upper brush of a pine tree outside Moscow; her crescent curves were boldly illuminated from within. Tishkov embraced her, adored her, and, when she asked to see the world, promised to show her as much of it as he could. “She shone to me personally and brightened my loneliness,” Tishkov says.
Over the past decade, Tishkov has toted his six-foot-plus celestial darling from the tunnels and rooftops of Paris to the bays and straw shops of Taiwan, to Arctic fjords, treetops in The Hague, the Tien Shan Observatory in Kazakhstan, and, just last year, to Washington, D.C., where they visited the monuments along the National Mall as well as nearby sites. They went to the National Aquarium, Edgar Allan Poe’s onetime Baltimore home, and the battlefields of Antietam. Tishkov lay beside her in the shadow of the Washington Monument, protected her from predators and rain, and wrote poetry in her honor. “I give her the opportunity to see and love,” he says. She, in turn, “gives us her beauty.”
The artist plucked the form itself—crafted, less romantically, out of durable plastic and LED lights—from Magritte’s crescent moon, appearing most famously in his 1956 painting The Sixteenth of September, in which it shines brightly through a stately tree even as the surrounding sky indicates dawn. Conceptually, Tishkov says, his idea was to strip the moon of its practical and scientific associations. It’s a fairly radical position, he explains—a world in which “the moon does not exist as an object in reality for research; it is only the poetic object”—the object that ancient civilizations worshipped as a goddess and that Magritte rendered above bowler-hatted men and through densely clustered leaves.
At the same time, notes curator Rob La Frenais of the London-based organization Arts Catalyst, which promotes experimental art, “there’s an element of satire to that, in a Russian sense—the idea that someone can own their very own moon and take it around with them.” It’s also worth noting how the project has developed in tandem with a new reality in which superpowers—namely, China—are circling the moon with an eye toward mining it for resources and claiming the unregulated terrain as their own.
Tishkov’s travels—images of which were included in the Arts Catalyst exhibition “Republic of the Moon,” on view earlier this year at London’s Bargehouse at Oxo Tower Wharf—reflect a pervasive strain in the ways artists are dealing with science fiction today, especially as previous conceptions of the genre inch increasingly toward fact. Indeed, as a 21st-century space race gains momentum, artists are reexamining science fiction and looking at the implications of life after life in space.
“The crux of science fiction’s allure is that it occupies that gray area between the credible (the rational, evidence-based, believable, and empirical) and the incredible (the fantastic, imaginary, and the downright impossible),” says Zoe Whitley, curator of contemporary British art at Tate Britain and cocurator, with Naima J. Keith, of “The Shadows Took Shape,” a 25-year survey of international art relating to the Afrofuturist esthetic, on view at the Studio Museum in Harlem through March 9. “In the realm of science fiction,” Whitley adds, “the two are conflated to form a new, wondrous whole.”
At Bargehouse, the German artist Agnes Meyer-Brandis exhibited her Moon Goose Analogue: Lunar Migration Bird Facility, which was commissioned for “Republic of the Moon.” Like Tishkov, she uses myth and whimsy to comment on the impending chapters of a new space age. Inspired in part by the Mars500 experiment—a 2007–11 study conducted through the Russian Academy of Sciences wherein volunteers were isolated in a makeshift spacecraft on a simulated mission to Mars—Meyer-Brandis set out to create a simulation of her own, built around mythical creatures. The “moon geese” that populate the artist’s facsimile world have their roots in a 17th-century text by the English bishop Francis Godwin titled The Man in the Moone, one of the earliest known works of science fiction in the English language. In it, Godwin’s protagonist escapes near-certain doom by hitching a ride with a flock of geese whose migration pattern takes them to and from the moon.
Meyer-Brandis constructed a narrative around this species as if it were real, mired in crisis and stranded for centuries here on Earth. In 2011, she bred a flock of “moon geese,” guided them through various stages of training, and installed them in Italy in a habitat that simulates the conditions on the moon. Her installation in London took the form of a control room in which visitors could activate live streams of the geese, learn about the various experiments they’re conducting within the simulator (the growth potential of their favorite food, dandelions, in zero-gravity situations, for instance), and explore ephemera related to the early lives of these winged would-be astronauts.
“The long-term view is, of course, to travel to the moon,” Meyer-Brandis says. “The first unmanned flight to the moon is planned for 2027.” She intends to join the moon geese on their second mission in 2038.
Meyer-Brandis’s plight is fanciful, but her methods are rigorous and part of the project’s conceit lies in the fact that there could be no humor in this at all, that she really could be preparing to send these geese to the moon. “It’s very interesting to me as an artist,” she adds. “These kind of simulations and the question of what is real or what is not.”
Another strain of recent science fiction–based work examines the imagined corporate implications of space colonization. As the artistic duo WE COLONISED THE MOON, German artist Hagen Betzwieser and English artist Sue Corke playfully explore the possible effects of what they view as an impending reality. “I think the moon will be either a theme park or a quarry,” Betzwieser says. “A privatized entertainment park where Richard Branson will build a hotel with Hilton and bring people up who have the money to pay for it, or it will be a mine for Helium-3 or whatever else you can find on the moon.”
As such, Betzwieser and Corke (who served as artists-in-residence in “Republic of the Moon”) had previously launched such projects as “Authentic Goods from a Realistic Future,” a series of objects developed around this hypothetical future. The installation, on view at London’s EB&Flow Gallery (now BERLONI) in 2012, included prototypes for German-made flying saucers, a video projection of a dancer in a space suit performing a ballet among the stars, and “No Cosmic Rays” protest signs, stored for later use in an imagined activist movement taking a stand against the particles that threaten people exploring (and, perhaps, vacationing in) space.
Future colonization has long been a theme in science fiction for artists and writers. Corke and Betzwieser cite Britain’s colonizing tradition as a major reference point—even its seemingly innocuous infiltrations, such as when the 19th-century English settler Thomas Austin introduced rabbits to his Australian hunting estate. “They became the biggest invasive species catastrophe of that century,” Corke explains. “It pretty much ruined agriculture in Australia for some time.”
Colonial pasts and possible futures have also shaped the sci-fi subgenre of Afrofuturism. The term was coined in 1994 by cultural critic Mark Dery to characterize the work of people like science-fiction writer Octavia E. Butler and musician-philosopher Sun Ra, whose films, music, and theories were built around the fantasy of cultivating a new home for the African American race beyond the confines of Earth. The major tenet of Afrofuturism is that the experience of the African diaspora (or any diaspora) is akin to being lost in space.
Whitley and Keith’s show, “The Shadows Took Shape,” is an international selection of work in this vein. The display includes Sanford Biggers’s Vex (2013), a screen- and spray-painted antique quilt studded with a QR code that, when scanned, takes viewers to a short film titled Moon Medicine in which an escaped slave finds refuge on a foreign planet; Kiluanji Kia Henda’s Icarus 13, a visual narrative from 2008 detailing an imagined mission to the sun as told through photographs taken in the artist’s native Angola; and William Cordova’s yawar mallku (sculpting elsewhere in time / the arc of the moral universe is long… / the Lesson, pt. 2), 2008–13, a small-scale replica of the Millennium Falcon, the well-worn Han Solo-commanded spacecraft from Star Wars, made in collaboration with artist Nyeema Morgan and the Houston-based artist collective Otabenga Jones & Associates. Its walls are made of wood sourced from Brazil, Peru, the Philippines, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, the Republic of the Congo, and Bolivia; its roof is unshielded, revealing a kind of cultural library within.
“I think that Afrofuturism is able to engage a really timely and really serious sense of where we are and where we might be headed while also having a good time,” Whitley says. “We had a lot of interesting conversations about what we felt artists were doing and how they felt they were either sitting within this Afrofuturist canon or pushing it in new directions. And often they were simultaneously pushing things forward while also engaging with fairly traumatic pasts.”
Brooklyn artist Saya Woolfalk, for instance, contributed a sculpture of a white felt-feathered figure whose torso is delineated by animation on a flat screen TV. The piece, Life Products by ChimaTEK™ (2013), featuring contributions from filmmaker Rachel Lears and a soundtrack by DJ Spooky That Subliminal Kid, imagines a parallel universe populated by plant-human hybrids and driven by empathy—a realm so desirable that corporations have devised this contraption, which mainlines empathic feelings to anyone willing to foot the bill. “To become empathic you have to come into contact with people, go through processes,” Woolfalk says. “ChimaTEK™ provides the opportunity for people to do it themselves through a home-use technology.”
Born in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and based in Lahore, Pakistan, Mehreen Murtaza explores the fraught territory of organized religion within a futuristic, tech-heavy context. “The Shadows Took Shape” features a new edition of her colossal 2009 digital collage Triptych. Its dense imagery (the figurative elements of which were photographed at Sufi shrines throughout Lahore) pictures individuals wired to machines that might, in Murtaza’s imagined realm, fashion a personalized deity for them to worship in prayer.
“I was interested in elements of institutionalized religion spliced with imagery that is very explicitly technological, scientific, and rooted in consumer culture,” Murtaza says. Religion and science are inseparable in her eyes, as they both confront “overarching questions about the universe and this obsession with the apocalypse—the idea of the singularity (the point at which machines’ intelligence will surpass our own) is also rooted in the apocalypse.” She was interested in “this blurring between fact, fiction, and religion,” and how that in itself “can form its own narrative.”
The postapocalyptic is still a starting point for many artists, and two solo shows last year cleverly mined the territory, positing how it might look when life-forms from the far future encounter what we’ve left behind. At the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., Ellen Harvey mounted the interdisciplinary exhibition “The Alien’s Guide to the Ruins of Washington, D.C.” In Harvey’s dystopic vision, the human race has long been extinct, and aliens visiting Earth come upon the Neoclassical graveyard that was once our nation’s capital.
Her Alien Souvenir Stand (2013) is draped with watercolor works on clayboard depicting the mostly pillared ruins. In printed brochures, the Jefferson Memorial is dubbed “The Circle/Triangle Pillar-Thing,” Congress, “The Really Complicated Pillar-Thing,” and Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian columns, “Boring,” “Frilly,” and “Very Frilly,” respectively. The alien author asks: “Who were the lost Pillar-Builders of Earth? Why did they leave the comfort of their oceans to build these enduringly popular Pillar-Things over much of the dry land of their planet for the brief period of about two and a half thousand years? What drove this primitive Earth-wide society to collaborate in creating innumerable variations of the same thing all over the place?”
Harvey wanted to explore the ways in which this particular architectural style expressed power over time. It has been embraced by the ancient Greeks, Stalin, the U.S. government, and, in her narrative, by our intergalactic colonizers. Alien Space Ship: The Latest in Pillar-Builder Space Travel (2013), a 23-foot aluminum Corinthian column–shaped rocket, stood tall in the museum’s rotunda.
Adrián Villar Rojas’s recent conception of our future relics was wider in scope, ranging from fossilized organic matter (whales, kittens, Kurt Cobain’s remains) to fragments of Renaissance sculptures to vessels, tools, and hulking Modernist architecture (one structure rests on the hardened spine of a fossilized elephant), all rendered in mud and clay with a rough, human quality to their forms and surfaces. His exhibition, titled “Today We Reboot the Planet,” inaugurated the new Serpentine Sackler Gallery in London last fall.
Rojas cites environmental concerns as his primary motivator. This particular work, Rojas has noted, was inspired by the concept of Anthropocene, which seeks to assess human impact on our geological past, present, and future. That impact, he believes, is so huge that it is ushering us into a new geologic era.
In addition to artists feeling science fiction’s pull and allure, curators, too, have been looking toward the genre as a structure or context in which to situate work. The New Museum in New York is currently hosting a small but dense exhibition, on view through April 13, in its fifth-floor Museum as Hub, titled “Report on the Construction of a Spaceship Module.” The project, installed in a makeshift galactic vessel, was organized by tranzit, a collective of curators in former Eastern Bloc countries, together with New Museum curator Lauren Cornell. It includes some 65 artists.
Vít Havránek, director of tranzit in Prague, explains: “We’re using this allegory of science fiction or a spaceship as a way to look at what we do. A spaceship does research in fields that are not obvious.” Tranzit’s aim, he continues, is “to find the things we don’t know and don’t understand” and study them as rigorously as we would findings from an alien culture. The approach is also rooted in the role that science fiction played behind the Iron Curtain, conjuring ideas about the future and what life might look like beyond the wall—any wall.
Rachel Wolff is an art writer, editor, and film producer based in Brooklyn.
A version of this story originally appeared in the March 2014 issue of ARTnews on page 64 under the title “Science Friction.”