While some U.S. taxpayers may be unenthusiastic about funding space travel, two of Seattle’s billionaires are not. Jeff Bezos and Paul Allen are each pursuing technological initiatives to access outer space as an entrepreneurial domain.
Allen has also been collecting the work of modern and contemporary artists who depict imaginary planetary expeditions, cosmological landscapes, and spacecraft. A selection from Allen’s holdings—a wunderkammer, created with actual space hardware—is on view in his Seattle gallery, Pivot Art + Culture.
“Imagined Futures: Science Fiction, Art, and Artifacts from the Paul G. Allen Family Collection” includes paintings by illustrators Chesley Bonestell and Fred Freeman and science fiction artists such as Jim Burns, Bob Eggleton, and Richard Powers; compositions by Max Ernst and René Magritte; and contemporary work by Thomas Struth, Robert Longo, Simon Norfolk, and Thomas Ruff. Lined up in the center of the exhibition space is a vintage X-15 rocket-plane motor, a twinkling 1968 IBM server panel, models of the agridome from the sci-fi film Silent Running, and miniature rockets and lunar reconnaissance vehicles designed by Wernher von Braun.
Von Braun, the former Nazi who invented the V-2 rocket and later, working as an engineer for the United States, the Saturn V launch vehicle, is a central point of reference for the exhibition. Even during his early career in Germany, von Braun was captivated by the possibility of space travel. The V-2 rocket that devastated London during WWII, he said, “worked perfectly, except that it landed on the wrong planet.” In the early 1950s von Braun collaborated with Collier’s Weekly magazine illustrators Bonestell and Freeman to popularize his vision of a manned space station that would become a launching platform for lunar landings. He also worked with Walt Disney on television films promoting space exploration and supervised a model spaceship for Disney’s Tomorrowland park.
These relics dating from Allen’s youth in the ’50s and ’60s are more engaging than the recent work in the show. Ruff presents a blissful starry sky. Longo traces in perfect circles the lonely planet Saturn, a counterpoint to Struth’s image of an insanely complicated scientific experiment designed to replicate the surface of the sun. A smaller adjacent gallery houses a cryptic installation by two emerging artists, David Bowen and Kristina Estell. Here a tiny LED light in the ceiling of a dark closet changes color over a many-hour time span according to the position of the sun, the earth, and the Voyager One spacecraft, now sailing in interstellar space. The tiny LED star is consistent with the uncritical utopianism in the main gallery and with the most compelling painting in the show, Magritte’s The Invisible Mirror, from circa 1942. Magritte represents planet earth hovering above white clouds and baby-blue sky as if viewed from a position on the earth itself, a reflexive dream apparently shared by earthlings who aspire to imprint themselves, somehow, on the rest of the universe.