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

by Sarah J. Montross, Editor
Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Brunswick, ME, & The MIT Press, Cambridge MA, 2015
127 pp., illus., 135 col. Trade, $29.95
ISBN: 978-0-262-02902-5.

Reviewed by Malgorzata Sugiera
Jagiellonian University, Poland


This lavishly edited catalogue, fully illustrated with colour photographs, was published because of the 2015 eponymous exhibition at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art that gathered works by some 20 artists and demonstrated the influence of the successful realisation of space travel, with the launch of Sputnik in 1957 and the Apollo landing on the Moon in 1969 as its peaks. Each of the selected artists merged in his/her own way the empirical languages of science and technology with expansive imaginations to develop visual science fiction. Significantly, the artists come not only from the USA, but also mostly from Latin America, “a region – as the curator of the exhibition and editor of the catalogue Sarah J. Montross emphasizes – that has been stereotyped as primitive, folkloric, or even antitechnological” (p. 16). And yet, as the exhibition fully demonstrated, the explosive growth of the science-fiction genre in film and literature from the 1940s to 1970s influenced not only visual artists in the technologically advanced USA, but also in the less developed countries of Latin America. Moreover, in this cultural context the main themes of extra-terrestrial travel, alien encounters, “new man” as a hybrid of human and machine, and utopian or dystopian futures served to cover diverse experiences of conquest and colonisation, military regimes, exile and migration. What makes the catalogue so appealing are both the excellent quality of the reproductions and the proper choice of the artworks because that gives an insight not only into the multiplicity of imagined futures and diversity of topics, but also into the richness of styles, materials and ways of artistic renditions of the as-yet unknown worlds and their inhabitants.

One must question, however, the rationale of the choice, scope and focus of the four essays included in the catalogue as they unfortunately fail to match its splendid visual part. It is understandable that Montross’s introductory text, presenting the four broad themes mentioned above and covered by the exhibition, offers a rather cursory look on the visual science fiction from the 1940s to 1970s. Less understandably, the same cursory approach prevails in the next two essays. Even if it is true that science fiction art has so far been under-examined, especially the one from Latin America, neither Delgado’s distinct and broad perspective on Latin American Art and its continuous quest for utopia, nor Alonso’s presentation of the genre’s relevance for the Argentinian art of the 1960s, manage to push forward the underdeveloped research on visual science fiction. The same names of artists and artworks keep on returning, followed by quite similar sets of biographical information and rather superficial descriptions of artistic imaginations and the ideas behind them. However, the texts fail to provide any kind of a deeper insight into the current state of science fiction as a genre.

If O’Dea’s text on Robert Smithson’s 1969 “anti-expedition” to Yucatan Peninsula and his series of photographs of sculptural “mirror displacement”, published together with an essay Incidents of Mirror-Travel in the Yucatan, has been not included in the volume, I would evaluate the catalogue as a book that should be looked through rather than read. Luckily, O’Dea had this splendid idea not only to choose Smithson’s critical approach to the traditional relationship between the material worlds and its representations, but to connect it with the writings of J. G. Ballard, as fascinated with entropy as Smithson. Both were equally distrustful of the dominant ideologies of science and the generally accepted structure of the material world, and both were using similar strategies of estrangement and dislocation in order to expose the a priori principles used to order the perceptual experience. What is even more important, O’Dea, in spite of his focus on Smithson’s art, managed to propose an interesting new interpretation of Ballard’s prose, especially the 1962 novel The Drowned World, which today is read mostly in the context of the New Climatic Regime and the greenhouse effect. If it is true that we are living through a period of an obvious revival of futuristic aesthetics in contemporary art, albeit mainly as the site of repetition or ruin, the catalogue Past Futures is thanks to O’Dea’s insightful essay worth not only looking through, but as well a careful reading.

Last Updated 1st February 2016

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