EXHIBITION REVIEW: ‘INTO THE UNKNOWN’ BARBICAN CENTRE

The Barbican Centre itself looks like it fell from space – an appropriate venue for a promised voyage through science fiction. The literature promised an odyssey.

Experience does not exist in silos. The tangled mire of life is disparate and chaotic and seemingly discrete subjects, such as art, science, language, philosophy and physiology, exist both in parallel and in tandem; sometimes in harmony, sometimes in turmoil. And yet, they are often treated as separate entities. From how we treat these facets of existence in schools to how we work to how Government divides its ministries, the genres of life are always sliced, categorised and kept, as far as is possible, apart. Having the imagination to combine these elements, to weave them back together, could be considered the first rule of creativity. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why the arts and science fiction have fed off each other? Life imitates art, and science fiction imitates life.

Yes, these are grandiose notions for a pop culture sci-fi show, but, of all genres, sci-fi is grandiose. It can also be subtle and nuanced. More than imitating life, science fiction, in its rawest form, cuts life apart and examines the minutiae of existence in minute detail. It also brings an element of ad absurdum. From Margaret Atwood’s pseudo, near-enough-to-be-scary future dystopian world of the Handmaids Tale, to the most oft-mocked episode of Star Trek (Arena, of course), science fiction is unafraid; unafraid to laugh at itself, but, even more unafraid to take an idea and boil it down to its most concentrated form. Occasionally of course, it boils over, leaving you with a faint taste of carbon in your throat.

This exhibition takes a niche genre and highlights the things that matter: its art and imagination and its refusal to look away from our own short-sightedness and self destructiveness. It also managed to effect a clever avoidance of the obvious, both by omission (no Klingon dictionary!) and by inclusion. One of the most compelling exhibits, Sun Ra’s Astro Black, touched on the idea of how science fiction provided refuge and inspiration for an element of subculture, avant-garde jazz – which hitherto I had no exposure to.

What the show lacked was aliens – with a notable exception in the form of the Alien. On balance, this is a good thing. The focus was on human creation; our relationship with science fiction; the portrayal of new, parallel truths. The compelling thing about science fiction is its ability to abutt reality to fiction: sometimes with finesse; sometimes with brutal lunacy. But the jump-off point is always and consistently accessible, and always grounded in reality.

In all story-telling, there is an inflammatory barrier between fiction and reality. Nowhere is this demonstrated more obviously than in Larissa Sansour’s film, shown here: In the Future They Ate from the Finest Porcelain. The film is political and familial, rooting its story in the sister dynamic, in memory, in the sensation of displacement, but with a science fiction undercurrent which is both incidental and incendiary; the significance of porcelain is never more pronounced than when it sits alongside steel? Alongside Conrad Shawcross’ installation, In the Light of the Machine, the film creates a jarring juxtaposition. Here is a growing society of robots who build our engines and circuit boards and fill car factories with orange likenesses as a singular representative of the species. Here, the soul of science fiction stands proud: there is an organic subtlety to the movements that roots the piece and creates a weird sensation of affection for pile of wires, metal and circuitry.

Into the Unknown attempts to present a plethora of information in tandem; its curators made a wise decision to avoid a chronological history of sci-fi (and risk confining the show to a museum) and instead presented a web of content, of all media and styles, as a living thing. The relationships between objects and artefacts emphasises the organic growth of sci-fi lore. The themes which pervade the liberties of the individual, the morality of the collective, the role of women, the plight of the minority, have always formed the basis of science fiction trope, and have always inexorably been tied to the spine of human experience.

The exhibition manages to make links across formats: film, literature, illustration, physical artefact and software and the result is cacophonous. It leaves the visitor feeling distracted and pulled in different directions. Whilst some may find this a lost opportunity for in-depth, critical investigation of the real, cerebral soul of science fiction (one colleague expressed disappointment that the show failed to address the proliferation of misogyny that undeniably permeates the genre, as well as the barely-tapped seam of investigative potential that is utopia/dystopia), chaos is exactly what the genre thrives on. The sensation of being overwhelmed is disarming, and I came away with a sense of having been educated in a genre I have only scraped the surface of.

Author: Victoria Burroughs, Arts Assistant, ARTIQ.

Exhibition details:
Into the Unknown: A Journey through Science Fiction
Barbican Centre
3rd June – 1st September 2017
https://www.barbican.org.uk/intotheunknown/