Space Is the Place is a challenging exhibition that looks at the possibilities and the past of space exploration. Contemporary Arts Center Curator of Education Scott Boberg described the artists' perspectives as "post-Challenger, post-9/11, post end of the Soviet Union" as he lead a tour of museum visitors through the exhibition in early February. As all of the artwork was made in the past 15 years, many if not all of these events are relevant in one way or another.
Boberg recently expanded on the tone of Space Is the Place by e-mail, saying that "except for a few works in the exhibition ... optimistic enthusiasm has been replaced by a pessimistic ennui."
This move towards an often venerated subject matter lends itself to an uneven but interesting exhibition.
Alex Baker and former CAC Senior Curator Toby Kamps (now at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston) curated Space Is the Place. It includes 33 pieces by 16 artists or artist teams and spans two floors of the CAC. Despite the vastness of the topic, the exhibition is visually austere, with long stretches of white walls between the often minimal works. That said, much of the art is intriguing but not immediately accessible.
The space race was a source of optimism and nationalism for both the United States and the Soviet Union, but Space Is the Place grounds this quest for atmospheric transcendence with works that call attention to the era's earthbound sociopolitical inequality and instability. Colette Gaiter's "Space/Race" (1998) CD-ROM juxtaposes text, imagery and sound from the civil rights movement with that of space program, linking them chronologically and asking -- though not answering -- questions about the meanings of these missions or movements.
Gaiter connects astronauts, icons of American optimism, with the social tumult underlying the space program and places it within a broader cultural context.
Russian artist Oleg Kulik's "Cosmonaut" (2003) is the focal point of the exhibition. The life-size, remarkably realistic wax figure wears an authentic Soviet jumpsuit and helmet that recall the image of Yuri Gagarin, who in 1961 became the first man to orbit the Earth. He hovers as if in zero gravity between the fourth and fifth floors, surrounded by a swirling coil of silver tubing. This, however, is no nostalgic tribute -- the figure's expression is fixed in an unsettling grin, and a Frankenstein-like scar runs from his forehead to chin. He is a disconcerting relic of the past, a haunting reminder of the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the end of the space race.
While many artists included in Space Is the Place reference the history of space travel, others strive to experience space themselves. The MIR (Microgravity Interdisciplinary Research) Project brought together a group of more than 50 European art, science and media specialists at the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre in Star City, Russia. They are part of what Boberg described as a "new era of fragmentation and entrepreneurial initiative" that followed the space race. The video "Gravitation Off!" (2001) highlights their experiments in near zero gravity on a modified cargo aircraft. A parabolic flight pattern of climbs and dives gave the passengers up to 30 seconds to experience weightlessness.
During these intervals, everyone springs into action -- a dancer spins another like a windmill, a man in a turban appears to ride a flying carpet and other imaginative antigravity activities ensue. "Gravitation Off!" stands out for its whimsical and optimistic approach to the many possibilities of space.
The subjects of American artist Lia Halloran's large paintings also defy gravity. These larger-than-life women resonate with power and motion. A self-professed "space junkie" and skateboarder, Halloran starts with photographs of skateboarders caught in mid-motion and re-contextualizes them in her vivid paintings, casting the women as cosmonauts.
At once tragic and beautiful, "The Irreversible Downfall of Intercoastal Six" (2005) depicts a woman in a space suit reaching across an indeterminate plane at a strong diagonal. Horizontal vapors of brown and blue cut across the canvas, creating both depth and visual tension. Halloran's stellar paintings, with their boldness in scale and use of color, are immediately captivating and strong works within the exhibition.
The international artists included in Space Is the Place interpret the subject of space in dramatically different ways. When asked how this variety determines the overall effect of the exhibition, Boberg replied, "I think the range of work is part of the show's richness. People will gravitate (pun intended) to work that they understand and are aesthetically drawn to; few people, I think, will like everything in the show, or they are really generous in spirit!"
This isn't an easy exhibition, but it has its rewards for the thoughtful viewer.
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