The indelible relationship between the scientific and the fantastical comes alive in Other Worlds Other Stories now on view at the Washington Project for the Arts. The ten artists selected by curator Jeffry Cudlin create a sense of giddiness that lingers in the air as they imagine the future of space travel and exploration. In his opening remarks, Cudlin sagely notes that, in regards to the cosmos, the Arts (both visual and written) often step up to answer rapid-fire questions that science leaves unanswered; in lieu of scientific facts, we are left to dream. His chosen artists use those dreams as a departure point to push their artistic practice.
A major theme that comes to the fore is a sense of manifest destiny—an optimistic, almost Utopian vision that despite all obstacles the wealth of the universe is at our fingertips. Lucy West’s luscious paintings present an idealized version of our “final frontier” and stand in counterpoint to Steve Strawn’s staged vignettes which give way to the reality that life in space is no easier than the life left behind. Heidi Neilson and Douglas Paulson tackle Strawn’s assumptions with Menu for Mars Kitchen, part of a culinary performance piece designed to stimulate astronauts’ appetites (and a unique inclusion for the exhibition).
Several artists question this notion of manifest destiny, pointing out (rightfully) that society has been down this road before, not always with benign effects. Can we learn from past practice and perhaps make this next leap in civilization more inclusive? This line of inquiry begins with A. Gray Lamb’s New Institute of Historical Cosmological Exploration which points out that dominant narratives are often filled with fictitious data points. The quest continues in Jefferson Pinder’s Black Hole, where a deep, inky blackness serves as a metaphor for our inability to fully bridge racial divides here on earth. Roxana Pérez-Méndez’s New Espacio, Edición Final neatly summarizes these issues by presenting an alternative Latina-led, Puerto Rican space program which reacts to the arc of historical colonization as it simultaneously looks forward to new possibilities.
An exhibition this size can provide only brief glimpses into the rich depths of this topic. Perhaps a Smithsonian curator will wander through, have a spark lit and a major exhibition at the Air and Space Museum will result. To invite that spark, Culdin ingeniously places a reading table in the middle of the gallery where visitors can sample Jules Verne intermingled with non-fiction tomes on the history of space exploration. The setting underscores how art and science have interwoven themselves into our understanding of space and gives viewers a chance to soar through heavens with feet planted firmly on the gallery floor.
Banner image: Visiting Moons (detail), 2016, Felipe Gonclaves; Latex, acrylic and spray enamel on wall; 114″ x 216″
Other Worlds Other Stories is on view through February 20, 2016 at the Washington Project for the Arts. Menu for Mars Test Kitchen, a performance by Heidi Neilson and Douglas Paulson, will take place on Saturday, February 23, 2016. For more information, visit the WPA website here.