Into The Unknown: A Fun But Frustrating Look At SF

The Arts

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I like the quirkiness of exhibitions at the Barbican; the toothpaste-tube space at the Curve gallery is awkward, being too high and too narrow, and simply not big enough, with the result that shows are often divided into three parts on different floors – yet part of the fun can be trying to find where they’ve hidden the rest of the show.

Unfortunately, this counts against ‘Into The Unknown’, the long-awaited exploration of science fiction (I think tickets went on sale a full year ago), because it doesn’t deliver the satisfying overall experience I had hoped for. Setting aside part 1 for a moment, parts 2 and 3 are negligible, comprising one incomprehensible, pretentious short film and a dull kinetic sculpture. Only the first section of the show delivers, and I have qualified feelings about that. It’s never a good idea to start with the bang and end with a whimper.

Upon walking in, any SF fan will be able to name altogether too many of the films, books, comics, spaceships and aliens from their beloved genre, but even so, the many pieces here turn up a couple of surprises, mostly clips from rare world SF cinema. Part of the trouble is that the future has overtaken the show – you can find most of the scenes on YouTube, so standing around watching 20-second segments doesn’t tell you anything about the nature of science fiction itself.

The Swiss curator Patrick Gyger has crammed lots of props into the poky space, from the genesis of Godzilla to the changing fashion in spacesuits (love the 70’s exo-suit!), each of which could fill an exhibition of their own. Many of the exhibits I’ve seen before, and any SF fan of my generation would have seen Ray Harryhausen give his lectures and trot out the drawings and dummies – still, it’s a thrill to see a couple of King Kong storyboard sketches here, along with storyboards from Jules Verne adaptations.

A promised piece on ‘Blade Runner’ utterly fails to deliver (I once got onto the Blade Runner set in LA, and it was very impressive). So were six tiny still frames from the film the best they could come up with for this exhibition? If becoming a cult film means that the items with which it is associated get shared out to exhibitions around the world, perhaps it’s better not to cover it at all rather than come up with something so paltry. There are first editions of great SF novels on display, some alien masks and spacecraft, but notably missing are any surprises from the ‘Star Wars’ films, probably because the franchise has its own exhibition elsewhere in town.

But the real problem here is that the exhibition items appear to have been tipped from a skip into the venue and left for us to sort out – there’s no connective tissue, no narrative, no structure or context at all, just a lot of random stuff, rather like the contents of a teenaged collector’s bedroom. You’re either familiar with the items already or won’t be able to identify them, for there’s nothing that explains their place in the SF universe.

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There’s a peculiar section on the ‘Dinotopia’ books, which are fantasy, not SF, and plenty of short (too short) movie clips that don’t tell you anything new. Most painfully, there’s nothing to help you define the genre. The jumps in subject matter feel ADD-afflicted, from Jules Verne to Jurassic Park, a bit of anime, then off to Thunderbirds.  Nothing about how the subdivisions in the genre came about, their influences or their meanings. What we’re left with here is a fanboy’s random collection of bits and bobs, with two embarrassing additions that act as sops to gender and ethnic balance – a black hip-hop installation and an ’empowered female’ Wonder Woman installation, neither of which work in the context of the show. (There’s a whole other argument to be made about whether or not superheroes are fantasy or SF – Gyger has not been able to make up his mind).

So, is it worth it? Just about, if you’re completely new to the genre, but for anyone else there’s nothing to learn, and no new understanding to be gleaned. (A couple of parts weren’t working when I went). Perhaps the subject is simply too big for a small space, and honing the show into a particular angle or set of opinions, with proper contextual information and a timeline, would have made it feel less generic.

And here’s the bottom line: Would a trip to the Forbidden Planet store give you more insight into what SF is all about? I’m afraid, Mr Gyger, it would.

2 comments on “Into The Unknown: A Fun But Frustrating Look At SF”

  1. Wayne Mook says:

    Superheroes take form both traditions, Thor and Wonder Woman take from the fantasy and mythology, while Hulk (science gone wrong in Jekyll & Hyde fashion) and Superman both take from the SF field, more than anything the tradition is wholly bound in the pulp tradition especially crime and adventure, Batman is the prime example. The Clock and later The Shadow & The Spider mix Crime, SF and Fantasy, Doc Savage could easily be all camps. In many ways the SF & Fantasy parts are just McGuffins or backdrops to tell the story, most superhero tales are of mad villains/monsters who need to be stopped, which has a long pulp tradition.

    Having read about the exhibition the links just don’t seem to be there as you said, a bit of a hodgepodge with no real connection. The bumf around it states it’s in 4 parts, 1: early SF & the journeys to unknown parts of the world, (Extraordinary Voyages) 2: exploration into outer space, (Space Odysseys) 3: The Future of Earth (Brave New Worlds) and 4: inner self and what is it to be human (Final Frontiers).

    Looks fun, and is supposed to be a travelling event so I hope to see it, somewhere.

    In August they are to show 2001 outside, something I’d like to see.

    Wayne.

  2. Peter Dixon says:

    Oh my word – an exhibition about all of SF. Its not a good idea, a bit like doing an exhibition about all poetry.

    An area that interests me is how the world changes according to the images people remember from their youth; lots of modern vehicles look like something from Thunderbirds – google the new Mars rover design and you’ll see a sort of Gerry Anderson / Batmobile mashup. Why you need to be streamlined on Mars is perplexing.

    Do designers secretly try to make a futuristic world of nostalgia? Philip Dick and JG Ballard are no longer available to make sense of it all.

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