Chronicles of a Future Foretold: Samuel Peralta & Daniel Maidman on Science Fiction Art
CHRONICLES OF A FUTURE FORETOLD
Curator: Dr. Samuel Peralta
Exhibition: 33 Contemporary, Zhou B Art Center, 4th Floor
Gallery Director: Sergio Gomez
Publisher: Didi Menendez
Opening Reception: August 17, 2018
When I think of science fiction and art, I think of Chesley Bonestell and that aesthetic of hard SF scientific rigor combined with a romantic or heroic vision of the future. Where do you start from in conceptualizing your interest in Chronicles of a Future Foretold?
Chesley Bonestell has been referred to by some as the father of space art. He depicted other worlds and moons with a sense of astronomical accuracy, and this aesthetic not only anticipated the otherworldly photography from interplanetary spacecraft – Voyager, Juno, Cassini – but drove the human sense of wonder that launched these craft.
The concept for Chronicles of a Future Foretold is more metaphorical. The idea is to make use of the idiom of science and technology, of speculative and science fiction, as a metaphor for the human condition. It’s an exploration of that type of metaphorical power in the context of visual art.
How did you have to modify your imagined curatorial program in light of the work that artists were actually making?
I’d expected to be making calls based on the strength of the artistic narrative. The thing is, while I appreciate all kinds of art, as a collector, I focus on art that has a narrative, a story that is the framework of, or is implied by, the visual.
But not all art is narrative in nature. This means that the use of metaphor in a visual work is very different from its use in literary works. It is instantaneously expressive, not a linear function of time like a narrative.
What was happening was that I was seeing work that still managed to evoke the metaphorical power of science and technology in this non-narrative way. It was different from what I’d expected, but still powerful and emotional.
What surprised you in the work you received? Were there any trends in visions of the future that were presented to you? Were you inspired?
I was blown away by the breadth of the thematic interpretations!
While there were many evocations of dystopia – gasmasks, skulls, apocalyptic landscapes – the overall vision seemed to be of hope despite a confrontation with despair, illumination in the midst of confusion, order out of chaos.
I loved this, and was inspired by this, because in the end I subscribe to a vision of the future as full of challenges, but that humanity will ultimately rise to those challenges.
How would you like science fiction artwork to relate to, be informed by, or contribute to, the much larger body of science fiction writing? What does this art have to offer the SF reader or community?
The metaphorical power of science and technology isn’t limited to science fiction, but has been wielded with great effect in more literary work, such as in the works of Margaret Atwood, Emily St. John Mandel, China Miéville, and Kazuo Ishiguro.
Time travel and interstellar space have been used to explore the distance between two people. Clones and robots have helped authors speak about the human soul, or the lack of one. Dystopias and natural or man-made apocalypses—astronomical, biological, chemical, nuclear—have explored the limits of the human will to survive.
In the same way, I’d like artwork using the idiom of science and technology to transcend the science fiction genre, to contribute to the illustration and inspiration of a greater literary tradition.
How would like science fiction artwork to relate to the contemporary art world? Are there formal, narrative, or thematic opportunities available in this genre which are unavailable elsewhere in the art world?
Science fiction has infiltrated the greater literary world, and literary tradition will never be the same.
It can be the same way with science fiction-related art. If its idioms and metaphors are taken up by more artists, the vocabulary of contemporary art in general will be expanded. And it can only be a good thing when an artist is provided with more colors on their palette.
What Samuel refers to as the metaphorical quality of science fiction, which applies in science fiction art as well – seems to be strikingly similar to what painters generally refer to as allegory. Allegorical painting had a good run, particularly during the Baroque as far as I’m concerned. But it collapsed in the 19th century because people couldn't keep a straight face about it anymore. I suspect that photography had a lot to do with that – the eye of the painter was able to elide details which conflicted with the allegorical image, and invent others which enhanced its poetry and power. The allegorical photograph, in contrast, with its stiffly posed models and tacky props, merely made the whole effort seem pathetic and ludicrous. The photograph is ill-suited to making something represent an idea, at least along allegorical lines. And the ethos of the photograph seeped backward into the rest of the visual arts, putting an end to the allegorical practice.
I could be wrong. It could also have been the tenor of the age. Modern science stripped away the allegorical resonances of various natural forces.
Medieval rationalistic science, rooted as it was in deductions about the ultimate nature of the world, supported allegory by centering science in the mind – in the practice of thinking about something representing more than itself. By contrast, modern empirical science was rooted in clear-eyed observation. It is difficult to import the premise of a swirling-gowned female Nature into the rectilinear, anti-dramatic environment of the steel and glass laboratory.
Whatever the cause, allegory collapsed. And yet Samuel is entirely correct that science fiction has a long tradition of what a painter would call allegory. Watch almost any episode of the original Star Trek to see a then-contemporary issue rephrased allegorically in a technologized, futuristic context.
It would be strange indeed if science fiction, the most superficially forward-looking of genres, were to help reanimate this most pre-modern of artistic qualities.
Now that I can review Peralta’s choices for myself, I see that they reflect both the intellectual and emotional variety of science fiction writing. His compilation is by turns utopian and apocalyptic – technologically “hard” and metaphorically “soft” – fun and tragic – exuberantly colorful and calmly monochromatic. A few standouts include:
Albert Leon Sultan
Destruction of the Ten Sephirot | oil on canvas | diptych, 60" x 120"
For me, part of the original and primary purpose of science fiction was to project oneself into the city of the future. Sultan’s cityscape captures the fizzing excitement of the soaring city, the city from which one sees only more city in all directions, the city of motion, of disrespect for gravity, of sleek and rapid movement, of a million stories unfolding at once. It captures the excitement of the technological future.
Not One More Step | oil on board | 28” x 20”
At another pole of science fiction is the space opera, the age-old adventure story, with its romance and derring-do, reset on other planets, with all the armor, weapons, monsters and powers that territory allows. Vallejo is one of the very few masters who helped to define and extend the look of this particular strain of science fiction.
Channel X | acrylic on birch | 13” x 20”
There is little of the science fiction set piece about this painting, but it captures the penetrative quality of science fiction, the sense that one will confront the future at the level of the flesh, and the flesh will be transformed. The ant’s-eye view of the human body in confrontation with futurity is an important theme in science fiction, even if it has absolutely failed to help us recognize the sheer weirdness of the cyborg future which has, in fact, already been here for decades.
The Fear | oil on wood panel | 12” x 16”
We see here yet another element of the giant terrain available to science fiction. Here is science fiction as low-budget theater. This is not a denigration at all. It is in the low-budget theater, without the distraction of special effects, with only the simplest of props, that we are able to encounter the drama of pure human situations and awaken our imaginations to animate an entire vivid universe.
Mariana Duarte Santos
The Future Told By The Past | pen and watercolor | 7.4” x 15.7”
For me, this piece captures an essential element of science fiction as tradition. Childhood is a time of fascination with the future – both the personal future, which will obviously be so different from the present, and the universal future of the species and the cosmos. One thing children do with this fascination is make doodles. This piece is about how science fiction is passed down from one generation to the next, SF-oriented children absorbing their spiritual forebears’ visions of the future as they grow into their own.
Traditions | gouache, color pencil | 19.25” x 14.5”
In my personal experience with the idea of science fiction, there has always been this as well – the recurrence of the past, of all cultures and artifacts; the idea that the past is not lost, and will appear again and again in brightly-colored recombination. It stands in counterpoint to the metallic future, to the premise that the future will represent a brutally clean, utilitarian break from the ornamental and decorative impulses of the entire history of humanity. In the recurrent-past future, culture is a gigantic, shimmering tapestry, visible where it always is – in art, everyday objects, and fashion. Bergt captures that science fiction vision here.
Seer | oil on panel | 24” x 18”
Finally, we have Zdrale’s Seer, which answers to the tradition of literary science fiction. It does not take delight in technological design, the enhanced abilities of men and tools, the panorama of the stars. Rather, these form a minimally sketched-in backdrop for exploration of eternal human themes. The hinted-at fires in the distance, the understated performance of powers under the title of seer, these are the least fantastic images one can use, while remaining in the realm of the fantastic, as one seeks to elucidate some fundamental human truth available only through this slight disconnect from the restrictions of the real.