Visual Arts

Lost in Space

Ever since we could use our eyeballs, humans haven't been able to shake a major staring problem with the night sky. The ancient Babylonians were so obsessed that they created the first-known practice of astrology — which we now use as fodder for cheap come-on lines in bars. In the mid-20th century, a similar obsession took hold, but this time, we got greedy trying to toss as many humans onto the moon as possible. All that space travel spawned a frenzy of science fiction, which became well-established as an entertainment genre. It's obvious that space sparks our curiosity, haunts our desires, and ignites our sense of adventure.

So when I heard about a new show, "Space Is the Place," at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, I was pumped. Great subject matter. And, considering that the other exhibitions at SMoCA are lackluster, I really wanted this show to knock the ball out of the park.

Alas, the only thing "Space Is the Place" knocked was any desire I had to return to SMoCA before September, when the shows will be switched out. To be fair, the exhibition isn't God-awful; it's just kind of blah. But thrown in the mix with the other less-than shows . . . looks like it'll be a long summer for SMoCA.

The exhibition, organized and circulated by the Independent Curators International of New York, certainly has a fabulous theme. Perhaps it is the nature of space's vast possibilities that got the show into trouble. The works included fit, but they bounce around from literal to conceptual to historical to fictional so much that, in the end, the show lacks direction. It could very well be that the aimless experience is a greater metaphor for space exploration. But, with such a mishmash of intentions, it's tough to find a common thread other than, simply, all the works are space-y.

That said, it's a large show, and there are a few pieces that work. Artist Lia Halloran's ink on vellum drawing, Apollo 13, is quiet, simple, and fetching. A misty, ethereal drawing of the small return pod — the only portion of spacecraft that journeys back to Earth — fills only an eighth of the page's space. Above it are the three domes of deployed parachutes — bulbous and firm as they catch air. The remaining surface of the drawing is completely bare — no clouds, no horizon, no ocean to catch the falling pod. It's all just negative space. And, curiously, the artist chooses to omit the tethers that would normally attach the craft to the parachutes. It is isolated, unsupported and aimlessly plummeting through the abyss. The simple drawing captures sensations that one can easily imagine any astronaut may have felt.

On the opposite side of the spectrum is Oleg Kulik's "Cosmonaut." A life-sized model of a man in an outdated orange spacesuit hangs from the ceiling of the gallery. He is in the fetal position with a huge grin on his face. A metallic tube attaches to his suit and curls back behind him. It's obvious this guy is floating in zero gravity, having the time of his life. Sure, it looks like fun, but it also looks like it should be at the Arizona Science Center rather than an art museum. It illustrates what space travel once looked like, but it stops there.

Another painfully literal translation of the theme is the series of large photographs by Jane and Louise Wilson. The prints are impressive in scale — each about the size of a double door. The color and focus are crisp, photos of training rooms and service modules. One looks like a cockpit with endless gauges and dials. They're gorgeous, sure. But, again, this could be in a science exhibit about space travel.

Steve Roden strayed far from a literal interpretation, but his piece still didn't work. The artist created a sound installation using old Soviet vinyl recordings of cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin's broadcasts from his first orbital flight in 1961. Roden digitally altered the soundtrack, which is pumped through 82 wine bottles by way of wired mini-speakers. The setup is on the floor with a web of skinny wires running through rows of glass bottles. The result is a series of high-pitched subtle tones, beeps, buzzes, and clicks. Any human voice speaking Russian is completely obliterated. Instead, you hear what sounds like a symphony of whining rodents. Visually, a mess of wires and bottles isn't compelling. And the audio was so annoying I wanted to get as far away from it as possible.

Space travel is exciting and dangerous. It satiates the human desire to question, explore, and take mortal risk in search of new discoveries. I'll venture to attribute the same qualities to art. Maybe the two canceled each other out in this case, because "Space Is the Place" didn't ignite any such yearnings.

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Lilia Menconi
Contact: Lilia Menconi