ed. by Sarah J. Montross. MIT Press, April 2015. 136 p. ill. ISBN 9780262029025 (cl.), $29.95.
Reviewed September 2015
This catalog, for the exhibition held at Bowdoin College Museum of Art (March 5-June 7, 2015), offers groundbreaking research in essays by Sarah Montross, Rodrigo Alonso, Miguel Ángel Fernández Delgado, and Rory O'Dea. These authors explore the work of avant-garde artists in Central and South America and the United States who were inspired by the futuristic visions of science fiction, space travel, and developments in science and technology from the 1940s through the 1970s.
Montross provides an introductory overview of Pan-American "visual science fictions," touching on how sociopolitical bearings influenced cross-cultural exchange in the midst of the Space Race, the Cold War, and the Cuban Revolution while analyzing the art through broad themes such as the "new man"/robots/aliens, the landscape, space and time travel, and utopias/dystopias. Delgado inquires into the cultural and spiritual legacy of Latin American art, offering reasons why science fiction may have transformed a traditional past/present focus to futuristic concerns related to the cosmos, utopias, and the human/machine dilemma. Alonso provides insights into the transitioning republic of Argentina during the 1960s, which experienced a brief period of optimism and then despair toward the end of the decade. This is seen across the arts from fantastic theatre spectacle and colorful works depicting happy or curious astronauts, friendly mutants, and flying cities, to dark imagery, cinema, and environments reflecting social disintegration and oppression. O'Dea explores concepts such as "irrational perception," dislocation, and estrangement related to Robert Smithson's fascination with entropy and apocalyptic science fiction, exemplified in the artist's 1969 mirror displacement installations in the Yucatan.
The catalog is meant to expand on the exhibition and does so effectively, though a checklist of works (only accessible from the exhibition website) would have been useful. The generously illustrated text and full-page reproductions of selected works in the exhibition further enlighten understanding of the wide diversity of innovative processes, techniques, and media (from traditional to space age) employed by the artists.
Past Futures is an important contribution to art historical literature. In highly readable prose, it deftly uncovers an era of the Americas where uncommon cultural and political circumstances encouraged heightened creative interplay in a shared preoccupation with the future. It trail blazes further by illuminating Latin America as a significant artistic force in the "scientific imagination" (a stated intention for this project) and points to art + science fiction as an apt metaphorical vehicle capable of inducing us to ask challenging questions about the human place in the universe.