The Barbican’s Into the Unknown: A Journey Through Science Fiction exhibition is an ambitious undertaking. How to present a history of science fiction that honours its foundation in the written word, while highlighting the huge impact that visual art, TV and cinema have had on the genre and its place in mainstream culture?
Installed in the Curve gallery and curated by Swiss writer Patrick Gyger, the show is presented roughly chronologically, though is also split into four thematic sections that deal with terrestrial ‘voyages’, ‘space odysseys’, ‘brave new worlds’ and, lastly, ‘final frontiers’, where the focus turns inwards to questions of identity and augmentation.
The wider story of sci-fi and its various adjuncts – from utopias and dystopias, to interstellar travel, alien life and robotics – is summarised well throughout and the space makes great use of giant displays of books that further reinforce literature’s place at the heart of sci-fi storytelling.
But the take on this sprawling subject is essentially an investigation of how our changing media – from books and comics to advertising, cinema and online – has responded to science fiction’s concerns and helped to bring those ideas to life. An imagined future is always a product of its own time.
From the first displays at Into the Unknown, it becomes clear that the earliest science fictions were largely associated with the spirit of adventure – and bore out an interest in the acquisition of new territories and the discovery of lost worlds.
Most of the contraptions dreamed up by writers such as Jules Verne were focused on exploring the Earth itself, whether burrowing into it, diving its seas or flying into the skies. A set of 1901 confectionery cards entitled ‘L’au 2000’ reveal an obsession with the airship, for example, at the time the height of high-tech exploration.
Much of the art and illustration work on show at the Barbican is fascinating. In particular, the advertisements for the US aerospace industry that appeared in magazines in the late 1950s and early 60s (see second image, below) are paired with some Russian evocations of solar exploration in form of Andrey Sokolov and Aleksey Leonov’s ‘A Man in Space’ postcards (below, on left).
As a pop culture take on what might be ‘out there’, a full set of 54 Mars Attacks! trading cards by Norman Saunders reveal a grisly delight in the bleak possibility of an alien invasion. Some of the cards were deemed so disturbing (aliens burning/shrinking/crushing the people of Earth), that they were eventually removed from stores.
As interesting as it is, however, much of this small-scale work nevertheless competes with the numerous objects from cinema installed in the exhibition space: the props and costumes, model spaceships and a good supply of the creatures that have featured in sci-fi classics from Star Wars to Interstellar, via eXistenZ, Moon and the Alien franchise.
Ray Harryhausen’s models from One Million Years BC (1966) and The Valley of the Gwangi (1969) are thrilling in their detail and it’s great to see that his talents as a draughtsman are also honoured in the early section of the show – his drawings and concept art from the 1960s show how well-rounded an artist he was.
Similarly, the work of HR Giger is also celebrated here – and with good reason. The Swiss artist’s 1979 pen drawings for Alien (above) have a power all their own, like technical sketches from another planet.
Resin models from the film also loom out of dark cases, losing none of their power to shock. (Look out for one of Alien III’s ‘Necronoms’ hidden away in the darkness of the space – I only saw it on the second pass).
Giger’s involvement in Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Dune, the fabled 1975 sci-fi film that never was, is also referenced and the unmade work becomes a ghostly spectre in the exhibition (an exhibition of its own would complement the documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune).
Giger’s concept art for the film offers a window into what this world might have been like, as does a splendid bio-tech ‘Harkonnen Cape Chair’ (above). A summation of some of the other artists that were linked to Dune reads like a sci-fi supergroup: from illustrators Chris Foss and Moebius, to Orson Welles, Salvador Dali and Pink Floyd.
At the Barbican, Giger’s influence on cinematic sci-fi is matched only by that of Harryhausen and Patrick Tatopulos whose Godzilla models, Stargate masks, ships from Independence Day and ‘Sonny’ character from I, Robot are just as impressive in this setting.
Other highlights from the show include Arthur C. Clarke’s typescript for 2001: A Space Odyssey – its original title, Journey Beyond the Stars, crossed out on the cover; Territory Studio’s interactive ‘mission control’ set from The Martian; and a series of illustrations and transparencies from Blade Runner, alongside Mark Tildesley’s production drawings for Ben Wheatley’s recent High-Rise.
While undoubtedly a significant piece of video art, Dara Birnbaum’s 1978 work, ‘Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman’ feels a little out of place in the main exhibition and would perhaps be better suited to one of the sites across the Barbican Centre that include installations by Conrad Shawcross, Isaac Julien, Larissa Sansour and the creators of Black Mirror.
Conversely, in creating his replica version of the entirety of the Total Recall film using auto-encoding software, Terence Broad’s work seems to fit perfectly into the section on replication and identity.
There are more than 800 works at Into the Unknown and the exhibition brings a lot of detail into a relatively small space, so it takes some time to take everything in. That said, there are some rare and stand-out pieces here that chart the evolution of science fiction and reaffirm that our fascination with it shows no sign of slowing down.
Into the Unknown: A Journey Through Science Fiction is at the Barbican in London until September 1. See barbican.org.uk/intotheunknown