In 1977, under the guidance of Carl Sagan, the American space program assumed the role of ambassador of human civilization on a cultural mission into the deepest reaches of the cosmos. With the launch of Voyager I, NASA jettisoned a “golden record” into space. Conceived as a kind of universal calling card, the action was fueled – despite literally astronomically low odds – by the hope of sharing something about ourselves with unknown others at the other end of the universe.
There is metaphorical resonance between NASA’s cosmic missive and the act of putting an artwork “out there” into the world. “The Future We Remember,” currently on view at the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art (SECCA) in Winston-Salem, draws such far-flung parallels, positing the art object as a prototypical time capsule for future recipients. Co-curated by Cora Fisher and Zuckerman Museum curator Sarah Higgins, the exhibition text explains, “We began with the notion of art, at its core, as an offering to a time beyond ourselves.”
The conceptual underpinnings of the exhibition speak to the idea of a new era, the Anthropocene, in which the impact of human life on the planet has reached a sufficiently critical mass as to affect fundamental long-term environmental and even geological outcomes. The two iconic images of the exhibition are a hunk of meteorite, a kind of mineral spaceship that rips through interplanetary space and displaces landmass as it hits the next planet in its path, and a “plastiglomerate” rock, a neologism that describes composite geological material in which earthen minerals and human-made plastic have been inextricably fused.
The exhibition is ambitious in its conceptual scope, ranging from the subtlest philosophical impulse to the coarsest materiality, from the immediate world that is locally accessible via touch to the farthest reaches of the cosmos, from the beginning of this world with the Big Bang to an impossibly distant and unknowable future. At every point along these trajectories, “The Future We Remember” underscores human technology, culture and consciousness as a filter through which the world is processed and expressed. I found myself vacillating between thinking this was an absurdly expansive exhibition strategy and admiring its aspirational ethos and the vastness of thought required of the viewer.
In addition to the display of works in the main gallery, an area of the museum has been reserved for didactic materials, wall texts, interactive electronic tablets and a table with various objects and materials that comport physically or theoretically with the themes of the show. A series of public talks are scheduled in association with the exhibition, which include conversations with an anthropologist, an archaeologist, an astronomer, a biologist and a poet as well as screenings of salient fictional films, vintage visions of the future: H. G. Wells’s Things to Come (1936), Planet of the Apes (1968), and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).
Also on view are a series of ambiguous art/non-art objects contributed by the participating artists, presented on pedestals and billed as “Time Capsules” for the viewer’s contemplation. Such objects include early medical tracings and the fossilized remains of an extinct whale’s ear courtesy of Dario Robleto. Kelly Jazvac’s grouping of 3-D printing byproducts are an acknowledgment of the fetishistic fervor surrounding 3-D printing and the collective denial of the material truth of the medium, i.e., the flagrant proliferation of plastic detritus into an already taxed natural environment that can ill-afford more. Iman Person shares a honey bee specimen suspended in clear plastic, the relic of a dying species upon which our vital being depends. Two drinking glasses fused at the base, provided by Ragnheidur Gestsdóttir, suggest genetic mutation and are said to demonstrate a new theory of the beginning of the universe. Gestsdóttir also presents a small pile of broken porcelain as a corollary of the Big Bang, a simplified gesture in which the Minor Domestic serves to illustrate phenomena at a staggeringly cosmic scale. Tejal Shah offers perhaps the most ephemeral of the time capsules, a recording of the artist reading from Hsin Ming’s poem, “On Trust in the Heart,” a Buddhist recitation about the path of no preferences. Citing discernment as a source of pain and suffering, the poem in the context of an art museum takes on a dual function, addressing traditions of aesthetic taste and connoisseurship while serving as a user’s manual for enlightenment.
The opening visual statement of the exhibition is Ragnheidur Gestsdóttir’s Pale Blue Dot (2014), a wall-sized video projection that references Carl Sagan’s conceptualization of the earth as “a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.” Here, the earth appears neither precisely blue nor dotlike but rather as a floating square, a digitally reductive representation of the planet floating through deep space, pixels writ large, a floating grid of luminous square quanta rendered in grays, blues, and browns. Despite the scale of the projection, the visual experience is banal, our entire planetary context expressed as an intergalactic screensaver.
On the other side of the wall upon which Pale Blue Dot is projected, we find a diminutive untitled 1995 Vija Celmins wood engraving of waves upon water, an iconic Celmins image that also scans as a cross-section of desert. Despite the small scale of the work, it speaks to something earthly and vast with an economy of means that functions in high contrast with the Gestsdóttir projection. This tension serves as a conceptual anchor for the exhibition.
Nearby is another large-scale projection in black and white: Tejal Shah’s Some Kind of Nature (2013-14), in which a masked figure stands at a distance across a dark field and flashes reflective light signals to the moon. Intercut with the image of white milky rivulets streaming down the side of dark rock formations, a lone white feather floating atop an undulating loamy flow and other organic abstractions, the piece conveys a ritualized interface between humans and the earth that supports us. In a 2012 work by Shah that was commissioned for Documenta 13, a performer laments, “Here’s what we built when we thought we were building a better world.” Shah’s inclusion in the exhibition solidifies the intentions of The Future We Remember to address a mode of contemporary practice that urgently seeks to evolve a global consciousness through cultural action.
There is an overall contemplative tenor to the show, exemplified by Michael Jones McKean’s unassuming Diviner (2012). To directly experience the work, one must kneel down to view two mineral specimens, a large white Micronesian shell and a pitted chunk of coal-colored meteorite from Campo del Cielo in Argentina. The objects are placed on a small stack of quilts and blankets folded into a square, a soft approximation of a pedestal. This is perhaps the most materially and conceptually concise work in the exhibition, with its interplay of interplanetary elements and artifacts of human survival, the idea of the blanket posited as a universal or leveling form across time periods and cultures. The blankets include an 1880 American quilt, a blanket from India from around 1960, a Zaire Kuba blanket from 1900, and a Mexican blanket from around 1950.
“The Future We Remember” presents several works that either reference or are spatially oriented to a ground-level (read as earth-level) perspective. Shah’s Some Kind of Nature includes a composite photograph of a shirtless male body lying placidly on the brown leaves of a forest floor. Where the man’s head should be is a superimposed spherical cross-section of the image of fallen twigs – a merging of the body with the nature that “surrounds” it, suggesting a false dichotomy of “human” and “nature.” Other ground-level works include Emil Lukas’s massive Time Line Under Pear Tree (1994-96), two pillars about the size of telephone poles that lay on the floor. The pillars are composed of modular cast plaster units that are said to incorporate a range of materials including concrete, shells, stones, leaves, wood, seeds, pigment, earth and insects. The work feels somewhat contrived, but it certainly supports the thematic import of the show, the material cross-sections suggesting core samples, evidence of human interface with the earth over time.