Sunday, July 11, 2010

Wells and Contemporary Art: Notes for a Presentation to the Annual H.G. Wells Conference 2010

The first thing to say about the relationship between H.G. Wells and contemporary art is that it is tenuous. At best, there is an uneasy relationship between Wells and what might be called aesthetic concerns. There are problems for Wells regarding what we might call ‘writing for its own sake’. Although it may be a simplification, something like this negative condition would be the position of Clement Greenberg, whose post-war formalism saw art as in need of defence from mass culture, to exist for its own sake, albeit as part of a policitised and leftist world view. However, this kind of separation does not exist as such in contemporary art practice, in which art’s role in society is constantly implicit, the relationship tested and rethought on a daily basis.
And Ironically, Wells’s dislike of ‘conscious artistry’, which he makes clear in Experiment, is generally echoed within contemporary art practice, in which technical prowess, skill, labour are not in themselves enough when it comes to critical evaluation. The complication of Wells’s indifference or hostility towards the realm of aesthetic concerns is also taken up by Kevin Swafford in an essay on A Modern Utopia in relation to Morris and Ruskin. (Science, technology, and the aesthetics of everyday life: H.G. Well's response to John Ruskin and William Morris in A Modern Utopia, Victorian Newsletter Spring 2008)

According to Swafford, there is a kind of aesthetics of the everyday, constructed by Wells through social relationships to technology. So perhaps there is a hint of a radical aesthetics that breaks from the Victorian. There is a recognition there that the fundamental concerns of art need not rely upon technique and process. Today such dimensions may or may not be prioritised within a work, or may take unlikely, often social forms.
In short, Wells seems to be foreseeing a more conceptual turn in art practice, in addition to a demand for art to be part of the fabric of social transformation.

Now, perhaps this is something of a perversion of Wells’s intention, but it is one I wish to sustain here. And it may also be instructive to imagine an alternative history in which Wells had rallied to the defence of Marcel Duchmamp’s fountain. This is a piece of work that Duchamp submitted to an open submission exhibition organised by the Society of Independent Artists in New York in 1917. It is a urinal, rotated on to its back and signed with the name R Mutt. Despite the premise that all work submitted would be exhibited, the board hid the piece behind a curtain. This simple act of naming an object as an artwork made it impossible for the modernist artwork to ever be quite the same. It was not just with the introduction of the readymade into the discourse of art, but the framing of institutional conditions. It also revealed the fetish character of artworks, as opposed to the idea that value is something inherent within them.

Similarly, a Wells who embraced Dada and Surrealism would offer some real purchase here in considering how Wells might relate to artworks today. However, in our timeline, Wells managed to resist the allure of avant garde movements, even when close to home, such as with Vorticism.

Yet I am interested in constructing relationships between Wells and contemporary art, and to do this, I would like think along the lines of an exhibition, or rather, the proposal for an exhibition, and the artists I might invite to take part. So I am going to talk about some recent work by artists I find interesting, that intersect, perhaps obliquely, with some Wellsian dimensions, particularly relating to the Scientific Romances and their science fiction legacy.

This fantasy proposal comes along after the prestigious White Cube gallery did a large show around Edgar Allen Poe in 2008. You dig the tunnel, I’ll hide the soil, curated by Harland Miller, who’s work we see here.
Then earlier this year (2010), Ballard received a similar honour with Crash, held at Gagosian gallery. This had some concrete connections to draw upon. For one thing, unlike Wells, Ballard is regularly cited by contemporary artists, with a legacy that goes back to Robert Smithson in the late 1960s. Yet perhaps more importantly, Ballard was excited by the formation of British pop art, he was there as it was taking shape, contributed to it in his staging of an exhibition of car wrecks. And there is also his attachment to surrealism, most famously the work of Paul Delvaux.

But on to the Wells show...
The first work I want to look at is not one that can be included in my show, for practical reasons, but it may be instructive. The work, by Robert Wilson (and Hans-Peter Kuhn), is called, simply, H.G. It was shown in London 15 years ago, and was organised by Artangel, who specialise in facilitating large scale projects. The work was located in London’s Clink Street vaults in the Bankside Area. This medieval prison became the site for an immersive encounter, set within an expansive netherworld.

The experience begins in a room that depicts a dinner scene, a moment extracted loosely from The Time Machine.

From this starting point, the work establishes its own irrational logic, while maintaining some fleeting allusions to Wells. In an adjoining corridor, a copy of The Times dated 1895 reveals our temporal location.
While the initials H.G. recur at various points throughout the vaults. However, this is not some realisation of Wellsian narrative.
Broken up into 21 rooms, often vast in scale, a viewer encounters fragments of narrative.
Within one darkened space, a figure is barely discernible, seated, then walking.
In another are rows of hospital beds, scattered documents littering the ground, making references to the influenza epidemic of 1919.
There are odd reminiscences of The Time Machine, for example a temple, like the ruins of 802,701, or
A sunlit glade suggested through bars, a cold threatening space from which to catch a glimpse of arcadia. Yet, as Artangel director James Lingwood says, the relationship to Wells is oblique:

“Precisely when H.G. Wells entered the equation is unclear. 1995 was the 100th anniversary of The Time Machine, but the relationship was always understated, even if the first room did create an explicit connection with the first chapter of the book. The space was the starting point, rather than the book..” ( )

There is a construction of narrative possibility through a utilisation of both understated fragments and grand theatrical gestures, but other than the recurring whisper-like appearances of the initials, the presence of Wells is obscured by cavernous vaults and dramatic scenography.

It offered an enjoyable, accesible yet mysterious tableaux, perhaps reminiscent of the not to be realised collaboration between Wells and R W Paul?

There is a resistance to specificity, to explication. Instead, a loose sense of time travel, anchored by Wellsian association, is allowed to play out.

And perhaps it is the ambiguity that is interesting, together with a sense of spatial play.

So while it cant be included, there is a indirect and generative approach that is useful as a way of guiding the process of piecing together a Wells show.

So, in terms of artists I would like to include, I will begin with Heather and Ivan Morison.
This is a work of theirs titled Foundation and Empire. (2003) Wild flowers collected from Mongolia jut out from the pages that have been used to press them. This work signifies the practice of which it is a part. In 2003 Heather and Ivan Morison wrote Divine Vessel, a 72,000-word science fiction novel, on a journey aboard a cargo ship travelling between Shanghai and Auckland. Asimov’s book was one that they had read in preparation for the task while photographing wild flowers in Mongolia. This whole period was encompassed by their pan-global voyage, itself a work titled Global Survey.

In their 2004 work, Science Fiction Reference Bookcase (In Colour Order), a collection of novels is shown that provided source material for their research.
the Morisons describe the materials as ‘Books on Shelf (Only Partially Read)’.
Included amongst these is one text by Wells: Star Begotten.
‘Earthwalker’, their show at Danielle Arnaud gallery, continued to explore a particular relationship with science fiction. This is Starmaker, a projected work using medium-format slides and a soundtrack.This work aligns itself explicitly with science fiction. In part this is through the sounds culled from sci-fi cinema, but is also indicated in its named reference to Olaf Stapledon. Stapledon’s novel, a meditation on creation and complexity, perhaps illuminates the images.

The photographs are of natural history dioramas,
There are scenes of Agricutlture and horticulture, as well as from the British Coastline.
Whereas Stapledon’s narrator travels out of his body on Earth to become an observer of other worlds, the Morisons present home as if to an alien. The approach here resonates with Darko Suvin’s account of science fiction, as the literature of cognitive estrangement, which is firmly rooted by Suvin in the scientific romances.

The Morisons’ ongoing obsession with science fiction, reflected through natural history, is also evident in these two large kite-sculptures, which fuse an uncanny geometry of crystaline forms with flight enabling technology.
Their work Dark Star draws on their research into bizarre mineral samples. They visited a place called Quartzsite in Arizona, frequented for the purposes of collecting crystals. In Dark Star, house-trucks, artefacts of a new-age gypsy movement in the States, are depicted in the desert landscape. Above them, spinning crystals hover, ominous and unexplained presences against the luminous sky.
But to return to Wells... The Morison’s listing of Star Begotten is interesting regarding the evolutionary theme, which resonates with their own fascination with natural history as a discourse. But it is also important in terms of the idea of ambiguity, as emphasised by John Huntingdon in the introduction to the recent printing of the book. Around this kind of ambiguity and uncertainty, art might be held up as more resonant, not as the self regarding solipsism or formalism for which Wells had such a distaste, but as a space of contestation and dialogue, that is distinctly Wellsian. There is an illuminating affinity here.

I want to borrow Huntingdon’s reading of a legacy left, albeit indirectly by Star Begotten, to science fiction, which is taken up by artists who demonstrate an interest in the genre. Huntingdon says “in the 1950s in the United States (...) a dark existentialist comedy develops that, different as it may be from Wells’s socially explicit work, derives part of its generic heritage from Star Begotten. Delusion figures powerfully in this tradition. (...) On such a map of SF made after 1940 (...) Star Begotten (...) sappears as a crucial text. In a time of impending world crisis, it poses a fantasy that asks to be challenged as a fantasy even as it rallies the readership to the serious critical work that has to be done.” (Star Begotten P 27)
This idea corresponds to the presence of science fiction in the work of Saskia Olde Wolbers. Visually, Wolbers constructs uncanny and strangely futuristic imagery using home-made special effects, models, miniature sets and simple optical tricks. Each video work is accompanied by a voice-over. These are narratives that fuse found and supposedly true stories with a sense of neurosis, estrangement and alienation reminiscent of the work of Philip K Dick. The sense of delusion that emerges in Star Begotten is played up here.

Whereas, this work by Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, called What we see when we are dead, evokes the technological sublime of artificially constructed worlds, corresponding to a more future orientated Wellsian dimension.
While Andreas Gursky’s photographs move ever further towards spectacular and artificial views of the present as future. Here we see his manipulation of a giant particle accelerator.

And in the work of Gordon Cheung, a painter who make use of science fiction imagery, and who cites Wells directly as an interest, seductive painted surfaces act as a space of fantastic yet critical projection.
Listings of stock prices are incorporated into the surface of the paintings. For Cheung, these act as a metaphor for global networks of capital that circle the Earth. History, the present and the future are conflated in these paintings as both apocalyptic vision and hopeful image.
In this painting by Ged Quinn, (Here is not the Place for Nostalgia), the play of utopia, degeneration and temporality in The Time Machine are set in an arcadian landscape, in which the machine itself has been wheel clamped.
In a different register, the work 1984 and Beyond by Gerard Byrne would be appropriate. While not focusing upon Wells directly, it does address some of his successors engaged in a discussion that is definitely Wellsian. Currently on show at Tate Britain, the work uses three monitors to present a re-enactment of a round table discussion published in Playboy in 1963. The 12 participants are all well known sf authors, including Asimov, Bradbury, Clarke, who speculate on life in the year 1984.

Part of what aligns the work with Wells is a confidence in the future that seems remarkable today. Yet this confidence becomes problematised by layers of temporality that are drawn out by work.

Dominque Gonzales Foerster, who is drawn to elaborate spatial explorations of narrative, would be of interest here for a less optimistic dimension, and instead might suggest aspects of catastrophe.
Her work from (Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall in 2008/2009,) TH. 2058. does two things with its title. Firstly, it references George Lucas’s dystopian film THX1138,
Secondly, it spells out that we are in the turbine hall of tate modern in the year 2058.
The turbine hall has become a refuge, a shelter for refugees hoping to escape from an endless deluge. Also within the Turbine Hall are public sculptures, which have started to mutate, to grow, as a result of the uncanny rain.

These rows of metal bunks evoke wartime bomb shelters, refugee camps, detention centres and ambiguous forms of communal living.

And to make things more explicit, copies of science fiction novels are left upon the bare beds. Placed on one of the beds is a copy of War of the Worlds.
But I’d like to end with an artist who engages more directly with Wells.
The Canadian artist Kara Uzelman created an installation (in Sommer and Kohl gallery) in Berlin that took as its point of reference Wells’s Dr Cavor.
The central idea here is that it is an archival excavation of the work of those influenced by Cavor. Uzelman takes Cavor as a starting point for the writing of a history of a group known as the Cavorists. According to the narrative of this work, the group continued until the scientific advancements of the twentieth century led members to realise that their goals were unachievable, and in 1994 they officially disbanded.

There are sculptures here which take the form of crude apparatuses
as well as documentation, sound and video. For the most part, this is what remains of the Cavorists’ work. The exception seems to be a tape recording of an interview with Canadian inventor John Hutchison. Hutchinson makes claims to have successfully levitated objects using what he calls Zero Point Energy.
His stories are of surveillance and interference from both military and state, yet he has been unable to substantiate the claims of his success, and the recording is ultimately overwhelmed by noise. Unlike the fictional Cavorists, Hutchinson seems to be a genuine phoney.
Uzelman is drawing a very wobbly line between the different registers of fiction and actuality here, resulting in a blurring of fictional and actual influences of Wells. I am here, myself, dealing with some kind of fictionalisation, perhaps even an alternative reality in which a connection between Wells and contemporary art can be established, like that which is so evident and recognised with Ballard.

It is a fantasy, but one rooted in concrete affinities. There is a shared interest in how forms of creative practice relate to the organisation of the social. Therefore, the influence of Wells on contemporary art may be less explicit than that of Ballard, but perhaps addressing this relationship is far more necessary.