From the 1940s to the 1970s artists from Latin America and the United States witnessed the awe-inspiring and fearsome achievements of the space age and were fascinated with the concurrent explosive growth of science fiction literature and film. These artists pictured wondrous extraterrestrial lands and also imagined cataclysmic post-apocalyptic scenarios. Their art channeled a faith in technology’s ability to shape society and radically uplift the human condition. Such idealistic visions of the future often appeared alongside anxious expressions related to fears about nuclear annihilation, government surveillance, and dehumanization due to advancements of technology and science.
      As space travel and science fiction opened up new creative frontiers for artists, these topics also resonated with domestic and international politics, particularly postwar inter-American relations. Soon after the Cuban Revolution of 1959, the United States simultaneously launched its space program and encouraged pan-Americanist cultural and economic policies intended to unite the hemisphere against the spread of Communism. For some artists and intellectuals, this led to increased exchange and travel between North and South America. Yet for others, repressive government control and foreign intervention at home fueled responses of outrage and dismay—often expressed through the metaphors of science fiction. Against this backdrop, Past Futures showcases an array of potential futures and alternate realities vividly imagined by artists who merged the empirical languages of science and technology with their expansive imaginations.
      This website features a selection of artwork in the exhibition on view at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art from March 5 through June 7, 2015.

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“Technology not only creates new environments for humanity,” wrote critic Gary K. Wolfe, “it also creates new images of humanity itself. We see ourselves reflected in science fiction’s visions of robots and monsters and aliens.” These enduring icons of the science fiction genre function as metaphors for conditions of self-estrangement in a modern world. Responding to the inhumanity of World War II and society’s increasing dependence on technology, artists from the United States and Latin America envisioned quasi-human creatures, giving form to what lies beneath the surface of rational thought. As Cold War tensions across the Americas increased, symbolic representations of mankind also emerged. Rafael Squirru, Argentine cultural diplomat to the United States, called for the “Challenge of the New Man,” in which freedom would be achieved through liberal democracy. This figure contrasted with "el Hombre Nuevo" (New Man) of the Cuban Revolution who was defined by communist ideals. While some artists from the Americas aligned themselves along these ideological divides, others chose space age topics as an escape from earthbound politics.

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Circulating in print and television media, stunning views of lunar terrains provoked awe and shored up public support for manned trips to the moon. Data streaming back to earth also served as a ripe source of artistic expression. How did images rendered by the “pure” human imagination compare to the “objective” renditions of cosmic phenomena newly visible through the photographic lens? Artists working within the United States usually had better access than their counterparts to the south to scientific imagery derived from space exploration, such as lunar maps and satellite imagery, which they appropriated into their art. Artists living in Latin American countries, further away from centers of technological research, often created space age artwork that more playfully merged fact and fantasy.

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One of the most common themes of science fiction involves time travel to prehistoric pasts or distant, post-apocalyptic futures. These unusual temporalities are often meant to derail the linear progression of modern industrial achievement. Such narratives have particular relevance in the Americas where writers of science fiction have long envisioned remote regions of the continent as sites of primordial or futuristic lands. During the late 1960s and 1970s a number of U.S.-born artists associated with environmental or land art traveled to faraway locations in Central and South America. They created unconventional performances and sculptures that layered notions of time travel onto their encounters with pre-Columbian cultures and the dramatic terrains of jungles, volcanoes, and deserts. These projects coincided with the rise of environmentalism and the space program, both of which advanced the view of planet earth as a fragile ecosystem amid a vast and often threatening universe.

In the summer of 1969 Robert Smithson journeyed to the Yucatán peninsula in Mexico. There he created the iconic series of sculptural “mirror displacements” by inserting twelve mirrors into nine locations close to Mayan ruins. The shimmering mirrors refract and reflect the environment around them, destabilizing a cohesive view of the landscape. Smithson’s photographs originally appeared in Artforum magazine alongside his enigmatic travelogue titled, “Incidents of Mirror-Travel in the Yucatan” (on view in nearby vitrine). He described the Yucatán peninsula as “a kind of alien world, a world that couldn’t really be comprehended on any rational level.” Smithson’s text was a response to a nineteenth-century travelogue, John Lloyd Stephens’s “Incident of Travel in the Yucatán,” which chronicled an archaeological expedition in Mexico and Guatemala. Smithson’s work critiques imperialist undertones of Stephens’s scientific approach. He describes his own journey as an “anti-expedition” that sought out the “true fiction [that] eradicates the false reality.”

Robert Smithson (American, 1938–1973)

Yucatan Mirror Displacements (1–9), 1969

Nine chromogenic prints from 35 mm slides

24 x 24 in. (61 x 61 cm) each

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; Purchased with funds contributed by the Photography Committee and with funds contributed by the International Director’s Council and Executive Committee Members: Edythe Broad, Henry Buhl, Elaine Terner Cooper, Linda Fischbach, Ronnie Heyman, Dakis Joannou, Cindy Johnson, Barbara Lane, Linda Macklowe, Brian McIver, Peter Norton Foundation, Willem Peppler, Denise Rich, Rachel Rudin, David Teiger, Ginny Williams, and Elliot K. Wolk (99.5269)
© Estate of Robert Smithson/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

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The 1960s and 1970s were marked by a proliferation of utopian plans for social change across the Americas. Some artists in the United States and Latin American countries interested in consciousness-raising activism adopted biological models, scientific procedures, and laboratory experiments for their art-making. They created participatory pieces that drew attention to interpersonal connections that conveyed their aims for global harmony and peace. During the same period of these optimistic endeavors, dismaying examples of political and social unrest also emerged. Increased foreign intervention, heightened conflict, and the imposition of repressive military governments in countries such as Argentina or Chile led some artists to attempt to address or escape the tensions around them. They created blueprints, diagrams, and architectural models that imagined alternative futures or dystopian scenarios. These pieces presented circumstances of surveillance and control also present in contemporary science fiction literature and movies.

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Many contemporary artists continue to investigate futuristic aesthetics and science-fictional tropes in their work. However the future does not always represent unbridled possibility or discovery but is the site of nostalgia or repetition. In 2009 Mexican artists and brothers Iván Puig and Andrés Padilla Domene constructed a futuristic vehicle and used it to travel along the passenger rail system crossing Mexico and Ecuador from 2009 to 2012. They called their project SEFT-1, an acronym for Sonda de Exploración Ferroviaria Tripulada (Manned railway exploration probe). The Mexican rail lines were privatized in the 1990s, and today large portions of the tracks are abandoned. Collecting artifacts and documenting their encounters with people and places along the railways, the artists performed an archaeological investigation into the remains of a transportation system that once symbolized an optimistic future and which allowed the populace to travel freely.