When curator Sarah Montross was an undergraduate at Vassar College, she became fascinated by Latin America’s pre-Columbian history and the way this past still features strongly within contemporary life and art.
Based on her interest in the relationship between past and future, and in Latin American art, Montross has put together at Bowdoin the first-ever exhibition dedicated to postwar art of the Americas inspired by science fiction and space travel. “What I find interesting about this topic is that some artists turn to sci-fi to feature elements inspired by pre-contact culture as well as generate new visions of the future,” Montross said. “They merge deep pasts and distant futures.”
The show, Past Futures: Science Fiction, Space Travel, and Postwar Art of the Americas, is a culminating project for Montross, who for the past three years has been the Bowdoin College Museum of Art’s Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Curatorial Fellow. Montross earned a Ph.D. from New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts.
Past Futures runs through June 7. The exhibition includes more than 80 artworks by artists from Latin America and the United States. The art spans the decades leading up to and following the Space Race — from the end of W.W.II through the 1970s — a race whose affects were not limited to the U.S. and U.S.S.R. Throughout Latin America, countries were grappling with periods of revolution and the spread of communism. “So while you have terrestrial expansion or conflict during the Cold War across the Americas, there are also awe-inspiring advancements through space travel that are taking place above us,” Montross said.
The pieces in the show touch on such themes as devastated post-war landscapes, burgeoning communication networks and increasing mechanization, as well as extraterrestrial life, space and time travel, and cosmic visions. “The idea of Past Futures is to ask the question: how did artists envision the future in the past?” Montross said.
While some futuristic depictions by artists and writers of this time were optimistic, others were darker. “…Visions of the future channeled faith in technology’s ability to shape society and radically transform, and uplift, the human condition,” Montross writes in the Past Futures catalog. However, other Latin American sci-fi narratives and art of this time reflect anxiety about nuclear annihilation, alienation, government surveillance and threats of dehumanization.
Several artworks in Past Futures, including Chilean artist Juan Downey’s 1966 Preceded by the Rhythm of the Cosmos, depict distorted quasi-human figures. In Downey’s piece, “the human and mechanical forms are totally merged,” Montross pointed out. Downey’s work hangs near Chilean artist Matta’s Convict the Impossible, which is of a gruesome creature with slashing teeth/knives, and Paraguayan Carlos Colombino’s Cosmonauta, a painting on wood of a pseudo-human astronaut with tentacles for a face. This part of the show deals with new depictions of humanity, Montross said, or what artists thought a “post-human” might look like.
Other art in the show doesn’t envision what the future might look like, but references and reinterprets the past. One such work is U.S.-born Michelle Stuart’s Southern Hemisphere Star Chart I, 1981. This piece was inspired by Stuart’s travels to the Nazca Lines, the massive geoglyphs in the Peruvian desert believed to have been created by the Nazca culture between 400 and 650 AD . These lines, which can only be perceived in their entirety from above, are thought to correspond to celestial formations. To comment on them in her artwork, Stuart rubbed desert sand onto a graphite surface and painted astral dots in the middle darkened section of the piece. “It’s a confluence of perceiving the world from far above while being aware of earthly surfaces and textures,” Montross said.
The final pieces of the show, which Montross said beautifully embody the theme of Past Futures (while departing a bit from its timeline), include photographs and a video of an unusual journey taken by two Mexican brothers, Ivan Puig and Andrés Padilla Domene, known as “Los Ferronautas.” The Domenes built a futuristic looking car, the “SEFT-1,” that could run on train tracks, and then traveled in it between 2010 and 2012 across Mexico and Ecuador. They staged their car on abandoned and unusable passenger lines, taking photographs and chronicling the journey on their blog. “The railway lines in Mexico in the 19th century were the icon of the future,” Montross said. “They symbolized progress, the way to connect the country, and a democratic method of transportation.” But much of the railway infrastructure today lies in ruins, abandoned due to the privatization of the railway system in the 1990s. Many passenger trains were withdrawn, lines cut off and communities isolated, describes The Arts Catalyst, an organization that supported the brothers’ work.
“Their project was interesting to me because they explored concepts of past and future in a contemporary way,” Montross continued, “and it was useful way to compare how optimistic and forward-thinking artists were in the 1950s and 1960s. Even if they were fearful, the future represented this undiscovered place. And now [with the SEFT-1 project], we can see the future can involve a nostalgia for the past, or we could call it ‘retro-futurism’.”
Montross will leave Bowdoin in July to start a new job at the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum in Lincoln, Mass., as its associate curator.