“You know, Sun Ra is a formative figure for many young artists,” Georg Schöllhammer, Vienna director of the curatorial collective Tranzit, avowed to me recently on the fifth floor of the New Museum. He was there to inaugurate the vertiginous show Tranzit has put together, a retrofuturistic survey of Eastern European realities and mythologies of space and spacecraft: Report on the Construction of a Spaceship Module. And we were speaking of Sun Ra by way of The Shadows Took Shape, a major survey of Afrofuturism also up at the Studio Museum in Harlem, another celestial consideration of futures past.
Laika, Sputnik, Apollo — these were fraught idioms birthed by the space race that played out between Eastern and Western hemispheres, aspiration and annihilation. For Schöllhammer, this dialectic evinced a certain “universal modernism,” the imminent immanence of space. He charismatically illustrated this point to the assembled press group by pointing to his vibrant sport coat, a green-yellow plaid, and claiming that it was made by the same Cold War-era Italian designer who dressed Kennedys and produced Nikita Kruschev’s gavel-shoe. (This may very well be the case; I was more preoccupied with his glasses, dead ringers for those worn by Spaceman Spiff.)
The American space-race narrative, as it has been widely codified in such saccharine flicks as October Sky or Apollo 13, contains all of the flat arrogance of triumphalist retrospection. Even more considered approaches, like Tom Sachs’ 2012 Space Program: Mars at the Park Avenue Armory, can carry the cocky tenor of a grandiose circus caper. And this is why Report on the Construction of a Spaceship Module succeeds so dramatically as an ‘alternative’ history — alternative not because it recasts or restages a struggle, but rather rescues from kitsch ideology what is essential about space in the human imagination. (The show’s titular spaceship is modeled after the craft in the Czech science-fiction film Ikarie XB-1.) As the Hungarian conductor Miklós Erdély observed in a 1981 lecture, reproduced in the excellent broadsheet accompanying the exhibition:
“The destabilization of natural laws psychically restores one’s human dignity … [A]n equality in the face of the incomprehensible.”
This quantity is no doubt linked to what made space-bound fiction so productive for the critic Mark Dery, Afrofuturism’s seminal voice. (A destabilization directly expressed in the science-fictive “rupture” that cannot be “suture[d]” Dery proposes in 1994’s “Black to the Future.”) Maybe Sun Ra isn’t too far removed from Eastern Bloc launchpads — these theoretically proximate starting points lead, of course, to very different outcomes between what’s on view in The Shadows Took Shape and Report on the Construction of a Spaceship Module — but the coincidence is nonetheless valuable, perhaps even a blueprint for a more historical iteration of what Bruno Latour cheekily called “art forums” and “science agoras” in a 2010 Artforum essay about the roles of art and science in the democratic public sphere.
The exhibition’s two-room agglomeration of audio-visual material (over four hours of images, films, lectures, performances, and interviews), along with the aforementioned broadsheet, complements the show’s narrow final room packed on one side with art objects. Though at this point the cabinet-of-curiosities approach has metastasized into a full-blown curatorial obsession, it works well for a show that feels like an archive, an ordered accumulation comprising sixty years of artifacts, “numerous realities flattened out and stitched together or ‘come back to haunt’,” the show’s organizer, the New Museum’s Lauren Cornell, writes, citing Philip K. Dick. A lot to take in, to be sure, but the reward is a rare and cerebral treatment of one of the 20th century’s defining scientific questions.
Report on the Construction of a Spaceship Module continues at the New Museum (235 Bowery, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through April 13.