The Swiss Institute‘s basement gallery space looks like the set for an avant-garde science fiction movie right now. For her Spring commission, artist Dora Budor has incorporated real props three 1990s Hollywood blockbusters as central elements for four new sculptures. She encased the artificially weathered and suitcase-sized architectural fragments — a triangular rooftop from Batman Returns (1992), two shipping containers from Johnny Mnemonic (1995), and a row of garage doors from The Fifth Element (1997) — in web-like tangles of steel, silicone, and epoxy clay. They fleetingly evoke the steel trees of Roxy Paine, only dirtier, slimier, and all around much more interesting. The resulting hybrids of machine-like and organic, abstract and figurative elements have an appropriately futuristic look, an effect bolstered by Budor’s site-specific “Chinchorro People” (2015) installation, a sheet of tar-like black foam that covers the gallery’s floor and one of its walls. The exhibition’s grim and gooey dystopian artifacts imagine a fusion of natural and manmade materials that echoes the worlds of the three films.
Budor likens her sculptural appendages for the movie miniatures to both plumbing and blood vessels, evoking hybrid and cyborg lifeforms not unlike the central characters in The Fifth Element — a perfect human being assembled by a machine — and Johnny Mnemonic — a man whose long-term memory has been replaced by computer memory. Even Batman Returns, with its weaponized penguins, fits the theme of technologically augmented nature. The bulging, moldy, and sinewy surfaces of Budor’s sculpted elements match the models’ painted-on grime. But if the sculptures and the films with which they’re inextricably linked are related, what are we to make of the connection?
A cheesy interpretation could be that the sculptures symbolize our relationship to the movies and other cultural artifacts we consume. Our favorite stories become a part of us, hardwired into the fabric of our identities much like the miniatures caught in Budor’s sculptural webs. As a devoted fan of The Fifth Element, for instance, I carry Leeloo, Korben, Ruby Rhod, Zorg, and the rest of the film’s outrageous characters — and, I suppose in some way, even the three tiny garage doors featured in the sculpture “One Million Years of Feeling Nothing” (2015) — around with me everywhere I go. Even the exhibition’s anachronistically chipper title, Spring, the time when Hollywood’s annual blockbuster rollout begins, seems consistent with such a reading. But I don’t think this is what the artist is getting at.
The key to the exhibition is “Chinchorro People,” the oil-slick like installation that makes up the floor and one wall of the gallery. The piece is named after a South American civilization that may have been the first to artificially mummify its dead. The Chinchorro mummies, safely preserved in the dry Atacama Desert for the past 7,000 years, have begun to deteriorate over the last decade due to increasing moisture in the region. The rising humidity levels, possibly fueled by global warming, have caused bacteria to grow on the mummies and turn them to a thick black goo, which Budor sought to approximate with her installation. In light of this science-fact subtext, the exhibition’s sci-fi elements take on ominous airs. If we continue to push the environment toward a breaking point, Budor’s exhibition suggests, bringing humidity to deserts and desertifying formerly fertile regions, we will soon find ourselves inhabiting the types of dystopian worlds portrayed in Batman Returns, Johnny Mnemonic, and The Fifth Element. Those alternate realities are only fun so long as they remain fictional.