Before considering "life after/afterlife," the Delta Axis-sponsored art exhibit opening at Marshall Arts on June 13th, let's go back in time 40 years or so to the mid-1960s and consider the mix of scientific, military, and occult forces that comingled freely in American society, paving the way for this show which asks us to reconsider our ideas about the apocalypse. In addition to the televised horrors of Vietnam, the Cold War was simmering. The Summer of Love notwithstanding, evil seemed palpable and the threat of nuclear annihilation seemed plausible, at certain moments even likely. The U.S. space program was booming as we engaged in a heated race with the Soviets to reach the moon. The UFO craze of the '50s was coming back into vogue, and books which had once only circulated through the counterculture began to seep into the mainstream -- books like Morning of the Magicians, a guide for would-be wizards that put forth the notion that mankind had been helped along by ancient alien races from a distant solar system. The disreputable author Erich Von Daniken's runaway bestseller, Chariots of the Gods, made the same claim, citing the weird markings on the Nazca plains and ancient artifacts as certain evidence of what he called "ancient astronauts."
Collectively, we started looking to the sky in a way we never had before, asking, "What's out there, and how am I a part of it?" We broadcast messages into space and launched exploratory spacecraft with messages to alien races: greetings in dozens of languages, drawings of ourselves, maps of the solar system, and Elvis music. Maybe we hoped a highly evolved race would discover us, find us worthy, and save us from our primitive and warlike ways. Maybe we thought a hostile race would descend upon us and unite us as a single people facing a common enemy and impossible odds. Or maybe we were just bored, lonely, and in dire need of someone else to talk to. Maybe all three at once.
"life after/afterlife," an art exhibition curated by Philip Andrew Lewis, asks not only why we began sending letters to oblivion but also "What will the aliens that discover these messages find when, at long last, they pay a little visit to our big blue marble?" The answer Lewis suggests is a bit disturbing and as difficult to dwell on as one's own tombstone: an uninhabited planet filled with artifacts, a puzzle for little green anthropologists in little round airships.
"Earlier this year, I went to a lecture by Dr. Seth Shostak of the SETI [Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence] project, and it got me thinking about all these ideas about distance and time. How do you think about astronomical units? Units like 3 billion years. I can't even fathom it because it's not in units like kilometers or feet. It's not like here to the moon."
Lewis tells about how the SETI project has stepped up the search for life, creating programs that allow computer geeks worldwide to monitor the cosmos in search of sound waves, and asks again, "Why?" Because of the literally astronomical distances between stars, billions of years will have passed before the astroglyphs we have launched reach alien eyes in another solar system. By that time, our sun will have become a red giant, making life on Earth unsustainable.
"What will be left behind when we are gone?" Lewis asks. "A lot of theories say it will be just our machines -- the ones that run on autopilot and are low-maintenance. Those will be the things cranking, or slowly making noise and sound waves which could be detected."
"life after/afterlife" brings together a group of artists from across America and as far away as the U.K. working in such unlikely media as robotics and radio waves. In lieu of a title wall, Lewis has asked them to make videotaped greetings to the future. He has also asked them to save all their plans, drawings, and notes: artists' "cave paintings," which may be interpreted through the artifacts they have left behind.
"Val always works with robotics," Lewis says of artist Val Valgardson, who has constructed cockroach-powered robots and a solar/hydro-powered terrarium designed to keep a banzai tree perfectly trimmed. "You actually walk into [Valgardson's piece Two Step], and this robot finds you and tracks you and comes toward you. And it always keeps a certain distance from you."
Simon Keep, a sound artist from the U.K., will be creating sound collages transmitted by radio waves which will only be able to be picked up randomly. Laura Splan, an artist who has on occasion used her own blood as a medium, is doing scientific renderings of insects. Sculptor Reuben Lorch-Miller is, according to Lewis, "taking time and mixing it all together" by melding artifacts from bygone eras with modern technology.
It's been half a century since we, as a world, began our conscious scientific search for life beyond our planet. In the meanwhile, Mulder and Scully faded into history, the Air Force's UFO-searching Project Blue Book has been put to bed, and countless sci-fi movies have been digested by our collective consciousness. Now, finally, here come the artists to ask, "Hey, what's all this cosmic noise been about anyway?" It's about time.
"life after/afterlife" June 13th-July 20th at Marshall Arts Gallery.