The influence of science fiction on contemporary art is explosively proliferating, like the Martian red weed in H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds. Everywhere, there are references to authors like Ursula Le Guin, Octavia Butler and J.G. Ballard, all writers whose work allows us to imagine the desperate humanitarian and environmental realities of the present and recent past through fantasy.
One artist who has explored this territory relentlessly over the last 30 years is Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster. She, along with her regular collaborators Philippe Parreno and Pierre Huyghe, emerged in the 1990s, and speculative fiction, whether in the form of books or films, has been a constant touchstone for their work. They’re also united by a profound interest in exhibition histories and redefining how art is experienced.
Gonzalez-Foerster’s best-known work in the UK up to this point was her apocalyptic 2008 installation in the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern, TH2058, imagining the building 50 years into the future, as a shelter for a population seeking sanctuary from endless rain, surrounded by famous modern sculptures that were, miraculously, growing amid the deluge.
Gonzalez-Foerster’s Serpentine show is just as speculative, but has a more positive message – it’s an invitation to ponder encounters with extraterrestrials, even asking “What if aliens were in love with us?” Interspecies connection is here something to be embraced; as Gonzalez-Foerster puts it, this is an “anti-War of the Worlds vision”.
It’s probably the most radical intervention in this space I’ve witnessed, pushing the Serpentine’s polite building, a former tea house, to its limits – and clearly also testing the gallery’s art installation team.
Alienarium 5 consists of multiple physical and virtual environments, involving the full range of senses. At its heart is Metapanorama, which uses the Serpentine’s cupola in its north gallery as the trigger for a panorama in the spirit of the popular 19th-century entertainments, intended to immerse viewers in painted images. Metapanorama plants us somewhere in outer space, looking at Earth and surrounded by images of nearly 200 humans, extraterrestrials, alien lifeforms, astrological phenomena, and elements of works of art, accompanied by a soundscape by Julien Perez.
It’s a vast collage, both a projection of Gonzalez-Foerster’s cosy interspecies fantasy, a compendium of sci-fi culture and a roll call of her influences from the worlds of art, film and literature. ET is next to the poet Emily Dickinson; Andrei Tarkowski sits in his director’s chair overlooking Earth and the galaxy; there’s Bowie in full alien mode in the Man Who Fell to Earth; authors, including Ballard, Butler and Le Guin, are here in abundance, as are contemporary figures like the artist and poet Precious Okoyomon.
There are nods to Richard Hamilton, JMW Turner and William Blake and forms from works by Hilma af Klint and Emma Kunz (who were both shown recently in this very gallery) re-envisioned as celestial entities. Even the Teletubbies make an appearance. Alongside all the cultural beings are astrophysical, zoological, botanical and microbiological phenomena – make sure you pick up the paper guide to all the imagery.
You can then take this in by sitting on cushions fashioned in the form of book covers of sci-fi classics like StanisÅaw Lem’s Solaris and Wild Seed by Butler. These sit on a Planet Carpet (Uranus), which covers the entire floor of the show with a picture of the planet, in hallucinatory colours. The whole thing adds up to a portrait of Gonzalez-Foerster’s imagination. I loved it.
In a separate room is Alienarium, a 10-minute virtual reality experience in which we are projected into outer space, and occupy an extraterrestrial body. Gonzalez-Foerster is clearly mindful of VR’s capacity for out-of-body experiences, which links to historical notions of spiritualism explored elsewhere. Once the headset is on, you are one of five alien lifeforms – I was a mass of glowing tentacles, like an anemone, observing similarly fantastical beings and comets as they loom into view and disappear again.
The aliens have names, like Flish, Endo and Lrain, and appear in the Metapanorama, too – everywhere, Gonzalez-Foerster mixes fact and fiction and draws links between her works. This is the second VR I’ve experienced by Gonzalez-Foerster, and she works in a way that runs counter to most activity in this field – instead using it as a space to re-imagine the body, to explore the possibility of weightlessness, to find a different reality, rather than replicating existing ones. There’s a lovely moment where you leave your alien body at the end of the experience and watch it float away as you return to Earth.
Don’t miss Holorama 5 (LoieFullerForever), you need to walk around the back of the Serpentine to find it. There, you look through the windows into another extraterrestrial landscape where a hologram performs. At first it looks like another of the alien bodies from the VR, but at the heart of this alien is a human, performing choreographed movement: Gonzalez-Foerster herself, dancing in homage to Loie Fuller, the American actress, dancer and pioneer of lighting spectacles. It’s one of Gonzalez-Foerster’s series of Apparitions – she appeared as a spellbinding hologram of Maria Callas in another work. Here, she takes Fuller’s performances, which must have seemed like they were from another world in their time, into near-total abstraction, at one point turning into a band of liquid, a morphing Möbius strip.
Outside the Serpentine, meanwhile, is In remembrance of the coming alien (Alienor), a painted steel sculpture informed by the Modernist architect Le Corbusier’s scale of proportions and by the story of Eleanor of Aquitaine (Aliénor d’Aquitaine in France), queen of France and then of England. It’s an intriguing notion – a sculpture in remembrance of a future event – but despite that premise and the rich references, it adds up to less than the sum of its parts. Confectionary-coloured yet strangely dull, it’s the only bum note in this beautifully orchestrated show.
Serpentine Gallery, to September 4, serpentinegalleries.org