Tate Modern and the Science Museum Go Martian

Gherkin

This month Tate Modern and the Science Museum present two contrasting visions of the sixties: the first inspired by the spread of pop imagery, particularly in Eastern Europe, Asia, Africa and South America, and the second by the involvement of the former Soviet Union in the space race.

In many ways the most successful aspect of the latter is not the exhibition itself but the way in which Cosmonauts relates to two of the Science Museum’s permanent displays: Making the Modern World and the Information Age. Although Cosmonauts suggests that Russia’s involvement in space was intended as a distraction from its unpopular foreign policy, Khrushchev like Kennedy seems to have regarded scientific progress as an essential ingredient of utopian modernism. The same was equally true of Harold Wilson and of his famous commitment to the ‘white heat of technology’. As Making the Modern World reveals, in 1965 the U.S. committed no less than 5% of its federal budget to space exploration as the legacy of Kennedy’s determination to put a man on the moon by 1970. In contrast, as the Modern World explains, in the same period many people had become disillusioned not just by the contribution of technology to weapons of mass destruction but by its wider association with ‘Big Brother’. This manifested itself in distrust for the depersonalisation of modern life and the manipulation of images by western advertising and Soviet propaganda.

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The most obvious example of such propaganda is the Cosmonauts posters which reprised the heroic images of Stakhanovite workers that Iraklii Toidze had designed in the Great Patriotic War.  Although they sometimes evoked the popular woman astronaut, Valentina Tereshkova, it is hard to believe that such role-models were as effective in inspiring her boiler-suited sisters in the factories. The same gulf between image and aspiration is, perhaps, true of the Russians’ invitation to the first U.K. woman astronaut Helen Sharman to join the Mir space station in 1991. Although it is unclear whether the Russians were naïve or ironic in choosing a woman who had been an assembly worker on the Mars confectionery assembly-line, the visitor is left with a growing suspicion that this is a society that no longer quite believes in its own myths.  In design terms this is borne out by the contrast between the Constructivist logic of Shukov’s radio tower of 1922, of which a model appears in The Information Age, and the tinny hubris of the landing equipment in the Cosmonauts exhibition. Even before the first pressurised trousers start to appear, one seems to have entered a clunky world of shiny toasters and giant teas-made that is a short jet-pack ride from Wallace and Gromit.

The World Goes Pop

Coincidentally, in The World Goes Pop there is a painting of Valentina Tereshkova by the Belgian artist, Evelyn Axell. Yet in the Tate Modern exhibition the astronaut is portrayed as a doll-like figure as vulnerable to being unzipped and ogled as a woman as she is open to manipulation by the media. The same cynicism about the consumerist society can be found in Joan Rabascall’s Atomic Kiss, which juxtaposes a mushroom cloud with a pair of giant bill-board lips. Elsewhere artists portray Vietcong fighters as domestic cleaners; make child-like animations with chilling references to Hiroshima or satirise political commitment through demonstrations juxtaposing banners with portraits of Mao Zedong with those of Bob Hope. Non-authorial devices such as appropriation, collage and substitution reveal how early artists adopted the now familiar post-modernist armoury.  Commitment to a single medium was replaced by a pick-and-mix approach to materials and techniques. Individual expression deferred to the laconic language of the sign.

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So far, so predictable, perhaps, but if Cosmonauts and The World Goes Pop seem to indicate the sixties’ momentary disenchantment with technology, the Information Age reminds us how quickly digitisation has made us fall in love with it again. Not only does the display contain any number of bells and whistles but it tacitly implies that the brave new world of social media, computers, and smart phones has persuaded people to reinvest in the idea of technological progress. Perhaps to offset this, the Science Museum bookshop is stocking large numbers of Nicholas Carr’s book, The Shallows: How the Internet is Changing the Way We Think. This dystopian survey provides a trendy combination of cultural theory, sociology and neuro-science. Yet one of the things that it does not emphasise enough is the role that artists and designers have played in imagining and reflecting high-tech futures.

In this context we all know of the importance of Jules Verne, Isaac Asimov or William Gibson to the developments of space exploration in the west. It was thus interesting to discover in Cosmonauts that a similar role had been played by the philosopher and thinker Konstantin Tsiolovsky in describing the basic outline of rocket motion as early as 1903 and in contributing to a sci-fi film in 1933. It was also fascinating to note that Alexey Leonov, one of the first Soviet astronauts to walk in space, subsequently spent most of the rest of his life trying to recapture the experience as a painter. Conversely, perhaps the best example of reality reflecting art occurs in the Information Age where the curators explain how Apple b eat the competition by commissioning Ridley Scott to make an advertisement based on H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds in which they destroyed their rivals IBM.

One of the last great voyages of the Soviet space age was undertaken by Sergei Krikalev, who by 1991 had clocked up more than 800 hours in space. On his final one he returned to find that the Berlin wall had fallen. In the countdown to the release of The Martian such Rip Van Winkle experiences may not seem so hard to imagine. Yet it was disappointing to see that the curators had not included Kerry Tribe’s video homage to the event, which is now in the collection of the Imperial War Museum. The art work intersperses crackly footage of the astronaut’s contact with mission control with the images of Swan Lake, which the Soviet news channels broadcast in place of news of disturbances on the Moscow streets. The voices of the space controller and the newsreader are interwoven but mismatched in ways that question the integrity of the media, the nature of truth and fiction and the reliability of memory and history.

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In the postmodern, post-analogue age it is easy to pretend that unlike the Russians we would never be so gullible. Yet, as the Gherkin and the Post Office Tower suggest, a little star-dust never goes astray. In Britain many architects have acknowledged the inspiration of Dan Dare, whose creator, Frank Hampson deliberately sought to offset what he called the sixties’ ‘gloomy prognostications about technology’. Visitors can find a small collection of his works in Making the Modern World but, perhaps, the final word should go to the Information Age whose curators cleverly juxtapose two examples of Russian and American attempts to create a super-computer.  While the Russian BESM of 1965 is more ingenuous in its design, its contemporary, the American CDC660, already resembles HAL, the not-so-fat controller of 2001 Space Odyssey. In this new more corporate world, the levers are made deliberately invisible and the wires and flashing dials are hidden discreetly out of sight.

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