New York

Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster

Dia at the Hispanic Society

More than futuristic imaginings or dystopian scenarios, what works of science fiction valuably convey to their readers is an acute awareness of materialist contingency. With sci-fi, at its best, everything from civilization to subjectivity is deeply vulnerable to changes (whether natural or man-made) in the greater environment, and therefore as susceptible to erosion or extinction as any common mineral or diminutive life-form. Even words and ideas—the very substance of culture, the science-fiction writer will suggest—are just another part of the organic world. The notion of psychogeography, in other words, should be taken literally. As William S. Burroughs famously observed of his own craft, stripping discourse of any transcendental significance and instead rendering it a mutable, living thing (for which humanity, in a further inversion of values, is but a host): “Language is a virus.”

One suspects that a consideration of art from such a perspective was very much on Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster’s mind when she accepted an invitation from Dia Art Foundation last year to exhibit in its off-site gallery at the Hispanic Society in New York. The artist here seemed preoccupied with the fate of text and image when immersed in radically altered landscapes—and perhaps this should come as no surprise, since, for some two decades preceding this exhibition, Gonzalez-Foerster had actively avoided presenting work in a solo show on American soil. At the Hispanic Society, she created three dioramas whose stage-set-like terrains—one featuring a lush tropical forest, the others, respectively, a dusty tundra and deep-sea bottom almost entirely bereft of life—were replete with barely discernible, ruined domestic architectures and, more overtly, with dog-eared paperback editions of literature and poetry half-buried in the jungle muck or gently drifting through dim waters toward the ocean floor. Most of these revolved around travels to distant places (or were keyed to such distant topologies), ranging from Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 and Frank Herbert’s Dune to Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles and Joseph Conrad’s Almayer’s Folly. (Burroughs’s Naked Lunch made an appearance as well, though most apropos was J. G. Ballard’s Hello America, a surreal tale of a European expedition across the United States. In typical Ballardian fashion, the country’s landscape has been irrevocably transformed by climate changes.) Each backdrop was intended to depict a different region of the world as it would be found in the relatively near future, with the lighting, for instance, corrected to match the sun’s dimming in our atmosphere in some fifty years.

As an exhibition, of course, the results were hardly short on discomfiting humor. Just as science fiction is traditionally considered a “low” genre, so these earnest dioramas—created, as it happened, with the assistance of designers from the American Museum of Natural History—generally trumped the smart and cosmopolitan air one expects of much contemporary art. And yet this obsolescent strain is precisely what made the work of interest. If Gonzalez-Foerster often engages models from other areas in the arts—taking up cinema in her foray last autumn into Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, for instance, with all the mechanisms of projection that implies (objects in the films also appeared as sculptures in the space)—here she employed display models to offer what could be called an unlikely heir to institutional critique. Rather than deconstructing the site of the Hispanic Society, she expanded its outmoded libraries and exhibition spaces to contain her own thinking—presenting, in essence, a historical timepiece that underlined the contingency of artistic circulatory systems today. Punctuating the idea, Gonzalez-Foerster used lines from the books in her dioramas in lieu of a wall text for the exhibition, with the intermingling fragments conjuring partial stories that would prompt viewers to complete them on their own. Strangers in a strange land, indeed.

Tim Griffin