Is a room full of awesome geeky stuff an exhibition (interesting or otherwise), or just a room full of awesome geeky stuff? I felt it was time to find some new geek inspiration, so I took myself along to the brutalist maze that is The Barbican on a wet and miserable London afternoon. Into the Unknown is billed as “A journey through science fiction” and is meant to be aimed at fans and novices alike.
When I handed over just short of 15 of your English Pounds, I was expecting to be taken on a journey. A story, if you will, of the history of science fiction. Why it resonates? How it came about? What it means to society now? What made Shelley write Frankenstein (although this I do know, of course) to why Margret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is so important today, as the success of the awesome TV series testifies?
What I got when I passed through the darkened entry doors was a room full of cool geeky science fiction stuff, with a few short plaques of description (often placed after, or to the side of the specific exhibit). There were several cases of books on a theme – proto-science fiction, dystopia, that sort of common grouping – which ranged from a few rare editions to foreign editions to recent publications but without an attached story to them, or why the curator chose them in particular. They did have some audio taken from the books for those unfamiliar. I saw no-one listening…There was plenty of art work (from movie story boards to cities-of-the-future originals), comic books, advertising and film posters, movie props (miniatures and models, costumers), film scripts and screens showing oldy chosen random short film clips. For those with time and patience to sit with headphones on, there was a number of short films to watch. One in particular caught my attention, as it was written by a computer. It was mostly tosh, but interesting in a way.
The exhibit, then, did have some very nice pieces. The journey began with the likes of Jules Verne and Ray Harryhausen. Some of his early sketches are simply awesome. Check out these drawings:
They also showed some of his models, and showed them next to models used in the Jurassic Park films.
There was Darth Vader’s actual helmet, alien masks from Stargate, Giger’s drawings (with comedy annotations) from Alien 3, robots from AI and the Lost in Space TV show; ships, props and models from the likes of Fantastic Voyage and Land of the Giants and Red Dwarf and eXistence. There was the script from 2001 with its original title crossed out and the familiar one written in by hand. There was plenty of story boards and concept art, from Empire Strikes Back to Elysium. My favourite pieces were the space suits as worn by Leonard Nimoy in Star Trek, Sam Rockwell in Moon and John Hurt in Alien. Nice. No, to be fair, it was more than nice. Quite exciting, truth be told.
For me, there were too many pictures and prints from posters and adverts, especially the cities-of-the-future motif. And way too many random film clips. And that Wonder Woman thing was awful. The book displays were the most disappointing. Just books with the occasional manuscript. Although I was pleased to see many features in my science fiction challenge (Herland, News from Nowhere, The Last Man, The Mummy, and a whole lot more.) But there was no story. No process. And very little interaction. You could play a part in a simulation from the film The Martian, but other than watching and listening throughout the room, that was it.
Outside the main exhibition, there were several short films to watch. I didn’t bother. A set of ‘media pods’ had games on them, but there were queues, so again I passed. I did venture down to the ‘Pit’ to see the pretty if bewildering art installation called In the Light of the Machine by Conrad Shawcross. A series of plastic monoliths with patterned holes surrounded a robot art with a light at the end. The movement of the robot arm cast a variety of shadows in the darkened room, which looked cool but meant little, and certainly not whatever pretentious twaddle the plaque described. Finally, at the exit to the Barbican, a series of screens promised an edited version of a Black Mirror episode from the first season. Which lasted about a minute before looping. Nothing more than a trailer. As brutalist architecture, the Barbican is an eerie, mystifying maze of a place, which doesn’t help the mood of the visitor looking around the exhibition.
I can’t help feeling that Patrick Gyger, who curated Into the Unknown isn’t the world’s biggest science fiction fan. Curation is stretching it too. He’s stuck a bunch of very cool stuff (and don’t get me wrong, I was excited to see art from Harryhausen and props from Alien and Star Wars and Star Trek and one or too nice early book editions) but for 15 quid, I’d expect a whole lot more. Into the Unknown is a missed opportunity to really explore science fiction. It was a chance to wow fans and educate the novice. Which is a shame. And an expensive one.
The room is open until Sept 1. For more info, see https://www.barbican.org.uk/intotheunknown/