Back in 1963, a Czech sci-fi film called Ikarie XB-1 told an epic story — set 200 years in the future — of an eponymous spaceship that went in search of a mysterious, unknown planet. This month, the fateful spacecraft has been recreated on the top floor of NYC’s New Museum.
Why recreate a fictional ship? It’s a complex question. Within the exhibition, curators from an Eastern European arts collective known as tranzit have collected 117 works inside the ship — each intended to show how films like Ikarie XB-1 helped Eastern Bloc artists imagine the future of spaceflight behind the Iron Curtain, here the sci-fi of Hollywood was anything but accepted.
There are problems with the exhibition, however, and they are not related to its premise. Sadly, the show suffers from the confusing layout of its artwork and from the design of the spaceship itself.
Although, work by many different artists fills up four of the ship’s fourteen walls, the remaining surfaces are left an unappealingly blank off-white.
The rest of the artwork is simply pushed away into a back room of the exhibition, with the intention of conveying what an alien race’s perspective would be in treating human artifacts they had found and stored. In reality, however, the closet-like space simply crams together all the artwork in an unapproachable and disorderly array.
In fact, walking into the room it’s hard to tell if you’ve accidentally wandered into an actual storage area, or if this is still part of the exhibition.
I was so disoriented I had to ask the museum attendant — who assured me that it is, in fact, art and, yes, it is part of Report on the Construction of a Spaceship Module.
The design of the ship itself is the weakest part. Even though it’s based on an aesthetic often seen in sci-fi films — sets that were themselves influenced by the architecture of Soviet utilitarianism, suggesting an interesting visual hybrid of the USSR and Hollywood — the exhibition captures nothing of the look except for a crude resemblance to the geometry that inspired it.
The museum’s off-white walls and flat appearance are also completely different from the dimensions of the ship portrayed in the film, meaning that the references between the exhibition and the film that inspired it simply do not hold up.
It’s just a gesture, at best — and it fails.
The emptiness of the space means that you can walk the entire exhibition in less than a minute — although there is a small cluster of video screens, but even these are unengaging for the average visitor, and they’ll ultimately just make you spend more time there than you should.
My advice: spend your time reading about the Chris Burden retrospective from earlier this winter, instead, and hope that a show of that quality comes back to the New Museum soon.