Culture > Exhibition review: Into the Unknown: A Journey through Science Fiction

Posted on June 6, 2017

Into the Unknown: A Journey through Science Fiction, Barbican Centre 3 June – 1 September.
Credit Tristan Fewings / Getty Images

Joe Marshall explores uncharted vistas of the mind

Under the banner of science fiction lie parallel worlds of space exploration, futuristic megacities and artificial intelligence. Sci-fi comics, novels and films contain whole new realities, both utopian and dystopian. A new exhibition at the Barbican will take you into the unknown future, where the possibilities are endless and promise to extend beyond the current reach of our imaginations.

For many people, a big draw of Into the Unknown will be the film props on display. They include items used in the Star Wars and Alien series. Miniature models, such as a UFO crashing into a building from the 1956 picture Earth vs.The Flying Saucers are fascinating artefacts from a golden era of sci-fi. There is an original Darth Vader helmet too.

Scenes from films as diverse as Jurassic Park and Akira, Donnie Darko and Total Recall play on a loop in what is usually the experimental Curve space. Outside of the main exhibition, two less commercial short films are projected onto walls the size of cinema screens.

An interactive console allows visitors to manipulate the mocked up spaceship computer consoles from 2015’s The Martian. When it was being made, it was someone’s job to change what was on the screens, to fit the action and dialogue.

Something strange lurks in the basement of the building. An installation by Conrad Shawcross called In Light of The Machine, sees a brass coloured robotic arm with a light bulb attached to the end flexing into different positions. It’s surrounded by paper thin white screens in concentric circles, with gaps you can walk through, like stonehenge but with a mechanical sculpture at its core.

There are headphone stations where you can listen to excerpts from classic sci-fi literature like Solaris. There is a diverse collection of book titles on show as well. Some have eye catchingly bold and colourful covers which bring to life the monsters and lost worlds held within their pages. Others are in more intriguingly minimal, austere packaging. This reflects the fact that science fiction can be as much about inner space as outer space.

A video called Astro Black cuts together samples from hip-hop and sci-fi to create a unique audiovisual aesthetic. The use of old school beats and cosmological imagery results in something simultaneously retro and futuristic.

A selection of Ray Harryhausen models. Into the Unknown: A Journey through Science Fiction, Barbican Centre 3 June – 1 September. Credit Tristan Fewings / Getty Images.

Larissa Sansour and Soren Lind have produced the half hour film In the Future They Ate From the Finest Porcelain. It’s a post apocalyptic arthouse affair, with a wailing soundtrack and a hooded narrator stalking a barren landscape.

A multi screen display, visible as you enter the Barbican, is composed by Charlie Brooker and others using an episode of his Black Mirror TV series. It depicts a dystopian future, where people live their lives through video games. The loop based structure and the central character’s nightmarish repetition of tasks is reminiscent of the movie Requiem for a Dream.

A fascinating series of illustrations from James Gurney’s Dinotopia books, depict a fantastical world where dinosaurs and humans live and work together. Visitors are spoilt by the many examples of gorgeous artwork available to view. There is concept art too, from films like District 9 and First Men in the Moon, which provides an insight into the various stages of development in realising a cinematic sci-fi universe.

I was enthralled by some Mars Attacks trading cards – the basis for the Tim Burton classic of the same name. A little known story is that they were banned in their day after parents complained they were too graphically violent. Trevor Paglen’s Orbital Reflector is a giant diamond shard. It hangs in the ever changing sculpture space, which is essentially a hole between the ground floor and the one below. Its strikingly angular and has an Apollo-esque metallic shimmer.

‘Media pods’, which sound like something from a Philip K Dick book, allow people to listen to sci-fi music and play games. A collection of toy robots of every pigment and design you can imagine populate the final room of the show’s main area.

Into the Unknown is an absorbing, stimulating look at science fiction in all its forms, old and new. It’s a busy, often mind blowing spectacle, on a par with 2014s Digital Revolution games exhibition.

Into the Unknown: A Journey through Science Fiction is on at the Barbican until 1st September.

There are a number of events happening around the main show, which can be found here and here.

Joe Marshall
Joe Marshall is Exposure’s Arts & Culture Editor. With his written content he endeavours to raid the full remit of arts and culture in London, if he doesn’t drown in it first. He aspires to make a career out of journalism like his heroes Tom Wolfe, Hunter S Thompson and Jon Ronson before him.

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