The Alternative Guide to the Universe
The Hayward Gallery in London has recently opened a fairly eccentric exhibition filled with the works of outlandish inventors, maverick engineers, self-taught architects, and other people whose imagination won't stop at the laws of physics nor at the rules set by society.
Contributors to the exhibition explore fictional identities and design imaginary cities; they build healing machines and record the unseen energy flows of our bodies. They speculate on mysteries of time and space; create devices for time travel and communication with other dimensions; and fashion new letter forms designed to liberate the alphabet from the strictures of Western civilization.
The Alternative Guide to the Universe is never dull nor predictable. And it is as much about artworks, models and speculation as it is about the stories and personalities of the individuals behind them..
Take Jean Perdrizet for example. He was a civil engineer who lost his job because of mental health troubles. Around 1955 he became an "inventor", stretching the limits of physics, drawing and prototyping machines to communicate with ghosts or aliens. He also invented a language, the "sidereal esperanto" that enabled all humans to understand each other but also to communication with extra-terrestrials. His machines are lost, only the intricate drawing, plans and mathematical formulas remain.
Lee Godie is the one who fascinated me the most. Godie was living on the streets of Chicago in the late 1960s. She called herself a French Impressionist and was selling her drawings and paintings on the steps of the Art Institute. So far, so almost normal. What makes Godie a star of the Hayward show are the theatrical self-portraits she was taking inside a photo-booth at the bus station. She'd bring along accessories, bits of fabric and other props to build different personae. She would then add bright colour to her lips or paint her eye brows in a Scouse fashion. Godie was thus doing theatrical self-portraits long before Cindy Sherman did. And long before celebs started invading twitter with 'selfies.'
The romantic in me is charmed by a self-taught photographer who sees his wife as his muse and takes thousands of photos of her dressed as a pin-up, wearing little more than cascades of pearls or donning christmas tree decorations on her head. Preferably against a rococo backdrop. From the early 1940s to the mid-1950s, Eugene Von Bruenchenhein documented the Marie's beauty but even when she is naked, the portraits have more tenderness than kinkiness.
Bodys Isek Kingelez uses cardboard, candy wrappers and other materials found in the streets of Kinshasa to make what he calls Extrêmes maquettes (Extreme Models) of extravagant buildings and utopian cities. They look neither purely African, nor European, even when they bear the name of a European city. I wouldn't say that they are futuristic either. In truth, these buildings can't be assigned to any architectural movement. They are in a league of their own.
Richard Greaves sculpts houses as much as he builds them. Like many of the artists in the exhibition, Greaves is self-taught. He never learnt to be an architect. Yet, his constructions successfully defy the laws of gravity. The cabins and shelters he erects in the middle of the forest in Canada are made from abandoned barns which he takes apart and rebuilds at his whim.
Rammellzee's graffiti and art work are based on his theory of Gothic Futurism. He imagined a world in which letters of the alphabet would arm and liberate themselves from the slavery and corruption of language. Made from found objects and customised skateboards, his Letter Racers are flying armoured vehicles poised for linguistic and galactic warfare. His style is stunning. Why had i never heard of him before?
I guess everybody knows about Wu Yulu's amazing, rural robots. Using rubbish that he finds near his farm, Wu Yulu creates robots that do the cleaning, wash dishes, light cigarettes, or take him to market. The Hayward is showing the small robot that climbs a wall and a child robot that chases people (as Ralph Rugoff, Director of the Gallery and Curator of the show, pertinently noted, it's not a coincidence if a man from the country of the one child policy decided to build himself a little boy.)
I'm going to stop here because unfinished, unpolished, unpublished posts are piling up and i need to move on but in an ideal life, i'll find the time to write about Karl Hans Janke, the man who discovered the 'radiation-free German Atom'; Philip Blackmarr and his theory of "quantum geometry"; or Emery Blagdon who built a 'Healing Machine' from wire, copper, aluminium foil, Christmas tree lights, ribbons, beads, leaves, butterfly wings, magnets and 'earth elements'. I cannot vouch for the scientific soundness of their theories but i'm glad an art gallery has given them a chance to expose them to the public.
If you can't make it to London, i guess that the next best thing is to get your hands on the catalogue The Alternative Guide to the Universe: Mavericks, Outsiders, Visionaries. It's on amazon .co.uk and .com.