NineteenEightyFour at the Austrian Cultural Forum; Megan Prelinger’s Another Science Fiction

Old-school with a vengeance, Ex-Futuro's monochrome visions of pentagrams, pyramids, and disembodied eyes interweave like TV test patterns from the Great Beyond.


On New Year’s Day, 1984, Nam June Paik, Joseph Beuys, Peter Gabriel, Charlotte Moorman, and other luminaries of the avant-garde firmament banded together for “Good Morning, Mr. Orwell,” a rebuke to George Orwell’s 1984. While the novel gave us a “Ministry of Love” devoted to torture, Paik and company wanted to show the world that artists using video cameras and satellite hook-ups could triumph over Big Brother’s surveillance state.

That optimism seems quaint a quarter-century on, with the likes of Google and Facebook hoovering personal data from our every keystroke to feed the gibbering maw of Big Capital. And when you consider such recent bummers as the Whitney Biennial and P.S.1’s “Greater New York 2010,” it’s head-bangingly apparent that the avant-garde has not triumphed over much of anything. Which makes the bursts of wit, flashes of aesthetic pleasure, and dollops of looniness found in the Austrian Cultural Forum’s “NineteenEightyFour” a minor antidote to our current cultural malaise.

Begin with our epoch’s go-to guy for paranoia, Mark Lombardi (1951-2000). The engaging drawings shown here are not as polished as the large charts he created in the late ’90s, which linked corporate malfeasance and government conspiracies through carefully scribed webs entangling corrupt leaders with criminal enterprises. Instead, these small works highlight the abstract underpinnings of Lombardi’s work, the quickly sketched, layered bulges recalling Terry Winters’s biomorphic vistas.

Old-school with a vengeance, the 2010 video Ex-Futuro, by French brothers Florian and Michaël Quistrebert, mixes monochrome visions of pentagrams, pyramids, and disembodied eyes with interweaving beams of ethereal light. Like TV test patterns from the Great Beyond, the sinuous forms combine a noir palette with psychedelic undulations. Rachel Owens discovers beauty lurking just this side of menace with Privet (2010), a seven-by-eight-foot illuminated Plexiglas slab bristling with shattered green bottles. A quick glance gives the impression of a luminous ivy-covered wall, but when the jagged, slicing curves snap into focus, any contemplation of serene academe shifts to thoughts of searchlights sweeping over barbed barricades.

With its stainless-steel partitions and Escher-esque staircases, the ACF building emanates a vaguely Cold War vibe of its own, enhancing the graphic punch of works such as Paul Laffoley’s 2005 Cosmogenesis to Christogenesis. Chockablock with diagrams conflating such mystical wonders as the Shroud of Turin, spiral galaxies, and the “Atomic Nun,” Laffoley’s concoction of vinyl type, collage, and ink might not look out of place duct-taped around a lamppost in the East Village.

And should you find yourself uptown between dusk and midnight, check out Judith Fegerl’s eye-opener, NYSTAGM (2010). Taking her title from a term for involuntary rapid eye movement, she has adorned the ACF’s façade with blue LEDs, their irregular flashes suggesting a violent seizure of the building’s mechanicals.

Jeez—just when did the notion that you could go back to the simplicities of some gentler yesteryear utterly vanish? After more than a century, modernity continues to come at us like a train wreck.

‘Another Science Fiction’

Subtitled Advertising the Space Race 1957–1962, Megan Prelinger’s lushly illustrated tome bears out what many a researcher has realized after scrolling through reams of microfiche: The ads in any given publication tell us as much about its cultural moment as the most cogently written article. Prelinger has culled Want ads and corporate-branding broadsides from such trade mags as Missiles and Rockets and Aviation Week. As she relates, the dawning space age depended on captured Nazi scientists, fantastical hardware, and the legions of engineers sought after through these lavish campaigns typical of Madison Avenue’s golden age. (Indeed, Mad Men‘s prop master—someone who knows from dazzling, period eye candy—supplies an enthusiastic cover blurb.) Some of the illustrations feature imaginative depictions of moon landings while others powerfully update constructivist geometries. The most beautiful riff abstractly on the grandeur of our nation’s quest for the stars (or at least a superior spy satellite). Blast Books, 240 pp., $29.95