Science fiction is such a rich and diverse genre that has bled through the pages of literature where it was first explored into film, fashion and beyond. With such a rich background, it was no doubt an arduous task for the Barbican to try and compile the entirety of the genre into a single exhibition but for the most part, they pull it off with impressive results.
The bulk of Into the Unknown: A Journey through Science Fiction takes place in the centre’s Curve gallery, where the eyes are treated to a feast of extraordinary colour and vibrancy featuring everything from genuine Ray Harryhausen models and concept art to Star Trek costumes. Then there’s the 2001: A Space Odyssey script with Kubrick’s own handwriting, H. R. Giger’s beautifully twisted concept art for Alien and it even features stunning concept art for Alex Proyas’ criminally underrated Dark City.This is just a tiny glimpse of what the first stage of the exhibition offers as the entire history of the genre is confined into a rather small and inconveniently shaped space. All this sits alongside science fiction literature from the likes of Jules Verne and George Orwell, although it does feel like the genre’s literature element could have had a bit more space and time dedicated to it.
The Barbican makes for a fitting venue for such an exhibition. In places its labyrinthine interior that cuts you off from the outside world feels like the belly of a dark spacecraft, while the exterior boasts a brutalist Ballardian quality. Yet, once you leave the Curve gallery, the exhibition splinters off into the nooks and crannies of the centre making the whole experience feel disjointed.
The Barbican’s basement, aka The Pit, is taken over by artist Conrad Shawcross’s In Light of the Machine installation. Shawcross’s enigmatic mechanical sculpture is an admirable and interesting creation that explores the relationship between cosmology and technology. It’s a deep and interesting examination of many of the conceits of the genre.There are interactive science fiction inspired games dotted around the venue offering up such games as Darwinia, a virtual theme park for a sentient evolving life form. If you thought Legendary on FIFA was difficult, try Darwinia.
While it’s an archive for any science fiction fan, Into the Unknown fails to really plum the depths of the social, political and philosophical elements that are such potent components of the genre. When you’re exhibiting the works of Kubrick, Shelley and Orwell, a little in-depth investigation into the creation of these sublime worlds would’ve added an element it sadly misses.
As well, the confines of the Curve Gallery is manufactured into a microcosm of the genre, engulfing you in the majesty of these worlds, yet once you leave this quickly escapes and the real world seeps through. That being said, the exhibition’s concentration on spectacle is enough to please hardcore science fiction fans, as well as newcomers to the genre.