Latinx Artists Probe Sci-Fi in ‘Mundos Alternos’

Artists from across the Americas playfully show that science fiction has always been a metaphor for addressing complex political and social realities.

Mundos Alternos
The centerpiece of "Mundos Alternos: Art and Science Fiction in the Americas," Chico MacMutrie and Amorphic Robot Works, "Organic Arches (Time Traveler)," 2014/2017. All photos: Beck Feibelman.

The image I cannot stop thinking about from the wonderful exhibition “Mundos Alternos: Art and Science Fiction in the Americas,” currently on view through Aug. 18 at the Queens Museum, is the Zapatista space satellite. Made of what looks like metal pipes, repurposed windows, strips of wood and a public-address speaker, it’s hardly spaceworthy, but still does quite a lot of work. (See the third picture in the Instagram slideshow below.) Part of the installation Autonomous InterGalactic Space Program, 2009-ongoing, organized by an artist who calls himself Rigo 23, in collaboration with Zapatista communities in southern Mexico, this playfully critical project highlights just one of the diverse approaches to and interventions in science fiction that the artists in this unique survey use to help us understand our mundane world. The show is divided into several thematic “constellations”: Cornerstones, Time Travel, Alternate Americas, Indigenous Futurisms, Reimagining the Americas, and Alien Skins (this last constellation is on view in an auxiliary installation at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art in SoHo).

“Mundos Alternos” is particularly valuable and meaningful at this moment in US culture. White people across the country have been — are being — powerfully encouraged by large swaths of our government and our political media to understand Latinx people as dangerous, benighted invaders, if not as simply sub-human, even (or maybe especially?) children. The artists taking part in this extraordinary exhibition on view in Queens, the most diverse urban area in the world, on a vital, basic level, expose the empty propaganda and the irrational bigotry currently thriving in and poisoning mainstream culture. Moreover, they outshine those bigots with exciting artworks, expansive ideas, creative resistance and expertly-deployed humor.

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Mundos Alternos
Luis Valderas, “Costume for MASA Mission 2.5,” 2015. On view at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art.

The humor can be ironic, subtle, dry or poignant, but humor is a strong theme in the show. Rigo 23’s Zapatista space program is made entirely of comically imprecise, unscientific media like quilting and embroidery, plywood, paint and woven baskets. The model space ship is shaped like an ear of corn, the sun is made of sequins and the work has a charmingly open-hearted, utopian tone. The Autonomous InterGalactic Space Program puts me in mind of a Tom Sachs installation, but less literal, more joyful, freer and with radical politics. All of the figures in the paintings and textile elements have covered faces with just their eyes exposed, characteristic of the Zapatista communities who painted, sewed and built the dozens of elements that make up the installation. Zapatistas wear ski masks or bandanas over their faces to both disguise their identities and reject their individuality in favor of the egalitarian socialism they practice. Even the hardware-store satellite has a masked “face,” which feels like a sharp comment on the divide between the faceless surveillance with which satellites more commonly oppress people and the facelessness of the egoless collective community.

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Mundos Alternos
Mexican collective La Graveded de los Asuntos (Matters of Gravity), “Supernova,” 2015, video still.

Not all the humor, or even all of the artwork, in the show is this complex. There is immediately delightful slapstick in the video Supernova, 2015, from the Mexican collective La Gravedad de los Asuntos (Matters of Gravity), on view inside the Queens Museum’s Panorama of the City of New York. During a series of short zero-gravity flights, the artists used their own floating bodies to break open a shiny, star-shaped piñata, sending candy hovering throughout the plane. Another gallery shows two works by ADÁL positing the exploration of the moon by Puerto Rican astronauts he calls “Coconauts.” The installation of paintings by members of MASA (MeChicano Alliance of Space Artists) consists mostly of silly science and visual culture jokes (Chicano graffiti on Mars, space aliens replacing exotic Aztecs in mid-century kitsch, etc.). A MASA-related costume by Luis Valderas that combines a deadpan silver space suit with a traditional Mexican serape blanket is on view in the Alien Skins installation at the Leslie-Lohman Museum. Erica Bohm’s Planet Stories, 2013, is a series of framed snapshots the artist took of published NASA images that make it look like she casually took instant-camera pictures of space.

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The centerpiece of “Mundos Alternos” is a large, kinetic — definitely try to catch it during one of the times the museum activates it — sculpture by Chico MacMutrie and Amorphic Robot Works called Organic Arches (Time Traveler), 2014/2017. A series of fabric tubes hangs from an armature to form a row of arches that resemble, among other things, Gothic space architecture or a whale skeleton. Computers control the flow of air to inflate, deflate, shrivel and expand the arched tubes in dynamic patterns. The shifts and transformations of the tubes have a lyrical quality, and the movement of the sculpture gently implies it is alive. A cleverly contrasting, unrelated work installed on the walls around the atrium where Organic Arches hangs is Glexis Novoa’s site-specific Emptiness: Queens Museum, 2019. Novoa hand-drew directly on the walls, with a pencil, a series of gently fabulized, tiny but thrillingly detailed NYC architectural cityscapes. There are bridges and monuments, the ruins of the 1964 World’s Fair adjacent to the Queens Museum, even the newly opened Hudson Yards (where the banality of the architecture makes it hard to recognize out of context; the only way I knew that drawing was of Hudson Yards was that Novoa included that one building that looks like a chicken.). Around and between the individual cityscapes are numerous rockets, drones and bombs flying through the “air,” falling, surveilling.

The show can feel unbalanced; the large-scale, spectacularly presented works that engage with the physical space of the museum such as Organic Arches or the Autonomous InterGalactic Space Program and even Emptiness: Queens Museum definitely overshadow the more traditionally scaled and installed works in the other galleries, despite their strengths. Nevertheless, the creative variety of ways all the artists throughout “Mundos Alternos” interact with the genre of science fiction feels well thought out and executed by the curators. The themes of utopia and dystopia and technology and identity and belonging and normalcy allow these artists to revel in the metaphorical power of science fiction to create beautiful, thoughtful, political work that communicates the complexity of the world to anyone paying attention.

“Mundos Alternos” was organized originally by UCR Arts at the University of California, Riverside, and coordinated in NYC by Hitomi Iwasaki, Director of Exhibitions and Curator at the Queens Museum, and Joanna Szupinska-Myers. In addition to Alien Skins at the Leslie-Lohman Museum, there are several other NYC institutions participating in “Mundos Alternos” with auxiliary projects. The Museum of the Moving Image has worked with Mexico City-based scholar Itala Schmelz to organize a film and lecture series. Mexican artist Rubén Ortiz Torres is showing his adulterated, robotic US Border Patrol truck, Alien Toy (La Ranfla Cósmica), 1997, at The New York Hall of Science, where there will also be weekly programs for families. (A video related to Alien Toy is on view in the main show at the Queens Museum.) The Sugar Hill Children’s Museum of Art and Storytelling in Harlem will also organize a series of programs for kids.