Felix Kalmenson, Atlas, 2017
The Future Is Certain; It's the Past Which Is Unpredictable
Exhibition at Blaffer Art Museum University of Houston, TX
2017 Feb 16th-Aug 20th
This is an exhibition about the perception of time and history, about how the past can reassert itself in the present and the future in material and immaterial ways. It uses a Soviet joke as an entry point. “The future is certain; it’s the past which is unpredictable” is an ironic comment on writing history and shaping the future in totalitarian regime. It uses a particular reference to 5-year economic development plans. Beginning late 1920s, the Soviet Union governed a vast territory stretching from Central Europe to the Far East through ambitious 5-year plans for economic development covering infrastructure, collectivization, replacement of money and much more. These plans, following the ideology of productive materialism, were often achieved ahead of a time while entire history was at stake of constant transformation.
The featured selection of artists and artworks in this show slowly grew from a 20th-century, Central and Eastern European focus to a more dispersed set of chronological and spatial references. Therefore, viewers should read this exhibition as an atlas in which the map is bigger than the territory, and time is non-linear.
The spatial metaphors we use to describe time, such as picturing the future in front of us as something to come and the past behind us as something we left behind, is a culture construct, say linguist scientists. There are tribes in the Americas that imagine the future behind them, because they don’t know it and can’t see it yet, and the past in front of them as it already happened and therefore can be faced. If clues to human understanding of time lie in language and there are more than 6000 languages on earth, most of them never written down, it’s possible that there are many more ways to understand the future and the past, perhaps not only along the spatial continuum. It’s perplexing and paradoxical that so much history has been lost, and yet at the same time there is so much of the past invading the present.
The past can be seen as a potent force, in the sense that it does not disappear with the passage of time, writes African theorist Achille Mbembe. Some work—cultural, social, psychological and political— has to be done. If not, it will continue to reassert itself in the present and the future in unpredictable ways. Especially in this age of unlimited electronic data storage and unending news cycles, it feels as if the past is continually self-generating and emerging, impossible to leave behind.
An example of the past erupting in the present (which, due to the current rate of technological and social change may already be the future) is the global ecological crisis in the Anthropocene, a geological age in which the dominant force shaping the earth is human life. A work in the show by Emilija Škarnulytė (No Place Rising, 2016) pictures this moment with the image of a mermaid swimming through a decommissioned nuclear submarine facility, connecting a mythological time with a dystopian future. Is the future certain because we anticipate catastrophes? There is no threat from North Korean missiles to Hawaii, but the apocalypse is hovering above us, like the statue of Lenin in Deimantas Narkevičius’s film Once in XXth century (2014) in the exhibition. Or like the boulder in the hands of a caveman in Felix Kalmenson’s video installation Atlas (2017). More often than not, we imagine the future occupied by threats moving toward us.
One could say that ours is the worst moment to turn our gaze to the past, when the very idea of the future seems at stake. Yet picturing the future as apocalypse is another historicist trap, possibly preventing from new ways of seeing and addressing it. The future is a safe, sterile laboratory to try out ideas in, – wrote Ursula K. Leguinn, to whom this show is dedicated.
The Future is Certain; It’s the Past Which Is Unpredictable is an exhibition of ideas and artworks, aswell as of historical facts and records that may appear or disappear through human agency or seemingly of their own accord.