Fifteen futures: part 2

We always look to the future with a sense of wonder, ambition, hope and fear. Impossible to capture, the future is elusive and unfathomable. Any attempts to represent it in the present become immediately dated.

At this moment we are collectively reckoning with a state of radical uncertainty about what our future holds. In this rapidly changing world, Art Gallery of NSW staff have responded to 15 works in the collection that explore predictions and possibilities, visions of utopias and dystopias, science fictions and imminent realities. This is the second of three instalments in the series.

Whether it is the comedy of the outdated in past projections, or the anxieties and hopes about what is around the corner, these works compel us to think about the future and the passing of time.

Herbert Flugelman

Herbert Flugelman Burial of the tetrahedrons for ‘Earthwork‘ 1975. National Art Archive | Art Gallery of New South Wales. © Herbert Flugelman Estate. Licensed by Copyright Agency

Claire Eggleston, senior librarian

Herbert Flugelman Burial of the tetrahedrons for ‘Earthwork‘ 1975

We tend to see libraries and archives as monuments to the past, but I like to think of them as temples of the future. In our work as librarians and archivists, we wrangle the present onto shelves and into boxes with future users always on our minds. In the realms of ephemeral art practice, the archive is often the only place that evidence of an artwork’s existence can be found.

In 1975, at a time when sculptors were challenging the traditional tenets of their practice, artist Bert Flugelman buried six aluminium tetrahedrons in Canberra’s Commonwealth Park. The piece, titled Earthwork, was his contribution to Australia 75, a festival celebrating contemporary Australian arts and culture. The tetrahedrons were entombed with a sense of ceremony: a bulldozer cut a large hole, they were carefully lined up and then covered over with soil. Flugelman, who is well-known for his public sculptures, intentionally concealed this work. We can’t see it, so does it really exist? We know that it does, through the traces the artist left behind in his archive. In documenting his work, Flugelman ensured Earthwork’s existence into the future.

Assuming they haven’t decayed, the tetrahedrons are still there, biding their time beneath the grass. They patiently wait for a time when the sun will again gleam on their highly polished forms. When, long after we are gone, alien archaeologists will ponder their meaning. From their silent grave, the tetrahedrons ask us to consider how the future will find us.

Emily Floyd
Emily Floyd
Emily Floyd
Emily Floyd

Emily Floyd, Herrnhut commune, Linux for beginners, Social insects, Structure and silence of the cognitariat 2012 from All day workshop, a suite of four lithographs. Art Gallery of New South Wales, Contemporary Collection Benefactors 2015. © Emily Floyd

Hannah Hutchison, assistant curator, Australian art

Emily Floyd All day workshop 2012

Upon first glance, Emily Floyd’s suite of four lithographs don’t appear wildly futuristic – there are no hovering cars or floating cities – but they do imagine future worlds.

Floyd links multiple histories as she researches the legacies of modernism through her practice. She is especially drawn to the utopian aspirations of early 20th century art movements such as constructivism, de stijl and the Bauhaus. Her series of bold lithographs are charged with the spirit of 1920s radical Russian political posters, such as those made by Aleksandr Rodchenko. The creative energy unleashed by the Russian revolution of 1917 provoked Rodchenko to forge a new artistic language that looked to a future full of utopian possibility.

Floyd’s prints present examples of collectivism, activism and community. Herrnhut commune is inspired by Australia’s first utopian community, and Linux for beginners (named after the open-source computer operating system) explores a form of digital socialism. Floyd delves into the hive of the honeybee in Social insects, observing socially cooperative colonies at work in nature. The clenched fist in The structure and silence of the cognitariat is a forceful symbol of protest used throughout history to express uprising and solidarity. This print takes its title from a 2010 essay about funding cuts to universities, but it is freshly relevant in the wake of the global protests surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement.

A call to action, Floyd’s posters draw upon concepts and aesthetics of both the past and the present to speculate about what will make a united and fruitful society in the future.

Sue Ford

Sue Ford, Helen 1962, Helen 1974 1962/1974 from the Time series. Art Gallery of New South Wales, purchased with funds provided by the Art Gallery Society of New South Wales Contempo Group 2013. © Sue Ford Archive

Isobel Parker Philip, senior curator, contemporary Australian art

Sue Ford Helen 1962, Helen 1974 1962/1974

I found an envelope stuffed with old photographs at the back of a cupboard last week. There’s no real logic to the group, just a chaos of childhood scenes. Flipping through them made me nostalgic but also almost uncomfortable. She didn’t feel like me. Or maybe it’s just that I knew what happened next.

We wear our experiences on our faces. I’m not talking about the wrinkles and the bags and the sun damage. I’m talking about how life changes the way we hold our jaw; the way we purse our lips; the way we hold our gaze.

What does time do to the deportment of a face? To the way we perform our expressions?

Something shifted in the 10-odd years between Sue Ford’s first portrait of Helen and its sequel. A tender openness (innocence seems too overwrought a term) gives way to candid self-assurance. She looks at the camera, not into the distance. She’s more at home in her bone structure.

There are Instagram filters that can ‘predict’ what we’ll look like in 50 years. But why would we want such a blueprint? Doesn’t it ruin the surprise? Isn’t it cheating?

We have to earn our expressions. That’s why – sometimes – an old photograph can shock and unsettle us. It reflects a face that has now faded. An earnestness that’s folded into solemnity or strength.

But how do we face this future? What expressions are we wearing now? Is the openness still tender? Or is it laced with fear?


Allora & Calzadilla

Allora & Calzadilla, Petrified petrol pump 2010. John Kaldor Family Collection at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. © Allora and Calzadilla

Ruby Arrowsmith-Todd, curator, film

Allora & Calzadilla Petrified petrol pump 2010

We’ve been here before. For every road movie where the highway beckons and our hero jams the pedal to the metal, there’s an apocalyptic drama of depleted resources and geopolitical strife. We know the doomsday script, but can we imagine what a post-oil world feels like? Twentieth century petroculture told us to feel good. Oil became associated with vitality, with the happy affects of exuberant growth, ceaseless mobility, and expanded personal horizons. In this work by artists Allora and Calzadilla, the reserves have dried up and the traffic has stalled. We are left with a monument to an eclipsed way of life.

Walk around this familiar kerbside infrastructure and you encounter a nozzle lying limp on the floor. Made in the same year as the catastrophic BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, Allora and Calzadilla’s installation presents a scene of abandonment. Oil, a substance found in everything from fertiliser to plastic, lip balm to aspirin, is now beyond use. But step back. There is also a sombre beauty in the metallic sheen of a bowser turned to chalky limestone. Can we, as 19th-century Romantics once did, find pleasure in the spectacle of human-made follies crumbling? Without doubt this is an industrial ruin.

Stay a while longer with the work’s tentacular arms, its calcified crust, and a curious feeling of anticipation grows. This petrified pump is a memorial but also a prototype. It gestures towards new energy regimes based on circular economies. Renewable rather than extractive. In this beguiling vision of the future, petrol – formed from the fossilised remains of ancient marine biomass – returns to its origins.


Postcard featuring Stelarc performing Handswriting 1982. National Art Archive | Art Gallery of New South Wales. © Stelarc. Photo: Akiko Okada

Faith Chisholm, editor, publishing

Stelarc’s cyborg experiments

I first encountered Stelarc’s cybernetic art as a teenager in Auckland in 1996. The Cyprus-born Australian artist was in New Zealand as part of an exhibition at Artspace called Electronic Bodyscapes that examined the interface of digital technologies, art and the body. I still remember the warehouse-like gallery space being packed for Stelarc’s evening performance of Ping body, in which the artist’s muscles were electrically stimulated by flows of internet traffic. I recall him jolting spasmodically with the transmitted signals, each movement triggering amplified digital sounds. His shadow was cast upon the white walls like the silhouette of a Balinese puppet, making his famous robotic ‘third hand’ and electrode-covered body look positively ominous. The Gallery has numerous images of Stelarc’s body in similar states of extremis dating back to the early 1980s. He’s been mining this territory for a long time.

Relatively few people had home computers or carried mobile phones in the pre-millennial era, but anyone who’d seen the Terminator movies had a sense of what might be coming. By now, most of us have been willingly co-opted into a cybernetic relation with computers, and we are increasingly delegating our critical- and creative-thinking abilities. We are, somewhat troublingly, on a trajectory for ‘the singularity’ – when the explosion of machine intelligence results in radical and unforeseeable changes for civilisation. Only now – almost 25 years after witnessing Stelarc perform – am I fully beginning to grasp his concept of the human body being ‘obsolete but not yet extinct’.