Into the Unknown Exhibition Shines Bright at the Barbican

Into the Unknown is a large exhibition set in the Barbican which explores the world of science fiction. The genre was initially niche but over the years has grown in popularity to frequently become pop culture touchstones. Novels, comics, cinema and music have touched upon the human desire to explore new worlds and this exhibition is a great one that looks at the evolution of the genre.

This sculpture at the Barbican reminds me of the monolith that features on the cover of video game No Man's Sky.

The 18th and 19th centuries saw mankind exploring new lands and making exciting new discoveries, this opened up a literal whole new world of imagination. The late 19th and 20th centuries saw mankind make giant strides in science and technology, which led people to look to the stars and desire to explore the planets and dark void of space in the hope of finding new worlds and peoples. This exhibition looks at all of that and is very generously organised with over 800 exhibits on show. The show is broken into a few distinct parts; Extraordinary Voyages, Space Odysseys, Brave New Worlds and Final Frontiers.


Extraordinary Voyages

The 18th and 19th century saw a boom in science ad the age of enlightenment took over from the centuries of superstition and witchcraft. At the forefront of this was the literary giant Jules Verne and his work is well represented here. There is a page from a manuscript on show and many models of his illustrations. The designs are beautiful and intricate and practical as Verne worked with esteemed scientists of the time to create plausible machines. Vernians are well catered for here. Another personal favourite of mine, model maker Ray Harryhausen, has a large presence. In creating believable lifelike models of fantastical creatures and dinosaurs (at least at the time they were created) Harryhausen inspired generations of directors, special effect creators and youngsters, including me. A lot of his models are on show and considering some are over 60 years old, are in remarkably good condition. The maquettes of some of these legendary creature designs are on show and ask the visitor to recall the films they once starred in. The original sketches and story boards of classics such as The Lost World, The Valley of Gwanji and the original Mighty Joe Young show the artistry of such luminaries as Harryhausen and his mentor Willis O'Brien. 

These Ray Harryhausen models were amazingly detailed up close.

Space Odysseys

The space race of the 1950s and 60s was more than just a triumph of engineering, it was a time of great optimism about humanity and its future after the devastating Second World War had shaken the whole of the planet to its core. Visual artists and authors, often collaborating with scientists and engineers, were able to stir up public fervour in depicting a plausible vision of humanity amongst the stars. The next section of the exhibition has stunning original Russian art on show and the thing that stands out is the sheer hope. Images show the realised dream of humanity reaching the stars and living on other worlds. Another real highlight here for the film aficionado is the script, as written by Arthur C. Clarke, of Kubrick's film 2001: A Space Odyssey.  The exhibition then shows the way science fiction has inspired TV shows and cinemas. There was lots on show but Darth Vader's helmet and John Hurt's suit from Alien are early boons. As a fan of H.R. Giger the Alien head design as well as his Jadorowski's Dune inspired chair were both excellent, the bio-mechanical horror that Giger created are wonderful to see up close. As a huge fan of Irwin Allen's work (it used to show on Channel 4 on Sunday afternoons in the 80s) seeing the Spindrift spaceship from Land of the Giants brought back waves of nostalgia.  

Brave New Worlds

The last section of this part of the exhibition was looking at the world of sci-fi in the modern age. It featured models of original classic robots such as Robbie from Forbidden Planet and Twinkl from Buck Rogers but also a more modern exhibit in Ex Machina.  There were video montages of classic sci-fi scenes including one of my personal favourites, the opening of Fritz Lang's Metropolis. Stunning images of utopian and dystopian worlds painted on canvas and printed from computer software were on show too and presented plausible imagery of what the future may hold for us.

As a whole the first section of Into the Unknown was an impressive your through the birth and evolution of sci-fi.

The next part of the exhibition was the film In The Future They Ate From The Finest Porcelain by Larissa Sansour. I didn't watch the film as I didn't have the time due to prior commitments so I can't comment but I hear from others that it was well worth the 29 minute run-time. 

The final part of the exhibition was an art installation down in the basement space, it is called In The Light Of the Machine by Conrad Shawcross. You enter a dark space and once your eyes adjust you make out large panels of metal with holes in, all placed in concentric circles, almost like a neolithic stone circles similar to stonehenge. In the middle is a light and this enters the holes and projects onto the black walls, giving off an eerie light. You can hear a machine working away at its centre and through the holes of the machine and the gaps between the large metal plates you can see a seeming sentient machine holding out a light at the end of a rod. The effect is oddly unsettling yet calming, the rhythmic thrum of the machine soothes yet unnerves as the light rays dance on the walls. The whole piece is well worth a visit and stays with you long after.

I left the exhibition and reflected on what I had seen and experienced. As a whole i believe that the exhibition was well curated and thoroughly engaging. The whole of the Barbican has been utilised for this exhibition, with experimental videos, computer games and sculpture littering the building. Anyone with a spare couple of hours should see this as it is a well curated experience.