Lost in Space: A Historical yet Relevant Account of Perseverant People
American installation artist Shimon Attie’s Lost in Space (After Huck) exhibition, which is currently on display through June at the St. Louis Art Museum, examines historical parallels that have occurred over time beginning within the area of the Mississippi river. Within the single-room sculptural installation, Attie uses iconic objects such as a raft and corncob pipe to evoke a departed time in history; and then juxtaposes them with contemporary imagery of the night sky projected on the surrounding walls.
This immersive, site-specific installation comprises of a resin-cast sculptural group and a six-channel night sky video projected on the four surrounding walls. The projected video floats slowly and serenely from wall to wall, evoking the image of a starry night sky. Every few minutes, a dense, bright cluster of lights appears, punctuated by loud sounds of the crash and rumble of lightning.
The sculptural grouping in the center of the small room consists of a few objects resting upon the surface of a wooden raft: an oar, a knife, a corncob pipe, and a few rods bound together across from another branch, attached to a fabric bundle. Painted all white, the collective image of these specific objects evokes a rustic sensation—the feeling of a traveler making their way along the banks of the Mississippi river almost two centuries ago.
Additionally, Attie has installed a silent red siren light on one side of the raft – breaking the serene and still image of white sculpture. The presence of a siren light brings the viewer back to their current time using the urban aesthetics of emergency lights to contrast the more rustic objects. This juxtaposition between rural and urban aesthetics within the gallery space provides a mentally stimulating image. References to the historically acclaimed novel Huckleberry Finn are subtly introduced through the sculptural objects and the raft, further referencing the rich history of travel along the Mississippi riverbank.
The association with historical narratives (both real and fictional) is depicted both overtly and abstractly enough to conjure parallel, similar associations over time. Attie’s installation tentatively defines what time it exists in, yet allows enough ambiguous space for the viewer to draw their own conclusions. This broad approach to the conceptual core of Lost in Space (After Huck) is effective in prompting a personal response from the viewer.
Projected on the walls; the continually moving cluster of lights is revealed by the artist to be the image of Americas most populated cities at night: an aerial map painted by levels of light density captured by NASA. This image associates ideas of our contemporary time such as global vision and human’s ventures into space. The projection also challenges the viewer’s sense of perspective. As soon as the bright cluster sails into view, the viewer realizes that in fact they are not staring up into space, but rather down onto the surface of the earth: suggesting that the scene Attie has devised exists in space, and therefore is not grounded on earth.
This shift in perspective is what gives life to the name Lost in Space: no longer simply a suggestive title, but rather a clear descriptor of the artwork.
The combination of imagery from different yet distinct moments in history allows Lost in Space (After Huck) to tell a narrative that repeats over time. Thus, invoking the idea of historical parallels—a phenomenon that never fails to awe. The idea that the narrative of the lost traveler repeats itself over time is a powerful one: first introduced by referencing the rough journey of Huckleberry Finn and companions; then reinforced by formal allusions to the iconic French romantic historical painting The Raft of the Medusa (1818-19) by Théodore Géricault.
The immersive nature of Lost in Space (After Huck) allows the viewer to connect to the artwork on a more personal level, perhaps imagining they are the lost traveler, or a bystander stumbling upon the remnants of another traveler, now long gone. However, because the viewer may perceive their relation within the space, the narrative of the “lost traveler” is clear and present. The shifting of perspectives introduced by the moving projections also reinforces this idea, making it clear to the viewer that what they might first believe can also shift.
By using such conceptual themes as local and global travel in conjunction with ideas of displacement and travelers gone adrift; Attie recalls associations of contemporary global issues plaguing our world’s nations today: the dangerous travels undertaken by refugees crossing the ocean, or displaced peoples searching for safety in an unknown place. The artist does not explicitly mention the connection to our globe’s current refugee crisis, yet the association is powerful and impossible to ignore.
Lost in Space (After Huck) serves as a narrative of the lost traveler for viewers who may have trouble understanding the direct struggles of displaced peoples. By using an immersive format and vague arrangement of ideas, Attie introduces the concepts subtly and unobtrusively; recontextualizing a heavy subject matter for the viewer in a non-confrontational manner.
The ways in which the artist choreographed the experience of viewing Lost in Space (After Huck) shows great consideration for the many layers of meaning for this work. For these reasons Shimon Attie has proven to be an artist who is successful at addressing complex global issues without using a single word.
Lost in Space (After Huck) is currently on display in the St. Louis Museum of Art: Currents 113 from April 1 to June 25, 2017.
Written by Stephanie Cuyumbamba Kong