How sci-fi and music shaped modern art

IAN COLLINS Two terrific touring shows, tracing modern art links with music and science fiction, are about to open at the Sainsbury Centre in Norwich. Ian Collins sets the scenes.

IAN COLLINS

Terrified couples in 1950s clobber are running out of the catalogue for the Alien Nation show and away from a red/orange/gold backdrop of nuclear-style calamity.

The cover of the book, mocking those glossy adventure annuals of my childhood, mimics a poster design for a B-film from the era of Hollywood at its most lurid. It's an ad for one of those cult movies we love to laugh at as a mid-week telly matinee.

The 12 billed “actors” are the international contemporary artists who - working in film, sculpture, photography, multi-media installations and 3-D painting - have been gathered for the Alien Nation touring show which is about to invade Norwich.


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With sensational posters and film-clips from vintage sci-fi movies this is a camp carnival with cinematic technology and ham acting that now looks fantastically dated and fabulously daft. (“They Come From Another World! Incredible! Invisible! Insatiable! INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS.”)

But, having been hugely entertained by a space-ship trip down memory lane, we are then asked to wipe the smirks from our faces and ponder a darker up-to-the-minute drama. For this is a show with a pressing message.

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Co-curator Gilane Tawadros says: “Science fiction provides a means - often witty and surprising - to talk about our (sometimes) irrational fears of those who come from different places, look different or represent different world views to our own.

“This is not just about racial difference but also religious, ethnic or political difference.”

Science fiction was alive and killing with Mary Shelley's Frankenstein as far back as 1818, and the genre is infinitely broader than the polemic message of this show.

But there was certainly a strong connection between the sci-fi cinema of the 1950s and 1960s and the Cold War. Fears of subversion, invasion, communism and nuclear war were played out in movies projecting present anxieties onto the future.

In recent years artists have similarly used science fiction and extra-terrestrial forms as a means of exploring racial, ethnic or cultural difference - and as a potent metaphor for the threat of the outsider.

Investigating themes of otherness Alien Nation (geddit?) features artworks intended to raise questions about the way in which the media can perpetuate a terror of invasion from immigrants and asylum seekers.

But in an age of bombs on London public transport and gun-toting, drug-dealing children in our inner cities, the one-eyed view from this show may also raise questions about the wishful thinking of the curators and artists.

Still, in a Dysfunctional Family assembly, the fabric aliens of London- born and Nigeria-raised Yinka Shonibare look superb from any vantage point. The alienised festive decorations of Latin American artist Marepe reveal a strange new side to the traditional Christmas twee.

A Golden Horde installation by Hew Locke (born Edin-burgh, raised Guyana) has been amassed from toys and other everyday baubles to form a glittering gold and silver vessel commanded by sinister dolls.

Day of the Triffid film stills by Pakistan-born Hamad Butt take on an altogether more menacing meaning given the fact that the artist died soon afterwards, of an Aids-related illness, at the age of 32.

HIV: now there's an alien invasion if ever there was one.

Deceptively playful scenes by California's David Huffman seem at first to show astronauts in a colonised lunar landscape - some involved in games of basketball, while others jog or meditate in the lotus position.

Then again this could be a poisoned planet Earth. Chronic pollution is another alien invasion.

And in a world of invasive violence I would like to have seen a focus on the vile virtual world of gory computer games - science fiction at its most alarming.

While those original sci-fi film clips and posters from the 1950s and 1960s may grab most attention, this part of the show exploring our innermost fears and fantasies about the outsider also comes right up to date. The fascination continues.

The first programme I can remember (not) watching on TV was the very first episode of Dr Who. Cushion over face was not enough for such a fearful adventure, and I ended up behind the sofa… while the telly remained thrillingly turned on.

How ironic that the revamped Dr Who should be the most acclaimed programme of the last couple of years. How we love it when aliens become familiars.

Just as my childhood was haunted by the wailing, whirring theme tune of Dr Who, so there is a very firm link between art and music - a connection now being explored in a second Sainsbury Centre show, this time courtesy of Pallant House.

All lovers of art in general, and British art in particular, should pay repeated pilgrimages to Chichester. Here a Queen Anne mansion with a magnificent modernist extension by the late great Colin St John Wilson (the creator of the British Library so pilloried by the Prince of Wales) is crammed with permanent and temporary treasures.

Endowed by Walter Hussey - who so enriched Chichester Cathedral, not least with music by Leonard Bernstein and a stained glass window by Marc Chagall - Pallant House has rightly won the 2007 museum of the year accolade.

Short of going to Sussex, we can now savour the Pallant House-generated show Eye-Music: Kandinsky, Klee and All That Jazz in Norwich.

Curator Frances Guy, herself both a musician and art historian, has focused on the ways in which artists searching for a new visual language at the start of the 20th century drew on musical forms and ideas for early experiments in abstraction. And then she samples all the jazzy imagery that followed.

The display begins with the mutual admiration of painter Wassily Kandinsky and composer Arnold Shoenberg (whose own experiments in painting were a revelation to me).

As Kandinsky wrote to the composer who abandoned the accepted organisation of the musical scale to create atonal controversy: “The independent progress through their own destinies, the independent life of the individual voices in your compositions, is exactly what I am trying to find in my paintings.”

Grouped into themes of Harmony, Dissonance, Tones and Colours, Rhythm and Time, Dance and Jazz, the show includes work by some of the great names in modern art: Matisse, Mondrian, Miro, Kupka, Albers, Sonia Delauney.

Standing out - as they always do for me - are works by Paul Klee, a close associate of Kandinsky and ultimately the better artist. Musicality is the key to his marvellous abstract pictures.

For Klee's father was a music teacher and his mother a trained singer. He himself was an accomplished violinist who, on opting to study art in Munich, wrote: “It's terrible to marry when you are wildly in love with someone else. That's the truth. My mistress is and was music, and I embrace the goddess of the paintbrush, smelling of oil, who is also my wife.”

This survey misses the beat of Pop Art, in which British artists actually led the rest of the world, though America hogged the spotlight. But it does raise several underrated UK talents high.

One of the most beautiful works in the show is Nocturne, by the Scilly Isles-doctor turned Cornish-painter John Wells, and there are intriguing offerings by Welshman Ceri Richards, Scotsman Alan Davie and Englishmen Jack Smith and Tom Phillips.

Anyone who has admired the jazzy decoration of Tottenham Court Road Tube station or the Isaac Newton statue outside the British Library is already a fan of Eduardo Paolozzi - but music-inspired prints and wood panels should now add more notes of acclaim for an artist who died in 2005.

And applause, cheers, whistles and drum rolls please for the jazzy abstractions of John Tunnard.

A drummer in a jazz band, he painted to the accompaniment of swing music - “the hotter the record the better the inspiration flows” - and hosted parties at which he entertained his guests with a soft-shoe shuffle or a top-hat-and-cane routine.

Even now, his scintillating pictures look to me like party invitations.

Alien Nation and Eye-Music: Klee, Kandinsky and all that Jazz can be seen at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts (01603 593199) from Tuesday October 2 until Sunday December 9. Open Tuesday and Thursday-Saturday 10am-5pm, Wednesday 10am-8pm. There is a single £2 (concessions £1) entry charge for the two exhibitions. Admission to the Sainsbury Centre's permanent collection remains free. A programme of events will accompany the Alien Nation show over the autumn - with a Sci-Fi Night on November 21 featuring music from Lost Levels, fancy dress and more. Tickets £5, concessions £4.50.

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