Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster: Alienarium 5 review – an all-together-now of beautiful minds | Art and design


At the back of the Serpentine Gallery, among the spring blossom, is a strange vision of elsewhere. You must stand outdoors to see it, through a pane of glass darkly. At first it looks like a drop of milk, falling in slow motion, its splash rising in a delicate corona. Then it twists and expands, and twists again, like some dancing double helix. It is only a hologram, flickering in blackness, but the poetry exceeds the technology: it looks like an ever-growing Milky Way coming into view from some unimaginable distance.

Inside the gallery is a wall pierced with peepholes at different heights, including several perfectly judged for small children. Put your eye to a hole, and beyond is the back of an immense head turned away from us in sepulchral gloom. Auburn tresses tumble down to the ground in a gleaming cascade, like the hair of some B-movie starlet on a giant silver screen. But is the head female, is it even meant to be a human being – who knows?

The aliens have landed at the Serpentine and they are oddly familiar. A soundscape murmuring through the rooms fluctuates between gentle voices burbling in a kind of para-language with recognisable sentence structures, a waterfall of electronic music and the kind of intermittent radio interference that suggests someone out there is trying to talk to us. It is sweet-natured, innocent, melodic, and fetchingly designed by the French artist Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster in conjunction with the musician Julien Perez.

Alienarium 5 involves collaborations with other artists too, in the design of a colossal carpet based on a vision of Uranus that ripples through the galleries, in the velvet breakout room and the group of virtual reality headsets that take you right out into the star-spangled universe to encounter alien beings. But the guiding vision belongs entirely to Gonzalez-Foerster.

Born in Strasbourg in 1965, she makes sculptural and cinematic installations that tend to have a tragicomic personal narrative. I loved her shaggy dog video sending up a supposedly anonymous artist’s attempts to come up with something for the French pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2009. She has made films, written novels, designed sets and even houses. What she creates is a public experience, rather than a work of art that can be sold in private.

Metapanorama (detail), 2022.
Metapanorama (detail), 2022. Photograph: Hugo Glendinning © Serpentine and Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster

The big event at the Serpentine Gallery takes place beneath the central rotunda. It is a 360-degree pictorial panorama of – so to speak – aliens, for which you might read lone geniuses from every walk of life. Against a dark, intergalactic sky are images of William Blake and Ada Lovelace, Joseph Cornell and Andrei Tarkovsky, Alan Turing and Gustav Metzger. There are visionaries of all sorts, from Emily Dickinson to Odilon Redon, Rudolf Steiner to David Bowie. Loie Fuller, dancer and pioneer of theatre lighting (whose dance, not incidentally, was known as the Serpentine), appears alongside Hannah Höch, German Dadaist and pioneer of collage. It is an all-together-now of beautiful minds.

And the nod to Höch is graceful, for this installation is nothing less than a colossal collage, enchantingly conceived and digitally achieved. From the voluminous darkness of outer space, all kinds of strange planets materialise: except that they turn out to be works of art, such as the glowing, stripy discs of the visionary painter Hilma af Klint and the cloudscapes of Georgia O’Keeffe, almost extraterrestrial in their abstract array of white lozenges aloft on cobalt.

Other people’s ideas of aliens get in everywhere: ET appears next to Dickinson, a threatening triffid next to a giant Louise Bourgeois spider. There are many eerie film stills; of Dean Stockwell playing The Boy With Green Hair and David Bowie as The Man Who Fell to Earth, a humanoid with alien eyes, before he turns into the gentle Thomas Jerome Newton and is imprisoned and tormented by real human beings.

Gallery guards hand out guides, and you may need them, especially if you’re not familiar with the faces of sci-fi writers from Philip K Dick to Octavia E Butler and Vonda N McIntrye. But this seems to me to be the entire point. For all the mildly specious talk, in the gallery promotions, of what would happen if aliens fell in love with people, this is in fact a massive consciousness-raising exercise designed to recognise human achievements.

Not for nothing is the circular dome of the Serpentine Gallery emphasised, with the opening of a roof light; this is Gonzalez-Foerster’s 21st-century Pantheon.

Alienarium, 2022 (VR still).
‘The cosmos comes drifting towards you’: Alienarium, 2022 (VR still). Photograph: Courtesy the artist © Serpentine and Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster

The VR headsets are delightful. Put them on and the cosmos comes drifting towards you out of darkness, contained in a sort of pulsing, sweeping, fluctuating light, a bit like morphing ectoplasm. Are we alone in the universe? To the age-old question comes a fanciful answer. As the ectoplasm floats around you, distant pinpricks of light get ever closer out of the darkness, until they materialise as active forms.

Turn your head and suddenly there is a twinkling jellyfish on the left, or a tangle of luminous multicoloured spaghetti rippling in from the right – all floating in the most peculiar way. Bowie’s Space Oddity is the imaginary soundtrack running through your head. The visions are pure intergalactic hokum, and yet they are charming too, with the witty benevolence that characterises the whole show. And there is a certain melancholy as these amiable aliens start to depart, gradually fading away into the darkness: far out.

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