‘Tell me if you start to feel dizzy,” the operator says, clamping the virtual reality helmet to my head, as I sit on one of a row of little padded stools, somewhere in the carpeted intergalactic welcoming pavilion whose exterior is cunningly disguised as the Serpentine Gallery in Kensington Gardens, London. Soon the droney space music starts up. Transported to some far-flung region of the universe, we are successively enveloped in a gooey matrix of alien frogspawn, bombarded by cosmic dust and inseminated by writhing screen-saver tentacles. Distant suns glow like headlights in fog. I keep resisting going towards the light, just in case I’m having one of those near-death experiences described by those who have returned from the brink. I crouch and tilt and fling my head back in my VR goggles, not so much in awe as to get a better view, hoping to draw the looming aliens closer. Then I’m surrounded by a storm of stardust, like being pitched into a tumble dryer of polystyrene snow, whose mesmerising flow patterns and vortices suck me in. Removing the headset, it is a slight surprise to find there’s nothing to brush off my trousers, not even a speck of interstellar dandruff.
Somehow, the VR experience in French artist Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster’s Alienarium 5 is all a bit hokey. If I were a creature from a far galaxy I think I’d find the welcome at this earthside arrival portal a bit confusing. One such extraterrestrial being looms in the semi-dark of a sealed room, visible through little holes drilled in the wall. Maybe someone left the creature in there, like a mop in a cupboard, and forgot about it. Perhaps the space being is in quarantine or awaiting a visit from Priti Patel, dressed in a hazmat suit. The being is a sort of lump in a flowing skirt-like substance. From whatever angle you see it, the lump looks like the back of someone’s head.
If you are outside the building and stand close enough to the gallery windows, holographic alien beings become visible, floating in darkened space. Cosmic dancer, animated dandelion head, thing from ‘Oumuamua or the Oort cloud. Who knows? A little further away in the park, among trees, stands a sign-like abstract sculpture, a statue “in remembrance of the coming alien”. It looks a bit like a diagram of reproductive organs done in pearlescent tubing. I guess aliens might look like this, but the chances we would even recognise one if we saw them could be remote. They might look like an artwork. Or a tree, a park rubbish bin, or just about anything. Gonzalez-Foerster likes to conflate the words “art” and “alien”.
I was so anticipating this show. Much delayed by the pandemic, it has finally landed. The overall conceit presents itself as a sort of arrivals suite for extraterrestrial visitors. Nice carpeting (with a Uranus motif), welcoming neon signage, drifty music and friendly gallery staff who, when I beamed in, sported Teletubby aerials on their heads. Whatever happened to Alienariums 1 to 4, I ask. The title, it turns out, is a reference to Kurt Vonnegut’s 1969 part sci-fi, part anti-war novel Slaughterhouse-Five. The title might also suggest we’ve been plunged into the middle of things. As it is, Gonzalez-Foerster’s work is always a concatenation of new things, older things, reimaginings and reworkings, labyrinthine internal references, running themes, gags and gambits.
Along with the aliens, such as they are, literary and artistic references abound. Cushions in the form of books are meant to litter the floor of the circular central space, but they weren’t there on my visit. No A Planet of Viruses, no John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar, no Ursula K Le Guin, no John Wyndham. Maybe the aliens ate them.
Gonzalez-Foerster is also keen on bibliography, and her diorama, titled Metapanorama, which fills the continuous circular wall surrounding the central space, presents both a cosmology and a cast of characters, much in the manner of Jann Haworth and Peter Blake’s cover of the Beatles 1967 Sgt Pepper album, but at a much more expansive and higher production level. More than a random accumulation of 195 images, including Saturn’s moons, Earth seen from space, asteroids and nebulae and clunky spaceships from old movies, there are dozens and dozens of portraits of artists, writers (JG Ballard, Philip K Dick), film-makers (Tarkovsky), thinkers, spiritualists, scientists (Ada Lovelace and Alan Turing among them) movie characters (the artist herself as a character from Blade Runner, David Bowie as The Man Who Fell to Earth), jellyfish, slime moulds, fungi, a Triffid, the Teletubbies, blood vessels, artworks including a suspended woman in Japanese rope-bondage by Nobuyoshi Araki, sculptures by Henry Moore, fragments of works by Richard Hamilton and many others. Some images amid this vast montage reference artists and works that have previously been seen at the Serpentine, including Gustav Metzger, Phillipe Parreno, Hilma af Klint and Yayoi Kusama. Meanwhile, Diana, Princess of Wales, wanders through. Here comes everybody.
The overall effect of Gonzalez-Foerster’s Metapanorama, with its crowds and natural and supernatural wonders, spiritualist thought-forms, a wobbling disembodied eye by Odilon Redon, weird geologies, floating worlds and event horizons, is part medieval cosmography, part Victorian scrapbook, part lexicon, part exploded view of the artist’s inner mental processes. Among it all are signs for Alien parking lots and for the Galactic cabaret, as well as notices telling us to stop the war. The whole thing is a gigantic eschatological wormhole.
At their best artists are more than, or different from, the sum of their references. It is only with her diorama, which one enters and leaves through irregularly shaped holes cut into the wall, that Gonzalez-Foerster’s world really takes flight, although she has reconfigured the building in such a way that, if you are already familiar with the gallery’s layout, is pleasingly discombobulating. Unless, that is, you find yourself spat out into some alternative multiverse. Do not worry: in an otherwise empty side room is a circular couch in case you need a quiet lie down, and to wait for an alien to come and soothe you. I’m sure there will be one along soon.