New York CityThe Boiler
The Man Who Fell to Earth 76|22
May 6 – June 5, 2022
Tomas Vu, born in Saigon in 1963, moved with his family to El Paso, Texas, at the age of ten. He received his BFA from the University of Texas at El Paso, and took his MFA at Yale. Currently, he is head of Columbia University’s print-making center. His current show, The Man Who Fell to Earth 76/22 is taking place at The Boiler, a non-profit showing space that is part of the Elm Foundation, located in Williamsburg. The show’s large photographic images, connected with outer space, smaller prints touching on a variety of themes, and a large geodesic dome filling the center of the gallery, addresses the advent of populism in the 1970s, when the Vietnam conflict ended, and Americans were increasingly taken with popular culture. The Man Who Fell to Earth, a 1976 science fiction film in which the singer David Bowie starred, has Bowie play the role of an alien in search of water for his native planet. The film is noted for its surrealist imagery. The film, well regarded critically, serves as a metaphor for the spirit of the time.
Two images stand out as the viewer enters The Boiler, a space with a very tall ceiling. The first is a very large photographic image of Bowie, placed high up on a wall above the show’s other striking element: a large geodesic dome made with metal struts and panels of different colors. Bowie is portrayed in an exotic, patterned jumpsuit, with a high neck and ending at his upper thighs. He also wears leggings showing off the same pattern. As for the dome, it is big enough to have an open entrance more than one visitor can walk into fully standing. More than a few items of furniture, including chairs, couches, tables, and a record player with music dating back several decades fill the inside of the dome. One could listen to the provided music with available earphones. It is a kind of late-Sixties lounge, evocative of an informal period that, at the time, seemed highly innovative and exploratory. Bowie, the charismatic actor and musician, is the tacitly acknowledged center of this exhibition, which attempts to bring back a moment that now seems a bit dated in its pleasure-seeking romanticism. The geodesic dome, invented by Buckminster Fuller and a major cultural icon of the Sixties, offers Vu’s audience the chance to relive a time of extended personal freedom and informal, investigative culture.
At least part of this period’s allure was sexual. For some, Bowie’s costume might be dazzling. Vu has also put up a photograph, related to Jimi Hendrix’s music, of a group of undressed women gazing directly into the camera. The women, various in their backgrounds, remind us of the rampant eroticism of the sexual revolution. A group of silver cracks emanating from a central point in the image, much like a break in a mirror, is superimposed on the women and their bodies. The figure of Bowe, the geodesic dome, and the sensuality of unclothed women lounging on the floor all point to the beginnings of major cultural change, in which popular taste became remarkaby attractive and smart. Because of its sensuous intelligence, it was capable of drawing in a very broad audience,
Vu was just beginning his teenage years when Bowie’s film came out. And Bowie himself was especially adroit at mixing genres—singing, acting, performance art, fine art—into a marvelously expressive experience. So this show is an attempt to establish an atmosphere that was revolutionary at the time it was created. And in a deeper sense, it is a search for the kind of depth that comes from places somehow outside our knowledge, for example, in outer space, where anything can happen. So Vu’s show becomes a homage to a world of great personal freedom. The memorial is a very comfortable one given the sofas in the dome, in which viewers can visit the past by listening to music. The outfitted figure of Bowie leads the way.. Vu’s show makes it possible for the past to come to life again, supported by the singer’s extravagant spirit and the dome: an improvisational design enabling sitters to relax and think.