The Boiler in Williamsburg, Brooklyn opened during the pandemic in 2020 as an extension of the ELM Foundation’s programming, and invites contemporary artists to create installations and exhibitions in its space, previously run by Pierogi Gallery from 2009–2015. The current show, The Man Who Fell to Earth 76|22, by artist Tomas Vu, is his first solo show in New York since 2008. The raw industrial space exudes an extraterrestrial feeling, perfect for a show whose title recalls David Bowie’s central role in the eponymous 1976 movie. A gigantic Geodesic dome with polychrome triangular panels greets the visitor in the center of the space, as if a temporary structure built for shelter on new terrain. It is surrounded by six works on mirrors, thirteen works on paper, an etched lead surfboard, and a painting on canvas hung on white gallery walls adjacent to exposed brick, industrial pipes, and skylights 40 feet high.
The works on paper are made with layers of different printmaking techniques: photographic silkscreen, stencils from laser cut decals, digital prints, and cyanotype transfers, Vu citing Robert Rauschenberg’s prints as a major influence. The rearranged and found images comprise historical markers like the atomic bomb and 9/11, magazines from 1965–1975 focusing on the vision of future moon landing, iconic album covers from the same time period like Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland U.K. release, photographs of brutalist space-inspired architecture, and others sourced from the internet, combined into unique single works.
There is a balancing act between images that stem from a dystopian, self-destructive post-apocalyptic world and those offering a glimpse into technological advances into outer space to prolong humankind. For instance, the diptych 360|321, 2019 both have cyanotypes of dramatic mushroom clouds from atomic bombs. On the left, this real world image of an explosion is framed by a rainbow vinyl decal with oculus cutouts, changing into other worldly sunsets and sunrises as the environmental light changes around us. On the right, the explosion is framed in silver tape and collaged onto a cyanotype of futuristic space-inspired architecture, mirroring the Geodesic dome before us. The transposed circle cutouts hint at abstract holes, oculi into another realm. Space Odyssey, 2019 has a circular waterwheel structure, which is in fact a photograph of a film set for the iconic Stanley Kubrick film. The image is darkened on the left side, while the right side has rainbow vinyl lines outlining the wheel’s supporting structure, including one of the few touches of paint and brush. This treatment is also present in Hendrix, 2021 where we see a central perspective point also as a cosmic explosion. In most of Vu’s images, the hand is largely removed in favor of machine made marks. A rainbow vinyl oval shape appears multitudes of times throughout the works with mushroom cloud explosions such as in 08.07.45, 207|210, 347|400, and 405|307|120 (all 2019), in an act of iconoclasm, both censoring but also asking us to look more closely at the image and amplifying its surreal feeling, building on the lineage and humor of conceptual artists like John Baldessari and his dots over media images.
The large-scale mirror works are hung high on the walls of the gallery so one has to look up as one would towards the sky, into outer space. A single astronaut floating in antigravity is screen-printed onto the mirror. The astronaut is printed with photographic silkscreen printing using four different screens and colors, creating a multi-colored astronaut floating in the reflective space of the mirror with vinyl rainbow decal cutouts. In them we catch different distorted reflections of the rough industrial architecture, accentuating the feeling of a post-apocalyptic world echoed in Vu’s works on paper. The image changes from each vantage point, as does the color on the decals as light changes throughout the day. This astronaut is a symbol of the hope offered by the exploration of space by humankind, marked by Neil Armstrong’s 1969 moon landing, as nations expanded in space and has continued until the present day by über-wealthy businessmen.
In the prologue of her book The Human Condition, 1958 Hannah Arendt reflects on the Earth as an essence of the human condition and how the U.S.S.R.’s launch of the Sputnik satellite in 1957 changed humankind. Continued by the space expansion between the two great world powers during the Cold War, this expansion would lead to an alienation of the Earth, and so an alienation of our human condition. The eternal battle between technology, the machine, and man would lead to incredible individualism and loneliness, diminishing community. In response, Vu’s work is sensitive to fostering community and extends beyond the walls and into collaborations with other artists through social sculpture, a form developed by Joseph Beuys, bringing communities together. The Geodesic dome is there so visitors can play from a selection of vinyl records on a player and listen to eclectic music together while lingering in the communal chairs and couches inside. Artists and poets Avishag Cohen Rodrigues, Yasi Alipour, Suzanne Herrera Li Puma, Phong H. Bui, Anselm Berrigan, Ama Birch, Ben Keating, and Rirkrit Tiravanija also staged performances interacting with his work.1
There is an ambivalence in the relationship between humankind and technologies where it can both provide hope and progress, but also destruction. Vu’s handling of various printmaking techniques and digital images suggest a fascination with the manmade machines all the while asking us to reflect on our surroundings, both through mirrors and by taking up space and time in the dome. In this industrial space we could imagine landing on a new planet or walking among the detritus after an explosion, a large contrast to the swanky bustle of Williamsburg.
- Vu has collaborated with Tiravanija since 2014, who performed a cookout, an engagement Tiravanija has developed since the 1990s, where we come together and dialogue through the act of cooking.