Stranger things: A round-up of the best and quirkiest international exhibitions this autumn
From NASA’s satellite imagery to the story of the skateboard, pair these fascinating curations with a weekend away for a proper cultural reboot
Art is one of the most important, yet least understood, forms of expression. What constitutes “art” is one of the most hotly debated topics in the contemporary arena, culminating in the famous installation Comedian by Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan at Miami’s Art Basel in 2019. For some, this piece is better known as “the banana duct taped to a wall”.
Further deepening this banana-duct tape controversy, in March this year a student ate the banana because he “was hungry”. Was the art destroyed, or did it simply evolve? The artist’s lack of reaction suggested the latter, and no charges were pressed.
The line between “creative” and “strange” is a blurry one. Many people, and indeed entire industries and institutions, will attempt to make this an academic exercise. However in my experience, as with beauty, the definition of art lies in the eyes of the beholder.
You don’t need an extensive understanding of art history to know that something you are engaging with has meaning; in fact, you don’t need any art history at all. Art, I believe, can be anything that provokes an emotional reaction such as sadness, hope or empathy.
More than anything, art should inspire your sense of curiosity about the world and society in which we live. With that in mind, I have compiled a list of some of the coolest “art meets the universe” exhibitions which can be paired up with a long weekend vacation, that I believe will create a sense of awe and understanding about our place in the world and our collective cultures.
Satellite Imagery (Nasa HQ, Washington DC)
Known as the 'Overview Effect', the sight of our blue planet floating against the blackness of infinite space has been known to forever change the perspective of astronauts aboard the International Space Station.
Astronauts often write and talk about their changed appreciation and perception of beauty, unexpected and even overwhelming emotion upon seeing Earth from space, and an increased sense of connection to other people, cultures and the Earth as a whole.
Indeed, even without venturing into space, Nasa employees who work with Earth-related data are some of the most inspiring and inspired people on Earth.
Now, Nasa has created an exhibition at its Washington DC Headquarters so that you, too, can see the world as Nasa does. Through satellite imagery and other dynamic inputs, this exhibition will interactively display five decades of information on Earth’s land, water, ice and atmosphere that helps you to understand the impacts of our changing climate.
[Where to stay: The Line, DC]
Skateboards (The Design Museum, London)
Whether you know the difference between Tony Hawk and “Bam Bam” Margera or not, this is an exhibition that is impossible not to love. It’s a story of “design, daring and disobedience”, of risk-taking, and of the street’s subcultural shift to the mainstream. It’s the story of skateboards.
Vans sneakers, oversized hoodies, MTV’s Punk’d and fisheye lens cameras. Avril Lavigne and NOFX. DC, Volcom and Supreme. Gameboys, polaroid cameras, baggy jeans and beanies. Remember the noise of metal-on-metal as you hear a skateboard’s deck slide down a handrail? Remember how young you felt, and how much you wanted to change the world?
Well, skateboards changed us, and they changed the world through us. The list of clothing, music and artistic artefacts related to skater culture is endless and, rather amazingly, can be curated within specific styles and technologies from the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.
However, the skateboards themselves are more than cultural artefacts. This exhibition at the Design Museum has been curated by Jonathan Olivares, who wrote Skateboard, the authoritative book chronicling the design history of the iconic four-wheeled sporting item.
In an interview, Olivares said: “I have had three great love affairs in my creative life: skateboarding, graffiti and industrial design”. Now, he is going to share these passions with the world in London.
Opens 20 October 2023, designmuseum.org
[Where to stay: The Artist’s Residence, London]
Data (The Science Gallery, Dublin)
Have you ever wondered why Instagram serves you certain content or adverts? Or why, even if you’re on the same website from the same location as a friend, you could be reading different news stories? Or – most frustratingly – why you see different airline ticket prices than your other half does?
One of my favourite galleries, the Science Gallery at Trinity College Dublin, seeks to answer these questions in a provocative and interactive way through a virtual exhibition called Bias Online.
The exhibition will ask you to consider your own internal biases, before contemplating how these could be translated into the digital scope. It will look at the complexities of digital societies as we grapple with understanding how or why biased information impacts our present and future lives.
For example, why does facial recognition lead to greater injustice in the criminal system? Where, how and how often are we facially scanned? Who, or what, holds the power to surveil us, and what if computers could tell from those images what we were feeling? Is privacy a concept of the past?
This exhibition has been curated by the ultra-talented Julia Kaginskiy, a New York-based cultural producer. She was the founding director of New Inc, the New Museum's incubator for art, technology, and design.
Online only. dublin.sciencegallery.com/bias-online
Gene Cultures (MIT Museum, Boston)
Our genes are sometimes referred to as the world’s tiniest supercomputers, operating at a molecular level.
The genes we are born with create an often permanent trajectory for our lives: what we’re good at, how healthy we are, and even who we will end up falling in love with. More than that, new research reveals that people who have certain genetic variants earn higher incomes, hold more prestigious jobs and accumulate more assets.
But genes don’t just belong to humans; they belong to all organisms that provide life on Earth and, potentially, further afield. As the pace of technological advances in the field of genetic discovery quickens, questions arise. Who decides how and when transformative new biotechnologies will be used? What questions do we need to ask before making decisions leading to irrevocable results?
A new exhibition that explores these complex questions has opened at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, one of the world’s leading science and engineering universities based in Cambridge (Boston).
[Where to stay: The Whitney Hotel, Boston]
Smartphones and Dumbphones (Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, Washington DC)
Without a doubt, one of the biggest technological advances that has shaped our lives, our society and the global economy is the smartphone.
Our Samsungs and iPhones have permanently changed the way human beings communicate after thousands of years. They have changed global supply chains and global shipping routes. They have even changed what we wear and who we marry (you couldn’t swipe right on a Nokia).
What was life like before mobile phones? And what was life like when a mobile phone was as big and as heavy as a suitcase? Whether you were around to experience this exponential shift or not, you can now think about how we communicated, and the shifts in life and culture, as our phones evolved through the decades. Perhaps you’ll get to play one last game of Snake on a Nokia 3210.
This trip down memory lane is in partnership with the renowned comic book artist Khary Randolph, known for his work with Marvel Comics, Epic Comics and DC Comics. Oh, and does it make you feel old that this exhibition is in the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History, somewhere close to the dinosaurs?
Until 2026. naturalhistory.si.edu
[Where to stay: The Jefferson, DC]
Laurie Anderson’s To the Moon (MassMOCA, Massachusetts)
If you liked the idea of satellite images as art, you will really like the work of Laurie Anderson as her work returns to the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MassMOCA), where she was one of the first artists-in-residence and still creates many of her works. Situated along the stunning Vermont-Massachusetts border, if nothing else the museum’s location will inspire.
Anderson is one of the world’s most famous multimedia artists, using video, sound, photos and cameras to make her work. Even more impressively, her music and sound-based work comes nearly exclusively from instruments that she has designed and built herself.
But here’s something that not very many people know about Anderson: she was Nasa’s first, and only ever, artist-in-residence. That’s right: after “creative differences” led to a separation of the two, Nasa decided not to fill the position, which remains open to this day.
Her later work, however, was influenced by her time at Nasa and one of her most spectacular exhibitions which has just been moved to MassMOCA from the Hirshhorn in Washington DC focuses on human spaceflight, in particular the lunar mission design. Is it controversial? Yes. Is Nasa still salty about it? Yes. Is it worth seeing? Absolutely.
[Where to stay: the Williams Inn, Massachusetts]