by Shreeparna ChatterjeeJan 28, 2021
The exhibitions long have become a popular experience. Art shows are a natural draw – they introduce visitors to original works. It is what it is – here is the work of art and there is a title and annotation next to it. Such explanations may help to decode hidden messages or ignite our own imagination in ways that are completely contradictory to artists’ original intentions. Such evocative encounters are based on interpretations rather than facts. But how would one attract interest to presentations about a person’s life, an event, a movement, a book, a building, or a film? How do you tell a story and leave plenty of space for visitors’ imagination? That’s when exhibition curators and designers rely on employing such techniques as storytelling, representation, and, of course, exhibition design.
The Museum of the Moving Image in New York utilises these know-hows in presenting all of its shows. Currently it is hosting a blockbuster exhibition Envisioning 2001: Stanley Kubrick's Space Odyssey, which will remain on view here until July 19. The show is devoted entirely to the 1968 epic science fiction film by legendary director Stanley Kubrick (1928-1999). The exhibit is an in-depth look at the creative process and insights behind what many authoritative film critics see as a true masterpiece and some even regard it as the greatest film ever made.
2001 is a traveling show that was originally presented at the Deutsches Filminstitut & Film museum in Frankfurt to celebrate the film’s 50th anniversary. New York is the first stop in North America. The displays are created from international contributors, the Stanley Kubrick Archive at the University of the Arts London, and the museum’s own extensive collection that numbers more than 1,30,000 objects. The key part of the show is the film itself, which is taken apart into half a dozen short clips that visitors are drawn to watch again and again throughout the space, subdivided into 10 interconnected darkened rooms of understated design.
The film’s fragments are shown on screens of various sizes and are accompanied by a wide-range of material – from storyboards, original sketches and correspondence, images, maquettes of spaceships, astronaut and ape-men costumes, and production stills with Kubrick’s annotations to transcript excerpts with dialogues between the main characters, popular scientific publications, bulky editing equipment, all kinds of fascinating props, and even the 1968 Academy Award for Best Visual Effects, posters, premier tickets, and testimonies about the film’s significance. One of them is from John Lennon, admitting that he saw the film ‘every week’.
The show seems to touch on every aspect of this meticulously crafted picture in motion. If you caught a glimpse of just about anything spotted in the film and ever wanted to examine it up close at your own pace, chances are you can find it on display here – whether you are interested in reading the instructions on how to use zero gravity toilet, admire the design of spacecrafts suspended overhead, and analyse various scenes, or even go through potential news headlines that the film creators imagined for the electronic edition of the New York Times (the newspaper’s real life website NYTIMES.COM was launched in 1996). However, what is crucial in this show is that the film is not explained and, therefore, remains intriguing for all exhibition visitors – those who watched it numerous times already or still plan to see it after the show for the first time.
In addition to a wide variety of screening series, public programmes with guest speakers, workshops, and tours the museum’s 267-seat Sumner M. Redstone Theater, itself envisioned as a space travel capsule and lit in cool blue light, presents weekly screenings of the 142-minute film (with an intermission) in its original 70mm format. The museum is also a great setting for contemplating on explorations of cosmic themes. Designed by New York-based Leeser Architecture and finished in 2011 within the existing 1920 building that used to house film studios, the interlocking sleek interiors are distinguished by polyester flooring, tunnel-like stairs, and edgy seating seamlessly integrated into tilted walls, all white with strategically painted or lit accents of bright blue and red colours.
Still, the most rewarding experience is watching Kubrick’s film itself. Nothing can replace that. The director typically based his films on books, but he could not find the one that would suggest the kind of story he was after – more based on science than pure fiction to be able to depict a not-too-distant future. The film that was launched just a year before Apollo 11 mission and first AI robot Shakey was created, has predicted such inventions as touchscreen tablets, robotics, and modern voice assistants Siri and Alexa, was a conscious departure from earlier science fiction fantasies.
It was developed in collaboration with sci-fi writer Arthur C. Clarke (1917-2008), who at the request of Kubrick came to New York from Sri Lanka where he lived to work on the script and novel concurrently. Together they envisioned numerous ideas and details with NASA engineers and designers, and as many as 40 commercial brands that appeared in the film, including IBM, Hilton, Parker Pen, Bell, Nikon, Pan Am, and Olivier Mourgue’s 1965 bent steel tubing red Djinn Chairs, commonly referred to as the ‘2001’ chairs (one of them is displayed in the show). The film was released before Clarke’s novel, which explains a number of discrepancies between the two.
Hypnotic, confidently slow, and calculated to be moderately ahead of its time, Kubrick’s visually stunning journey is accompanied by divinely penetrating music by Aram Khachaturian and Strauss, both Johann and Richard, only occasionally interrupted by few dialogues that are unremarkable, for the most part. Following the Odyssey, structured as a three-part story of evolution, discovery, and the journey into the unknown, we are grappled with fundamental questions about human origins, our destiny, search for intelligent life beyond earth, and what is becoming acutely sensitive in our own time, the relationship between the human and machine. Not merely a documentary about the future, the film touches us emotionally, philosophically, and even spiritually. We are both proud of human ingenuity and feared of our own potential discoveries, such as the power of AI that may reveal one day that it has a conscience of its own. We realise that we, humans are fundamentally a link between apes and yet, undiscovered higher intelligence. Grand thoughts apart, we also find pure joy simply witnessing the romance of space travel, gracefully unfolding in front of us in ways we have never seen before nor since Kubrick.
Why do we go back to see 2001 over and over and over? Surely not for its one-track acting and baffling finale. We return to it because the very possibility of its interpretations free us to carom off into the greatest of all architecture: the universe itself. – American science fiction writer, Ray Bradbury
And in his own words, Kubrick tells us, “It is time to break away from the clichés of monsters and madmen. There will be dangers in space–but there will also be wonder, adventure, beauty, opportunity, and sources of knowledge that will transform our civilisation and the voyages of the Renaissance brought about the end of the dark age.”
The film’s timely rediscovery for older audience and introduction to first-time viewers celebrates the magic of exploration of space, which is being renewed in this summer’s four Mars missions to be undertaken by NASA, European-Russian team, China, and the United Arab Emirates. All four efforts are expected to land on the Red Planet in early 2021. The film will continue to inspire and influence generations of writers, cinema directors, designers, artists, architects, engineers, and inventors to keep pursuing new frontiers and fearlessly looking and dreaming ahead.