Chapter 93 of The Empty City

By Andrew Looney

The show opened on a Saturday in early March. The opening was well attended, but was not as jammed as the Emperor and the other organizers had hoped. A large percentage of those attending were, as it turned out, Martians.

"Visions of the Martian Civilization" was shown at the Teldman Gallery, on the east side of the city, a block from the Randall Square station, on the purple line. Tall thin banners were hung on either side of the main entrance, proclaiming the show to the world. The title of the show ran diagonally along the side of the banners. The banner on the left was black and showed Mars floating in space; the right hand banner was red and depicted a stylized Martian cityscape, of spheres and pyramids.

The Teldman was a fine old gallery, with polished wood floors and high lofty ceilings. The sounds of the visitors' quiet discussions echoed through the halls, mixed in with the sound of hard-soled shoes clacking on hardwood floors.

The program described the concept of the show.

"All of the works presented in this show were done by artists from a group called The Children of Mars. This group of artists is united by one common factor: they all have red hair. The group believes that they are descendents of the ancient inhabitants of the Red Planet of Mars, who, unlike Earthlings, had red hair. The works in this show are thought to be recreations of elements of the ancient civilization on Mars, now long dead, revived through race memories buried in the artists' subconscious.

"Some parts of the show are organized according to what the artists believed was the use and function of their recreations. Other exhibits are not organized at all, simply because the original purpose of the items on display is not understood. Here, interpretation of the artifacts on display is left up to the imagination of the visitor."

The show occupied five rooms, four small rooms around a larger central chamber. The center room was the show's most impressive; it was a collaborative effort in which many of the Martian artists had participated, and it depicted a complete Martian city. As you stood in the center of the room, you saw ancient stone buildings, pyramids, spheres, and obelisks. The red surface of Mars stretched away from the city in all directions. A canal sliced out from the city to the north. The closest four structures, two spheres and two pyramids, were physically present, having been carved from huge blocks of stone. The structures further away, as well as the Martian desert, the horizon, and the sky above, were depicted in a vast and highly detailed trompe l'oeil painting. The door into the room opened through one of the buildings, a large pyramid, which gave the visitor the effect of stepping out of a building and into the open air of Mars.

The illusion was maintained down to the smallest detail. Fine red sand covered the floor of the exhibit. The room was under careful climate control, being kept darker and cooler than the other rooms of the museum. Additionally, actors formed part of the exhibit. A number of red haired people were paid to stay in the room full time and behave as real Martians might have behaved. In one corner, several Martians sat at a round stone table playing Icehouse, using a set made from naturally colored stone crystals. In another corner, one or two Martians sat busying themselves with various Martian "artifacts," acting as if they not only understood their functions but were actually utilizing them. The actors treated the visitors to the exhibit as if they were simply other Martians, wandering by a busy street corner in a city on Mars.

The outer exhibit halls were more traditional. The walls were hung with paintings, and sculptures squatted on pedestals and looked out from under glass cases. Some of the paintings presented realistic views of Martian life, others were far more abstract and non-representational, colorful arrangements of geometric shapes and so forth. The sculptures all tended to be bizarre objects which the artist clearly hoped would seem like normal items from Martian life. These included painted metal rods, spheres with holes at random points, cubic boxes containing odd substances, and pyramids inscribed with weird symbols.

In one room, under a large sign that said "Feel free to touch," was a table laid out with a number of interactive sculptures. The most popular of these was a Marxhausen Stardust, but others attracted some attention as well. A small heptahedron, made of purple metal, breathed out a fragrant mist. A black plastic rod felt strangely warm to the touch, while a similar white rod was distinctly cold. Other sculptures did nothing but were still pleasing to touch and hold, such as a small three sided pyramid, covered with strange raised symbols, and a glass sphere containing thousands of tiny gold metal beads.

Pauline's sculpture, "Martian Toaster," was on display in a glass case with a large pile of "Martian Money," this being small gold coins of various triangular shapes. On the wall behind this, a series of pen and ink drawings by the Martian Princess was on view. Also in this room were three Icehouse sets, and an explanation of the game and its origin.

The overall tone of the exhibit was one of historical mustiness rather than Avant Garde art. The Children of Mars wanted the exhibit to seem archaeological rather than creative, as if the objects on display were not mere works of art but were instead items actually recovered from the ruined cities on Mars and brought back to be displayed, like relics from the Mayans or from Ancient Egypt.

The gift shop sold souvenirs of the show, including T-shirts, reproductions of some of the sculptures, postcards of some of the paintings, deluxe Icehouse sets, and cloth bags filled with Martian coins.

Art critics gave the show mixed reviews. Most seemed to like the art very much, but felt that the artists took themselves too seriously.

Copyright © 1991 by Andrew Looney.

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