San Francisco Art Shows Reveal a Future

Two exhibitions in San Francisco ponder what’s on tap for the human race, from eco-friendly architecture and floating cities to intergalactic getups and jet packs.

Vincent Callebaut evolves skyscrapers into eco-friendly “farmscrapers.”
Vincent Callebaut evolves skyscrapers into eco-friendly “farmscrapers.”

It’s fitting that a mimeograph of R. Buckminster Fuller’s cautionary 4D Time World is the first image one sees upon entering the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s eclectic, exuberant exhibition Far Out: Suits, Habs, and Labs for Outer Space. The futurist designer-architect’s chaotic print from 1928 warns of a planet plagued by strained resources and exploding population growth, where “2,000,000,000 new homes will be required in the next 80 years.”

“With all the collective buzz about the 50th anniversary of the historic moon landing and so much attention being paid to advances in human habitation in space, this felt like an important moment of looking back, but also a moment of looking forward,” says SFMOMA associate curator of architecture and design Joseph Becker, who brought the exhibition to life with Jennifer Dunlop Fletcher, the museum’s curator of architecture and design.

One of the many space suits on display in Far Out.
One of the many space suits on display in Far Out.

Inspired. Cavalier. Outrageous. Necessary. Far Out makes the case that actual space exploration, now in the hands of privatized competitors like SpaceX’s Elon Musk and Blue Origin’s Jeff Bezos—as well as in artists’ purely imaginative sci-fi visualizations of human habitation beyond the “final frontier”—is all of the above.

One of SFMOMA’s gallery walls is lined with American artist Rick Guidice’s whimsical 1970s NASA-commissioned paintings depicting self-sustaining neighborhood dwellings on satellite solar-power stations. Meanwhile, works by Bahamian artist Tavares Strachan, who spent more than a year undergoing astronaut training with NASA, “call attention to the disparities of who gets to go to space, who’ll be representative of humankind if we leave this world behind,” says Becker. In 2018, Strachan’s handcrafted 24-karat-gold urn depicting Robert Henry Lawrence Jr., the first NASA-trained African American astronaut, was launched from a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. (It’s still in orbit.) Strachan’s sculptural Finding My Way Home 1, a space suit that appears to be in midexplosion, dangles from SFMOMA’s ceiling.

Speaking of space suits, there are plenty: the exhibition is dominated by seven life-size replicas of the full-body suits and iconic globe helmets worn by astronauts on missions real and imagined. We see a reconstructed silver “Mark IV Model 3 Type 1 Mercury” Gemini suit from 1960, a refabricated “Clavius Base Space Suit” from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, and, nearby, an almost comically colorful “Umeko suit” in light green, complete with a red neckerchief, handcrafted by Spanish artist Cristina de Middel for her 2012 photo series The Afronauts.

While Far Out gets us to contemplate interplanetary solutions to our earthbound problems, another San Francisco exhibition, Survival Architecture and the Art of Resilience at the Museum of Craft and Design, asks us to rethink the foreseeable habitability of Earth (before we resort to living on Mars). Architects, designers, and artists address questions about shelter, food security, and access to safe water—and the creative solutions required in a world afflicted by natural disasters and climate change.

Mitchell Joachim’s Cricket Shelter.
Mitchell Joachim’s Cricket Shelter.

“Some of the designs are quite fanciful, and others stress functionality, but all of them emphasize how uniquely adept artists are at reenvisioning our changing world,” says Randy Rosenberg, the guest curator of the MCD exhibition and founder of Oakland-based Art Works for Change, which creates traveling art exhibitions that confront pressing social and environmental issues.

In response to our declining climate, Survival Architecture showcases everything from coats that transform into sleeping bags and are also water-resistant, self-heating, and upcycled from GM auto parts (EMPWR Coats, designed by the Detroit-based nonprofit Empowerment Plan) to furniture made by San Francisco “mycotect” Philip Ross, who forms dried fungi into superstrong water-, mold-, and fire-resistant building blocks.

Moving from land shelters to aquatic ones, Belgian architect Vincent Callebaut’s lily pad–inspired floating ecopolis is an amphibian city for up to 50,000 climate refugees. And Mitchell Joachim’s Cricket Shelter is a fanciful-looking yet altogether practical prototype of a curvilinear structure that’s also a sustenance-generating farm. (The food source? Crickets.)

Both exhibitions are reminiscent of a scene in The Martian where Matt Damon tries to grow potatoes on Mars without soil or water. “I’m left with only one option,” he says. “I’m going to have to science the shit out of this.” In other words, we need to keep designing.


• Through Jan. 20
• San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 151 3rd St., San Francisco


• Through May 3
• Museum of Craft and Design, 2569 3rd St., San Francisco

 Jessica Zack is a Bay Area journalist who writes about books, film, and visual culture.
Advertisement - Continue Reading Below
More From Premium