Alien Nation

Artvehicle 6/Review

17th November 2006 — 14th January 2007

When faced by a reality they can't deal with, human beings tend to rely on fantasy to make life more palatable. Take the Cold War and the UFO craze. The arms race brought with it threat of a conflict so horrific that for many a retreat into fantasy - the idea that visitors from outer space were the real problem, rather than thermonuclear bombs - was the preferred option. All those creepy films like The Day The Earth Stood Still, Invasion of the Bodysnatchers, The Thing, they were simply ways of working through the psychological dilemma of Possible Imminent Destruction for a population that was otherwise powerless to influence events.

Alien Nation, at the ICA until 14th January, claims to shine a light on some of the parallels between Cold War hysteria and contemporary fears about the 'other'. With themes as potent as these to play with, it should be able to pack a decent punch.

The show is divided between the ICA's lower and upper floors, the second space reached via a bit of a detour through the café. The first room, which is painted an ill-advised day-glo orange, contains works by eight artists. Visitors are welcomed by a group of friendly extra-terrestrials (Yinka Shonibare's Dysfunctional Family) whose skin, rather than the clammy green you might expect, is made from brightly coloured African cloth. Close by a collection of Christmas decorations stuck together in various ways to look like strange beings or possibly just really weird Christmas decorations (Marepe's Untitled). Across one section of the right-hand wall is a black and white mural (Mario Ybarra Jr.'s Brown and Proud) that combines elements of Diego Riviera, Star Wars and LA street gang graffiti to confusing effect. A potentially fun trio of works by Eric Wesley, including a set of goggles linked to a CCTV camera in one corner of the gallery and a roving miniature blimp were all out of action (if I was the artist I'd want a quiet word with the gallery technicians - though the blimp had apparently been tethered as the result of a health and safety assessment). With Laylah Ali's naïve alien drawings and Henna Nadeem's photo collages the place could have passed for a nursery-cum-community centre in the middle of a chaotic open day. And there was I expecting to be chilled by a blast of Cold War paranoia.

Upstairs is a bit more like it. Ellen Gallagher and Edgar Cleijnes create something quite sinister with an array of old-fashioned cine-projectors and an effectively eerie soundtrack. In another room Hew Locke's incredible men-of-war, pirate vessels tacked together from plastic swords, dolls, toy guns, beads and God knows what else, sail towards a future far removed from the fuel-cell and warp-drive vision of traditional sci-fi.

Overall though, the show doesn't really satisfy. The 1950s 'It Came from Outer Space' aesthetic is very appealing, and there's a lot that could be said about the War on Terror in particular as a successor to the Cold War. But instead of reds under the bed the show tries to sell an all too vague notion of race as the bogeyman of our times and to my mind this doesn't really cut it. Add to that some problems with presentation (Wesley's work, a generally cluttered feeling in the lower gallery, that day-glo paint) and Alien Nation begins to seem like a bit of a missed opportunity.


12 Carlton House Terrace
London SW1Y 5A

Daily, 12pm-7.30pm
Late opening on Thursdays until 9pm

Alien Nation —  Detail, Hew Locke, Golden Horde  © Marcus Leith, 2006, Alien
            Nation, ICA, 2006  All images courtesy the artists and the ICA

Detail, Hew Locke, Golden Horde
© Marcus Leith, 2006, Alien Nation, ICA, 2006
All images courtesy the artists and the ICA