Schinkel Pavillon, Berlin
19 March – 23 July 2023
Lester is the absent protagonist of Philip K. Dick’s 1955 short story, ‘Human Is’. An abusive husband, he leaves for a research trip on a distant planet to study toxins and returns a caring and attentive partner to Jill. It transpires that an alien has seized Lester’s body. Jill decides to keep the impersonator, whose notion of human relationships was learned through heavy consumption of 1950s romance novels, the type of cheap paperbacks written by frustrated American women newly relegated to the kitchen after the relative emancipation afforded them by the Second World War. I expected the exhibition ‘Human Is’ at the Schinkel Pavillon, which borrows Dick’s title, to be an exploration of scientist-husbands’ toxic masculinity, or a call to abandon marriage for interspecies sexual experimentation. Instead, the show presents 19 artists whose work probes humanity, the exhibition text reads, “as a contestable and reversible category.”
Mike Kelley’s mixed-media sculpture, Kandor 5 (2007) dominates the first room. It looks like what it refers to, a glowing futuristic rock city, shrunk to a fraction of its original size and captured beneath a large bell jar. The ‘Kandor’ series is named after the capital of Krypton, a fictional planet tragically destroyed, leaving Superman stranded on Earth. In an adjacent alcove, Sidsel Meineche Hansen’s CGI animation, SECOND SEX WAR ZONE (2016) shows the virtual character EVA v3.0 having extremely uninteresting penetrative sex. In both works, alienation is figured by a nonhuman element.
Like Hansen, Ian Cheng’s Emissary Sunsets The Self (2017) is focused on simulated sensation and algorithmic encounter. Cheng’s animation employs a video game engine to render a world set several millennia in the future. Its virtual environment is governed by a bored artificial intelligence named MotherAI that is trying to die by destabilising the game-world’s ecosystem. Both CGI realms are saturated by a latent nihilism absent from Dick’s science fiction.
Joachim Bandau’s fiberglass and polyester resin sculptures, which surround the giant screen on which MotherAI performs her radical mutations in code, do not lighten the mood. Wasserwerfer (1974) and Schwarzes ruhendes Schlauchmonstrum (1972) are the despondently grotesque offspring of the postwar human drive to automation and medical prosthetics. Formally juxtaposed to these, the two artworks that come closest to Dick’s thesis are Sandra Mujinga’s Love Language (2) and (3) (2023). Made of aluminium and steel, these sculptures resemble armor for elephant trunks, an impression confirmed by Mujinga’s source material, which includes physiognomic strategies animals develop to make themselves imperceptible to predators. The figures pay homage to another foundational author of the sci-fi genre, Octavia Butler, whose trilogy Lilith’s Brood explores the existence of beings genetically manufactured to combine alien Onkali genetic material with that of humans to eliminate some of humanity’s more destructive characteristics.
‘Human Is’ gives form to a deep insecurity about the status of humans today, but it pivots more on humans’ vulnerability to technological and organic difference rather than any productive sense of mutability. Further, the science fiction underpinning the project is based on literature produced in relation to the Cold War. Today’s science fiction poses the problem of the human quite differently, with many in the field now imagining ‘humanity’ as a political category to which certain rights pertain rather than an essential form of consciousness. Arkady Martine’s masterful A Memory Called Empire (2019) revolves around a small colony that secretly breeds highly evolved human-machine hybrid beings to resist normative hegemony represented by empire. In N. K. Jemisin’s The City We Became (2020), superhuman avatars for New York’s five boroughs are locked in an existential struggle with evil developers for the soul of the city. Ann Leckie’s multi-book series centres on the moral awakening of an artificial-intelligence-cum-space-warship named Ancillary Justice and tells the story of her revolt against the inhumanity of her human emperor in defence of a diverse understanding of sentience.
In other words: sci-fi’s main anxiety at present is the human capacity to relegate life beyond the scope of its responsibility, not the inverse. This preoccupation reflects the rise of the far right and its pervasive and psychotic denial of human entanglement with everything else in the universe. Hansen’s VR sex dolls, Mike Kelley’s monuments to Superman’s loss, and Mujinga’s metallic defence mechanisms may correspond to yesterday’s fiction, but they do little to reflect on the fortress that is being erected around conservative definitions of humanity today.
Natasha Marie Llorens is an independent curator and writer based in Stockholm, where she is professor of art and theory at the Royal Institute of Art.