‘Unusual’ Doesn’t Even Begin to Describe This Exhibition
Progressland, the latest exhibit at the small and unusual New York gallery Chamber, draws its name from Walt Disney. For the New York World’s Fair in 1964, Disney created Progressland—a domed, three-story pavilion designed to show off all the ways electricity would advance society. General Electric sponsored it, but it kept with Disney’s vision of a technological utopia. He planned to bring Progressland to Disney World.
That never happened, but you can see the architectural model for it at Chamber until August. It’s one of many odd objects, which include a model of a Soviet-era spacecraft, a flint dagger that dates to between 2,400—1,700 BC, and a colorful modern-day ceramic urn. Exhibit curator Andrew Zuckerman calls the objects “the genesis of exploration and the human desire to look beyond what we know.” Last year, Zuckerman, a photographer, curated Human | Nature, an exhibit that examined what he calls humanity’s primordial origins—where we came from, as it were. Progressland addresses were we’re going.
“Lost in Traffic Space Glove” by Studio Molen, finished this year.
The exhibit answers that question using artifacts of human achievement and artistic metaphors, an approach that mirrors Zuckerman’s career. He spent four years working with top-tier design executives at Apple, whose devices, many believe, are and will be considered artifacts of human achievement. Zuckerman has since 2013 dedicated himself to his eponymous photography and filmmaking studio, focusing on metaphorical explorations of humanity’s relationship to the natural world. His main body of work consists of portraits of exotic animals. “We’re trying to get rid of the ‘us’ and ‘them’ relationship,” he says. Zuckerman’s approach is to render animals against bright white backdrops instead of their natural habitats. It’s a neutral setting, rather than an exotic one.
Progressland pays particular attention to space exploration. There’s a packet of tomato seeds that spent most of the 1980s on a space shuttle, a NASA thermal blanket, and a vintage Russian spacesuit glove. Each is classified as an artifact of human achievement. Zuckerman found these items scouring “weird auctions” in Texas and Florida, where astronauts’ families often unload space paraphernalia, including a canister of film from an Apollo 17 lunar mapping project. Zuckerman stitched the images together to create a tableau of the moon that doesn’t look quite right. “It’s not a powdery gray,” he says. “It’s an astrological feel, like stars. It elicits wonder.”
Lighting designer Satoshi Itasaka built a massive hanging lamp, with copper wires that snake around the outside of the glass orb, connecting to light bulbs within. Zuckerman says the wires and bulbs are meant to look like sperm meeting eggs—a neatly packaged metaphor for the beginning of human life.
That sense of wonder permeates the show. Many artists created works specifically for Progressland. Ceramicist Peter Pincus made a white vase with rainbow-hued stripes, suggesting that an urn should celebrate life, not mourn it. Lighting designer Satoshi Itasaka built a huge hanging lamp, its copper wires snaking around the glass orb to connect with the bulbs within—something Zuckerman says brings to mind sperm meeting an egg. It’s a neatly packaged metaphor for the beginning of life. Designer Mimi Young offers a modern adaptation of the traditional Japanese tea house, a piece designed to encourage contemplative thinking. Visitors are welcome to step inside for a moment of meditation.
Progressland offers much to see and ponder, but few hard facts or clear propositions. “It’s not exactly about the next material we’ll use,” Zuckerman says, “but the spirit of where we’re going, and the impulse to try new things and do things that haven’t been done before.” That could be anything from exploring a new frontier to stepping into a tea house and thinking quietly.