The Man Who Fell to Earth 76|22 – The Brooklyn Rail

Boiler in Williamsburg, Brooklyn opened during the pandemic in 2020 as an extension of the ELM Foundation’s programming, and invites contemporary artists to create installations and exhibitions in its space, previously managed by Pierogi Gallery from 2009 to 2015. The show in progress, The man who fell to the ground 76|22, by artist Tomas Vu, is his first solo exhibition in New York since 2008. The raw industrial space exudes an alien feeling, perfect for a show whose title recalls the central role of David Bowie in the eponymous 1976 film. gigantic geodesic dome with polychrome triangular panels welcomes the visitor to the center of the space, as if it were a temporary structure built to shelter on new ground. It is surrounded by six works on mirrors, thirteen works on paper, an etched lead surfboard and a painting on canvas hanging on the white walls of the gallery adjacent to exposed brickwork, industrial pipes and skylights 40 feet high.

Works on paper are made with layers of different printing techniques: photographic screen printing, laser cut decal stencils, digital prints and cyanotype transfers, with Vu citing the prints of Robert Rauschenberg as a major influence. Rearranged and found images include historical markers like the atomic bomb and 9/11, magazines from 1965 to 1975 focusing on the vision of the future moon landing, iconic album covers from the same period like those of Pink Floyd. The dark side of the moon and Jimi Hendrix electric ladyland Released in the UK, space-inspired brutalist architecture photography and more from the internet, combined into one-of-a-kind unique works.

There’s a balance between images that come from a dystopian, self-destructing post-apocalyptic world and those that offer insight into technological advancements in outer space to extend humanity. For example, the diptych 360|321, 2019 both have spectacular mushroom cloud cyanotypes from atomic bombs. On the left, this real-world image of an explosion is framed by a rainbow vinyl decal with oculus cutouts, morphing into other mundane sunsets and sunrises as the environmental light changes around us. On the right, the explosion is framed in silver tape and glued to a cyanotype of futuristic space-inspired architecture, mirroring the geodesic dome in front of us. The transposed circular cutouts allude to abstract holes, oculi in another domain. space odyssey, 2019 has a circular waterwheel structure, which is actually a photograph of a film set for Stanley Kubrick’s iconic film. The image is darkened on the left side, while the right side features rainbow vinyl lines outlining the support structure of the wheel, including one of the few paint and brush strokes. This treatment is also present in Hendrix, 2021 where we see a central point of perspective also as a cosmic explosion. In most of Vu’s images, the hand is largely removed in favor of machine-made marks. A rainbow vinyl oval shape appears a multitude of times throughout the works with mushroom explosions as in 08.07.45, 207|210, 347|400and 405|307|120 (all 2019), in an act of iconoclasm, both censoring but also asking us to take a closer look at the image and amplify its surreal feeling, drawing on the lineage and humor of artists conceptual like John Baldessari and his points on media images.

The large-scale mirrors hang high on the gallery walls, so you have to look up as you would into the sky, into space. A single astronaut floating in antigravity is screen printed on the mirror. The astronaut is printed with a photographic screen print using four different screens and colors, creating a multi-colored astronaut floating in mirror-reflective space with rainbow vinyl cutouts. There are various distorted reflections of raw industrial architecture, accentuating the feeling of a post-apocalyptic world that echoes in Vu’s works on paper. The image changes from every vantage point, as does the color on the decals as the light changes throughout the day. This astronaut is a symbol of the hope offered by humanity’s exploration of space, marked by Neil Armstrong’s moon landing in 1969, as nations grew in space and grew. continued to this day by über-rich businessmen.

In the prologue to his book The human condition, 1958 Hannah Arendt reflects on the Earth as the essence of the human condition and how the launch by the USSR of the Sputnik satellite in 1957 changed mankind. Continued by the spatial expansion between the two great world powers during the Cold War, this expansion would lead to an alienation of the Earth, and therefore to an alienation of our human condition. The eternal battle between technology, machine and man would lead to incredible individualism and loneliness, diminishing community. In response, Vu’s work is sensitive to fostering community and extends beyond walls and into collaborations with other artists through social sculpture, a form developed by Joseph Beuys, bringing communities together. The geodesic dome is there for visitors to play from a selection of vinyl records on a player and listen to eclectic music together while lingering in the communal chairs and sofas inside. Artists and poets Avishag Cohen Rodrigues, Yasi Alipour, Suzanne Herrera Li Puma, Phong H. Bui, Anselm Berrigan, Ama Birch, Ben Keating and Rirkrit Tiravanija have also staged performances interacting with her work.1

There is an ambivalence in the relationship between man and technology where it can both be a source of hope and progress, but also of destruction. Vu’s manipulation of various engraving techniques and digital images suggests a fascination with man-made machines while asking us to reflect on our surroundings, both through mirrors and by occupying space and time in the dome. In this industrial space, one could imagine landing on a new planet or walking among the detritus after an explosion, a great contrast to the posh bustle of Williamsburg.


  1. Vu has been collaborating with Tiravanija since 2014, which has made a barbecue, a commitment that Tiravanija has developed since the 1990s, where we come together and dialogue through the act of cooking.

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