It is 1968 and the visionary who inspired the iconic geodesic dome at Expo 67 in Montreal, is paying a visit to London, Ont.
For six days, architect R. Buckminster Fuller meets with artists, planners, industrialists, professors and students at Western University. Together they brainstorm a techno-utopian future of the planet he calls Spaceship Earth.
Now, Western professors and co-curators Kirsty Robertson and Sarah Smith are revisiting the ideas of Fuller’s conversations in From Remote Stars, a major exhibition opening at Museum London on March 5 and running until May 15.
The exhibition is not just a retrospective of the quirky visionary’s visit. It is also a closer look at how yesterday’s inspiration for a sustainable planet has evolved into today’s complex reality of global interdependence, big data, artificial intelligence and climate change.
The exhibit brings together the work of 22 artists, from the 1960s to the present. These works range from videos to photography, painting and sculpture, and feature a long-lost and recently discovered audio recording of a dinnerlecture to local luminaries.
“We’ve included a lot of artists who have been thinking about the same kinds of questions: what the future might look like, how we can adapt to the climate crisis, what this planet is, and what it can become,” said Robertson, a visual arts professor and director of museum and curatorial studies.
“I’d love people to come to this exhibit and see how research can be conveyed through art and curation,” Robertson said.
Fuller came to London at the request of Western students who were impressed by the architect’s sweeping, almost mystical, views on sustainability, shelter, transportation and human nutrition.
It was Fuller who brought the geodesic building form to life, through structures as modest as his own home and as massive as the ‘Man and His World’ American pavilion at Montreal’s Expo 67 (a building later to become the MontrealBiosphère).
An inveterate inventor of portmanteaux, Fuller created words like dymaxion (dynamic maximum tension) and tensegrity (tensional integrity) to describe how his futuristic vehicles and buildings maintained structural strength and flexibility with minimal energy.
Fuller was an early proponent of treating the planet as a limited resource to be shared among all its inhabitants; that solar and wind were viable energy sources; and that doing more with less was always best.
Yet his vision was also reflective of a 1960s male, white, middle-class version of utopia, said Smith, a professor in Western’s Faculty of Media and Information Studies and Canada Research Chair in Art, Culture and Global Relations.
Fuller’s quest was to improve “modern man” along with the Earth. Through good design, he believed, the planet could become a place of co-operation and mutual bounty for all.
And to Fuller (who happily travelled the world by car or plane, without knowing their impact on the planet), cities ideally were places to visit rather than places to live.
This modern show at Museum London is more inclusive and expansive and, at the same time, grounded in current realities that illustrate both Fuller’s brilliance and limitations.
“I hope people appreciate the mix between historical context and the idea of looking at the past as one way to grapple with the present and the future,” Smith said of the exhibition.
Voice from the past
The exhibition includes artifacts of Fuller’s visit such as a dymaxion map, a two-dimensional cardboard projection of the Earth folded into an icosahedron multi-dimensional globe that became known as the Fuller projection.
The show also includes photos from Fuller’s London visit, – holding court in earnest conversation with some of the city’s best and brightest at Western’s Althouse College, for example.
And, significantly, a cornerstone of the exhibition is a previously undiscovered recording of Fuller’s speech at the London Hunt Club in 1968. Robertson found the audiotape in an Art Gallery of Ontario archive of the late London artist Greg Curnoe, who recorded the speech from his table.
While the tape is filled with the ambient noise of cutlery and the occasional exhalation of cigar and cigarette smoke, the speech is vintage Fuller, Robertson said: an unbroken thread of seemingly disparate ideas connected in logical steps to a larger whole. The exhibition’s title, From Remote Stars, is derived from this address.
The speech, now digitized, is a centrepiece of a three-episode podcast hosted by artist Christina Battle accompanied by in-depth interviews with novelist Kerri Sakamoto and art historian Eva Díaz, and artists, curators and scholars in discussions of mythmaking, land, belonging, travel, decolonization and climate crisis.
An entire wall is dedicated to a mural, designed by Western artists Shurui Wang and Anahí González Teran, of Fuller-esque geometric tensegrity shapes. (In keeping with the low-impact theme, it’s made of paper, not petroleum-derived vinyl. “A big exhibition can still be curated with environmental awareness,” Robertson noted.)
For passersby outside the museum, video artwork showing two women languidly dancing on the edge of a river, by Jessica Karuhanga, plays on Museum London’s vast windows facing the forks of the Thames River.
Cassandra Getty, curator of art at Museum London, said the museum and gallery strives to have a balance of works and exhibitions significant to London and to Canada.
And with this show’s presentation of global ideas, From Remote Stars provides additional international flavour, Getty said. “There are all sorts of artists who tell different stories, local and planetary, within this exhibition,” she said.
The show originally was planned to open two years ago but the intervening pandemic delay has meant it is even more detailed than originally planned.
It may illuminate for area residents something of the London they used to know, along with the city that could have been or could yet be.
Fuller originally was invited here as London grappled with a proposal to build a freeway downtown and, it was hoped, Fuller would end his visit by writing a report that would help mould the city of the future.
No one has ever found evidence Fuller wrote such a report. But his visit did shape the city’s thinkers and activists. “People were so excited by his ideas and the way he presented them,” Robertson said.
“He was a larger-than-life figure,” added Smith