Over the past 40 years, photographer Connie Samaras has journeyed to some of the most extreme architectural sites in the world: a scientific outpost in Antarctica, the first private spaceport in the New Mexico desert, the artificial ski slopes and oases of Dubai, and ground zero in the first few days after 9/11.
Always clear-eyed and rigorously composed, her images document spaces where collective imaginings become reality. As such, they attest to the human will (or hubris) to remake the world in the image of our fantasies, whether they are daydreams or nightmares.
The exhibition “Connie Samaras: Tales of Tomorrow” at the Armory Center for the Arts presents seven series of works from the past 15 years. Armory curator Irene Tsatsos frames the exhibition as a look at “future imaginaries” — how we enact our visions of what is to come.
But the works could also be read in relation to familiar imagery from film and television, which probably amounts to the same thing: what is sci-fi cinema but a reflection of our fears and hopes for the future?
Many of Samaras’ photographs look uncannily like film sets. Domes peeking up from the Antarctic snow pack recall “Star Wars,” while perfectly symmetrical banks of emergency-orange lockers seem ripe for the arrival of a marauding, flesh-eating alien.
The roof of the terminal-in-progress at Spaceport America rises like the wings of a giant beetle emerging from the sand, and in the desert city of Dubai, blue-clad workers sit in rafts adrift on an enormous pool the color of mouthwash.
The depth of our investment in fantasy is made explicit in Samaras’ image of a “Star Trek”-themed casino in Las Vegas. It’s apparently only a short leap from a casino that looks like the Star Trek Enterprise to an actual spaceport that looks like something from the Jetsons. The world is putty in our hands.
The resemblance between fictional sites and real world settings is unnerving, and Samaras drives this sensation home in a couple of video pieces. One is simply a loop of a seal breathing through a hole in the ice.
Nostrils flaring, the animal breathes heavily and in just a few moments we understand better the harshness of the Antarctic climate, and the rarity of respite. Another video is a longer meditation on the backstreets and housing complexes of Dubai, where the workers who create its architectural wonders are housed like bees in a hive.
Samara’s images are heady cocktails of wonder and critique, but her latest series takes a different tack. “Edge of Twilight” comprises photographs taken at night in a women’s mobile home retirement park. This community, shot under the greenish glow of available lighting, also looks like a completely artificial environment: small, neat homes with pointed roofs and aluminum siding, carports and tiny yards decorated with rocks and cactuses.
It’s a miniaturized version of a sprawling Western suburb — a different, more modest kind of utopia. Yet contrasted with the grander schemes documented in the other series, we see another side of the fantasy-becomes-reality narrative. Achieving a dream needn’t involve remaking the world; it might only require a slight shift in the existing vocabulary of domestic bliss.
Armory Center for the Arts, 145 N. Raymond Ave., Pasadena, (626) 792-5101, through June 9. Closed Mondays. www.armoryarts.org
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