Wake The Sleepers
by Lisa Kirk and Keith Mayerson
essay for ArtUS issue 8 may-june 2005
Wake the Sleepers The all-pervasiveness of imagery associated with UFO phenomena in today’s media and visual culture is reason enough to cast doubt on the existence of an "out there," raising more fundamental questions. Is our generation grappling with a deep collective sense of loss and alienation, or do aliens really exist? During these formative years of the new millennium, at once apocalyptic and a renascence of sorts, art about transcendence is again resurfacing. Not unlike the Victorian infatuation with fairies, images of flying saucers and alien abductions seem to tap into a basic human desire to escape into other worlds, far beyond the reach of our given reality. Legions of artists have shared this obsession with outer space. To name only a few, James Turrell’s "ET" light environments, Mike Kelley’s and Jim Shaw’s alien grotesquerie, Gregory Crewdson’s surreal suburbia, and the otherworldly imagery of Force Field, Royal Art Lodge, and Assume Vivid Astro Focus all either directly or by inference draw on science fiction and the fantastic. Nowadays artists are increasingly exploring sci-fi fantasy, tinged perhaps with the old-fashioned modernist sublime, as a means of escaping traditional language into a new era of myth and mystery, for which the alien remains a potent metaphor. This growing movement of popular culture and fine art into UFO phenomena threatens to eclipse and even invalidate those "others" who truly believe in aliens and UFOs, and who strive to recreate their experiences in narrative and art. A cursory glance through that history is revealing. Several years after the first modern UFO sighting in 1947, the first "close encounter" was reported involving Barney and Betty Hill, who claim to have been abducted in 1961. Many believed their story of being taken by little gray men with big eyes who put tubes up their noses and other orifices. Later on, reports of personal encounters with UFOs and aliens began to surface all over America and the rest of the world. Even stranger, these often vivid accounts of abduction (mostly extracted under hypnosis) are remarkably consistent, irrespective of the person’s age, the year of abduction, or the area where it occurred. These eerily similar stories have several interesting and striking themes: * people being "taken" by floating through windows. * bystanders being "switched off" as abductees glide upwards into saucers filled with gray aliens, taken into chambers and forced to remove their clothes. * abductees being led to a glistening table where a large praying-mantis-like alien leans over and stares into their eyes, triggering visions of the apocalypse and other scenes. * sexual contact occurring with aliens, or machines stimulating the sexual organs of victims, taking men’s sperm and implanting it in alien eggs to be raised in large jars. * women being impregnated with tubes, leading to mysterious pregnancies and miscarriages. * abductees being forced to console brilliant, large-eyed hybrid "children" under alien supervision. To get to the source of what has led to all this resurgence of interest in little gray men with Bambi eyes, we need to begin with Budd Hopkins, who was one of earliest to document abductee testimonials, hypnosis sessions, medical tests, and (later on) support groups. His books, now cult classics, were some of the first to be written on the subject, and have been instrumental in galvanizing public interest in the uncanny similarities that exist between these cases of alien abduction. Budd is also a famous modernist artist of the New York School, although he denies that there is any link between his alien research and his work as an artist. He now does post-minimalist shaped canvases resembling the front grills of saucer-like vehicles and what he calls his "Guardians," fan-shaped color-field stretchers that could almost be viewed, given an alien filter, as iconic geometric beings. In 1964, three years after the first published accounts of Barney and Betty Hill, Budd and his wife were driving through Cape Cod when they sighted a UFO. They were on their way to an art party, where they later discovered that many of their friends had seen the same thing. To their surprise, few could explain what they had seen. Not long afterwards, Hopkins, now fascinated with these sightings, published his first piece in the Village Voice, after which he received numerous letters from readers desperately seeking help or just wanting to share their stories. He soon discovered that regressive hypnosis was the key to unlocking memories buried deep in the subconscious of these victims. In fact, Hopkins is almost single-handedly responsible for creating what is today essentially a global industry for recording and transcribing these experiences collected under hypnosis, and for making them widely accessible. Due to his broad popular success, Hopkins has since formed the Intruders Foundation, (www.intrudersfoundation.org) which is now the main international conduit for research and assistance in alien abduction cases. To explore further the relevance of this phenomenon to art production, readers should visit the Alien Alley Art Gallery website (www.alienalley.com), a virtual Guggenheim of ghostly ghouls contributed by people from all over who fervently make art, as Richard Dreyfuss does in "Close Encounters", "because they have to." At this site we discovered and then contacted Jeff Westover, one of our favorite artists outside the mainstream art world. Westover deals with alien themes in his work, and believes that he really was abducted. A Borders bookstore employee from the Midwest, Westover’s color pencil drawings of cool, gentle aliens and of his own semi-nude body would look at home in most young galleries in Chelsea. However, for sheer synaesthetic effect, they surpass many glitter-and-glue offerings from the new psychedelia set. Perhaps what is most interesting about Hopkins, Westover, and the whole range of individuals inspired by aliens is that this form of creativity has important parallels with contemporary visionary work about the unfathomable. Through abductee art, writing, fashion, and music, artists can explore and communicate fantastic images and ineffable realities to express larger society’s innermost fantasies, feelings, and nightmares. As Westover says, "These alien beings have a way of breaking the ego down, like a sort of modern-day Copernican Revolution of the psyche. There is both a literal and figurative/emotional experience of being taken out of our everyday lives and lifted up far above the pettiness and violence of our modern society. This phenomenon seems to be an attempt to jumpstart our own internal evolutionary processes. Also, I’ve had direct interactions with these beings that have told me time and time again to ‘wake the sleepers,’ almost as if this is meant to be my mantra." Alien phenomena speak to a segment of society looking for elevated personal and spiritual meaning, one that our traditional belief systems no longer seem able to provide. In this countercultural vein, it’s no wonder that the defining image of outer space occurs during the psychedelic sequence in "2001: A Space Odyssey" The big-eyed, Silly Putty alien that has reappeared in films and stories like a mantra ever since represents both the search for eternal youth and a benign, higher force that lies forever beyond.