Philippe Parreno’s The Boy From Mars is “science fiction.” Better yet, it’s “architecture fiction”. There is no Martian boy in this film. It does feature a rather weird building, however. In some solemn, rural, Southeast Asian retreat, the dark, marshy earth is infiltrated by unearthly lights. A constellation of UFOs wanders the zenith, a pack of gentle flame-beings from beyond. The wind-tattered storm clouds are some how frozen stiff against the sky.
We see no human beings, but some intelligent entity has an agenda in this place. A strange orange glow infests an alien structure. This ragged, rambling creation looks comfortably at home in an Asian rice paddy, but, after a closer look, it makes no sense. Could it be a broken greenhouse? A geodesic aircraft hangar? It is multi-legged like a caterpillar, it has flapping, tattered plastic walls, and rigid stalks for rafters. Plus, it radiates a thick, warm light. This place is clearly unfit for any merely human habitation. Inside this place, some entity has harnessed a patient water buffalo to an electrical generator. It’s a bizarrely ingenious device of weights, light bulbs and pulleys straight off the set of Spielberg’s E.T. the Extraterrestrial. The gentle soundtrack cannot distinguish between the sighing of the wind and the calm grinding of this alien machinery. Exotic plants dance on the windy slopes of the hills. A healing rain comes, eventually. The foggy sky resumes its motion, the sun peeps in, glares at the invaded Earth, and quietly retreats. Everything seems in good order. The placid water buffalo our hero, if this piece has one calmly endures a close encounter with a swaying alien light beam.
Friends from far away show up: a set of blurry, two-legged tourists, invading the spidery building. They move slowly and meditatively behind their steamy walls of glowing film. Although they’re not human, one gets the impression that they’ve earned the right to visit. Maybe they’ll settle down.
The Boy From Mars is about the joys of being alien. Philippe Parreno (playing the intriguing role of “The Boy from Paris”) was able to vent his customary ingenuity on the Thai artist’s retreat of his friend and collaborator, Rirkrit Tiravanija. This locale was anonymous, off the electrical grid, basically a fertile patch of mud in the middle of nowhere. Anything and nothing was possible there. So, Parreno and architect Francois Roche invaded this timeless Asian farm and boldly created an architectural freak. It’s the hybrid of a science fiction film-set, a green design showpiece, an assembly hall, and an international artists’ squat. Plus, it’s literally powered by a water buffalo. It must be well nigh perfect if Martians happen to drop by.
Furthermore, this construction, whose artsy French origin couldn’t be any more alien to Thai rurality, suits its locale remarkably well. Perched in a Chiang Mai rice field, it looks as imperturbable as a pig in mud. This work is especially apt for a period in which machines from Earth are invading Mars. As I write this, Spirit and Opportunity, those twin American hot-rods, are vigorously filming the unresisting Martian landscape. As video performances go, that scientific stream of images from that alien planet: those dull, eroded Martian hills, smears of ancient salt, spinning mechanical drills, ferocious close-ups of Martian pebbles and sand…that is hard for artists to match, but The Boy From Mars makes an attempt
In our epoch, Mars finally became banal. Now we humans are importing all its strangeness. Thanks to this Parreno piece, I can appreciate that simple truth. —Bruce Sterling