Liliya Lifanova’s Rumour from Ground Control is a modestly beautiful exhibition. The title was appropriated from a David Bowie song in which a character called Major Tom takes off in a tin can into outer space, to the edge of the known universe. Lifanova’s installation, covering both floors of Rooster Gallery, was made as a response upon recently returning to Kyrgyzstan, a former part of Soviet Russia and where she was born and raised before coming to the United States, in 1995. For Lifanova, the places she revisited exist at the edge of her known universe.
Her complex constructed installation consists of handcrafted objects, including parchment banners, bundles of ceramic sticks, belts made of sewn fabric and canvas with cast concrete buckles. In the basement, there are towering triangular pedestals holding hundreds of tiny rolls of sewn canvas dipped in concrete, along with unglazed ceramic plates holding unmixed cement dust and placed directly on the floor beside them.
While Lifanova’s work emerges out of an earlier involvement with conceptual art, here the spatial continuity of her materials and signs become essential to the creation of an overall mood. The banners upstairs, resembling flags, are made from rolls of parchment fastened to wooden poles; they are placed diagonally and equidistantly on the left wall as one enters the space. Each banner features obscure militaristic signs, such as the Czech hedgehog, which is comprised of three linear elements that function as an anti-tank device. On the right side of the gallery is a group of bound ceramic sticks resembling fasces (the symbol of fascism).
Downstairs, the neutral brown, black, and white colors prevail in various sets of repeated objects, such as the belts flattened out on the floor and the triangular towers with their astute rows These objects are laid out carefully, as inversions of one another, but without any particular symbolic meaning. They are signs without a direct referent.
The installation seems to be a kind of semiotic puzzle that’s related to the artist’s past but somehow liberates her position in the present. The message at the edge of the known universe is represented in a highly organized manner, and might be seen and understood the way one would read a text where the language itself becomes the content.
One might be inclined consider these objects in terms of their semiotic forms, their visual likenesses, yet they carry divergent meanings within the context of the whole. For example, the Czech hedgehog, visible on a banner upstairs, reflects the logic of the objects downstairs: both suggest formal arrangements within a limited range of organizational possibilities. These works read as transcultural signs, in that they suggest the manner in which one culture (Kyrgyzstan) becomes absorbed by another (Soviet Russian), and then is finally let loose again.
Lifanova’s installation reads like a letter from Kyrgyzstan, a letter to herself trying to recall her past. The design and layout of the various repetitive objects and symbols — the banners, belts, and tiny scrolls (like secret messages from the past) — are impressive as a kind of appellation that calls out to the viewer. One feels a strong urge to decipher meaning, whether or not it is easily specified.
Liliya Lifanova: Rumour from Ground Control continues at Rooster Gallery (190 Orchard Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through October 18.