NIZHNY ARKHYZ, Russia — The telescope is powerful enough to see galaxies some 14 billion light years away — the edge of the observable universe — astronomer Yuri Balega told a group of journalists gathered inside the dome housing the Large Altazimuth Telescope. The occasion was a rare visit to the Special Astrophysical Observatory of the Russian Academy of Science, near the village of Nizhny Arkhyz, at an altitude of over 2,000 meters in the mountains of the northern Caucasus. The journey to reach the dome, located in the republic of Karachay-Cherkessia in southwestern Russia, involves a flight from Moscow and a few hours’ ride through the region’s vibrant landscape. Facing mountain ranges punctuated by rivers and a thick, impenetrable fog, the feeling of remoteness is overwhelming. The reason for visiting this unlikely setting, however, is the exhibition The Observatory, which is installed inside the dome of the telescope and throughout the adjoining scientific village of 1,000 inhabitants. It was orchestrated by Simon Mraz, the director of Moscow’s Austrian Cultural Forum and a rather piquant figure in the world of Russian contemporary art.
The premise of the exhibition doesn’t seem too ambitious at first: 2016 marks the 50th anniversary of the Special Astrophysical Observatory. For the occasion, Mraz — in a partnership with the newly established Gogova Foundation, the Austrian chancellery, and other organizations — invited a group of Russian and Austrian artists to visit the site and create work reflecting on the relationship between the observatory and the space race. The results range from the strange to the paradoxical, and expand the role of what art can do as a modifier of consciousness when placed outside of the neutral white cube, particularly in a context so rich that it actually risks swallowing the works whole. Between the 1970s and the ‘90s, the BTA-6 — a six-meter aperture optical telescope — was the largest telescope in the world, and scientific research on the history of the early universe continues there today, as Balega explained.
Mraz’s concept for the exhibition was open-ended enough for artists to approach this multilayered site with unclouded eyes. Irina Korina’s wall installations at the entrance of the scientific complex, “Svetilishcha” (2016) — the title derives from two Russian words, svetilo, a heavenly body that radiates light, and svyatilishche, a sacred place or altar — are sculptural tributes of sorts to the conquest of space built from everyday objects. Each forms a tiny, enclosed universe that visitors gaze into without ever grasping the entirety of what is within, particularly the elusive light sources. At times, Korina’s boxes resemble vernacular street shrines, adapting the theatrical manner in which nativity scenes are typically staged to depict major cosmological events. With this treatment of the context at hand, at the exhibition’s starting point, Korina’s work takes up a question that will recur throughout the show: What is the relationship between mythology and reason in science?
Nearby, in the village’s workshop, an installation by Anna Titova, “Why Work?” (2016), is dedicated to Bagrat Ioannisiani, the chief builder of the observatory, and local archaeologist Sergey Varchenko, both of whom were self-taught and about whom very little documentation exists, though their stories have long been told in the village. Titova’s neon work hanging from the ceiling is a reference to Aeolus, the wind god in Homer’s epics, a metaphor for the possibility of a modern hero. The piece highlights how different models of knowledge — rationality, but also mythology — can coexist in a place such as this, which is thoroughly defined by a scientific rigor. Titova’s discourse is perhaps far more elaborate than the execution of the work, but being an artist who is constantly working on the latent and the absent, dealing with figures of thought or history that are not immediately visible or that are retreating from the scene, her installation remains playful and committed to the contradictions with which utopian imaginaries, like the Soviet space program, are riddled.
In a derelict site that once housed the village’s first grocery store, leading architectural photographer Yuri Palmin’s newly commissioned series The Lower Site (2016) — which is how residents of the Special Astrophysical Observatory refer to their settlement — documents the coexistence and intimate relation between the physical reality of Soviet-era architecture, the imaginary of cosmological time, and everyday life in Nizhny Arkhyz. His work merges physical elements into composite wholes, thereby attempting to challenge the viewer’s consciousness about the built environment. The presentation of the work in the abandoned space, however interesting, distracts from the careful construction of Palmin’s images. It made me wonder whether the photos would have fared better if they’d been exhibited in a more neutral space, but there is no possibility for neutralized space in such a historically charged location.
It is precisely the neutrality of space that is being question in Svetlana Shuvaeva’s installation “A Thousand Trifles” (2016), hosted in a different building under a small dome. The piece occupies an entire room in which nothing actually seems to happen. The artist’s text for the piece begins: “You find yourself in a place about which you know nothing.” In this circular room, the artist is constructing an alternate physical reality — there are false doors, counterfeit objects, and imaginary throughways — about which the viewer must inquire to separate the fictional from the real. Beyond the artwork, Shuvaeva’s piece is a place of singular encounters, where the boundaries between a narrated reality and scientific precision become thinner and thinner. As an artwork in isolation from the rest of the exhibition, “A Thousand Trifles” is one of the most cleverly conceived interventions in the show. It evokes the kind of shift in perception that is implied in the transition from myth to science (and vice versa).
Several kilometers from the village, ascending the mountain on a dusty trail that crosses small streams and stretches of mud, on a small plateau overlooking the dramatic landscape at the heart of Muslim Russia, sits an abandoned, 10th-century church. Inside the miraculously well-preserved building, a rudimentary structure supports Alexandra Paperno’s “Abolished Constellations” (2016), perhaps the most breathtaking work in The Observatory. The 51 paintings on wooden panels represent the constellations (some of which had been proposed as early as Ptolemy) that were removed from the celestial map by the International Astronomical Union in 1922. The series began as a star-mapping project Paperno did in the early 2000s (a practice borne out of abstract painting). Her interest in the condition of celestial bodies led her almost accidentally to the abolished constellations.
“This list of 51 former constellations is the result of a peculiar bureaucratic process,” Paperno said of the project, “something that had never objectively existed was officially abolished.” Our current understanding of the sky, informed by the work done at the Special Astrophysical Observatory and places like it, makes it clear that the stars that seemingly form constellations might not even be stars at all, are too distant to bear any relationship to one another, or may have already died out even though their light is still traveling toward our visual field. During a studio visit in Moscow following the expedition to Nizhny Arkhyz, Paperno showed me the works on paper that initially formed the body of the project, which she then rendered on wooden panels to better withstand the conditions in the abandoned church.
The journey to the Special Astrophysical Observatory, which was conducted in a single day, was technically impossible to do on one’s own due to the distances and topographic difficulties separating artworks from one another. We eventually arrived at the telescope, near the peak of the mountain, which by that time in the late afternoon was covered in a thick blanket of fog. This gave the site the spectral aspect of a place between fiction and reality. As much as artists and the art world have a great deal of interest in science, science fiction, and space — think about the influence of Bruno Latour or the work of Trevor Paglen — how many artists have intervened at an actual, functioning, and historically significant telescope? Seeing the BTA-6 in person, it’s impossible not to feel fascinated and paralyzed by this gigantic structure, born from the contradictory dreams of a violent century. Perhaps inevitably, the art presented in this sublime place — which could have implicated the observatory and its history in a way far more pregnant with the supernatural forces of the place — is disappointing.
Nevertheless, the work of Austrian artist Eva Engelbert stands out. Her project, “Space Emblem for G.B.” (2016), makes reference to the Russian architect Galina Balashova, one of the masterminds behind the Soviet space program who was commissioned to design the interiors of Soviet space capsules, fulfilling the techno-futurist dreams of her time. Engelbert’s mixed media works reproduce Balashova’s drawings and watercolors as a tribute to the pioneering designer, whose work opened the eyes of a different generation to a new kind of spatial organization not tethered to the earth — and on which much art and literature has fed for decades. The tribute to Balashova is simple, very moving, and elegantly executed. It completes the exhibition’s engagement with the imagination by bringing the narrative down from a cosmological to a personal scale.
The Observatory is not just an exhibition, it is a pilgrimage and a test of the limits of what art can do. The long journey to the site and large distance between one artwork and the next make it as challenging as any biennial while proposing something just as thematically broad. The exhibition is ultimately asking the question of what the imagination can do and whether the modern imagination has become exhausted from being unable to understand our own capabilities and the far reach of the technology at our disposal. The radical utopias of the 20th century were not fueled by scientific curiosity alone; they were propelled by the Cold War, the arms race, and large-scale colonialism.
In the current moment of radical and widespread disenchantment, exhibitions such as this make us reconsider the possibility of utopian futures not only as moments of change but also as threats and ruptures in the tissue of the present. As the world becomes increasingly engulfed in protest movements and the desire for profound transformations, the utopian futures of the past reappear — not as solutions, but as attempts to solve the internal contradictions of the human condition by either overcoming them or destroying ourselves. However, it has been precisely the thinking about space what has fed art, religion, and science throughout the ages. Space serves as the transcendental horizon of what is both incommensurable and terrifying about human life; cosmological time as a structure becomes a metaphor for our own desire to outlive the Earth and, with it, our own history. The Observatory is exactly that, an observation point from where our own safe place in the world melts under our feet, revealing a vertiginous abyss.