BERLIN — Take a ride with Halil Altındere through his Martian fantasy. The acclaimed Turkish artist’s newest solo exhibition, Space Refugee, on view at the Neuer Berliner Kunstverein (n.b.k.), is a serious and ironic take on the possibility of Earthly pilgrims colonizing the infamous Red Planet — with a twist.
The entire exhibition is more or less an homage to one person: Muhammed Ahmed Faris. In 1987, Faris became a national hero after going into space with the Soviets — he was only the second Arab and the first Syrian to accomplish the journey. In the decades after he returned to Syria, Faris used his fame to become a colonel in the Syrian Air Force, a post he held until his defection to Istanbul on August 4, 2012, following the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War. Since going into exile, Faris has taken on a new mission: drawing attention to his fellow refugees. As an active member of the Syrian National Coordination Committee for the Force of Democratic Change, a bloc of 13 left-wing political parties opposed to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, Faris has spent the last four years speaking about nonviolent resistance and the importance of space missions as forms of intercultural and scientific exchange.
Altındere envisions life on the fantastical and far-off Martian world from the perspective of a planetary rover, bouncing over the rocky terrain of Mars. An actual Mars Rover, developed by NASA, landed on Mars in August 2012 — coincidently, the same month and year that Faris went into exile.
And it is his voice, more so than Altındere’s, that resounds the loudest and the strongest in the exhibition.
The exhibit centers on a film that uses footage of Faris speaking to a group of schoolchildren about the importance of space exploration and its ability to mediate national conflicts. The film juxtaposes comments he has given about his opposition to Assad, interweaving these with computer-generated imagery imagining what a civilization on Mars might look like, replete with beautiful sweeping red rocky mountainous landscapes. The film also incorporates experts from NASA who are interviewed about the development of technology underlying Mars exploration. Imagining a kind of whimsical and fictitious world, the film explores Faris’s life as a kind backdrop relief to utopian images of life on the Red Planet.
Accompanying the film are oil paintings depicting Faris with heroic, sweeping brushstrokes — sort of nouveau Socialist Realism. The exhibition also contains a convincing silicone bust of Faris, situated beside an installation of specially designed spacesuits from a fictitious “Palmyra Space Mission,” which the artist uses to substantiate the exhibition’s central theme: life on Mars for Earth’s refugees.
It’s been a busy summer for Altindere, who is best known for humorously manipulating Turkish state documents and official insignia such as flags, passports, and banknotes. His works have been shown widely, including at exhibitions like Documenta XII, Manifesta 4, and the 9th Berlin Biennale. And, in parallel with the exhibition at n.b.k., Altındere installed a new work of photography called “Köfte Airlines” at HAU Hebbel am Ufer. That piece is a large-scale outdoor photograph of an airplane taking off, with refugees seated on top of its roof and on its wings.
This photograph dovetails with the other main theme in Space Refugee, which is part science-fiction and part forced optimism: an attempt to envisage the possibility of a planetary exodus for today’s increasingly large and diverse refugee population. It’s a sentiment that, on the surface, is treated in a kind of humorous and ironic way, but which ultimately reveals itself as a kind of refugee romanticism.
Altındere is no stranger to controversial subjects. Since the 1990s, he has used his art as a way of directly engaging with social issues at the forefront of the migrant crisis. His works often disentangle repressive nationalist and militarist themes, while also speaking directly and openly about the refugee crisis, which by now has displaced nearly half of Syria’s 22 million population, according to the latest statistics from the UN Refugee Agency.
With no ground, terra firma, or terrain left, Altındere seems to suggest that the only viable sanctuary left for refugees is a space capsule headed straight for Mars. It’s a gesture that felt somewhat empty, idealistic, and unprincipled — almost as if Altındere was treating the refugee crisis with a kind of humorous and ironic disdain. But in Space Refugee, it’s not so much the refugees themselves who are romanticized as it is the solution to their plight. With the exception of Faris’s presence, which by and large was significant, the rest of the exhibition’s content did not give justice to the weightiness of its theme. The last thing that displaced people need today is a fictitious spacecraft headed for Mars.
Space Refugee continues at Neuer Berliner Kunstverein (n.b.k.) (Chausseestraße 128-129, 10115 Berlin, Germany) through November 6.