“Astronauts are inherently insane. And really noble,” states Andy Weir in his 2011 novel The Martian, in which he narrates the unlikely adventures of an astronaut striving to survive on Mars after his crew evacuates the planet without him. The feasibility of colonizing the Red Planet has born much speculation over the past few decades, with this fantasy appearing in an ample supply of works in film and literature. In Space Refugee at Andrew Kreps Gallery, the Istanbul-based artist Halil Altindere employs this semi-utopian idea to tackle the ongoing political turmoil in the Middle East, from a humorous perspective. The protagonist of “Space Refugee“ (2016), a 20-minute film, is Muhammed Ahmed Faris, the first Syrian cosmonaut (the Russian version of an astronaut) to visit space, who became an avid opponent of the current Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and is now a refugee in Istanbul. In the gallery, the video projected onto an entire wall, is accompanied by a nearby small-scale oil and acrylic painting depicting Faris with his fellow cosmonauts, “Muhammed Ahmed Faris with Friends #1,” (2016) and a five-minute long immersive virtual reality video installation of Faris floating in space, “Journey to Mars,” (2016). This VR piece invites visitors to don 3D glasses provided by the gallery and experience being in space with the cosmonaut.
What begins as the unparalleled story of Faris — a crew member on Soviet spacecraft Soyuz TM-3 during its week-long travel to the Mir space station in 1987 — proceeds toward a political and social struggle over civil rights engendered by the Syrian Civil War. Though famous as a space traveler, he faces the jarring reality of the brutal politics practiced by the Syrian government in response to the Arab Spring. Altindere’s film conveys a Felliniesque neorealist story within a documentary frame, constructing a bizarre atmosphere that benefits from the otherworldly architectural texture of the Turkish city of Cappadocia where the film is shot. From its cave houses to unique rock formations called “fairy chimneys,” the unique anatomy of this ancient city in central Anatolia offers the artist a natural film set.
The core premise of the film’s plot is the settlement of Mars by millions of Syrians who have abandoned their homelands and sought refuge in nearing countries due to the ongoing war. Faris, who is now one of these refugees, contemplates the possibility of a better world on an empty planet devoid of the complexities of national politics. He elaborates his argument through interviews conducted with Turkish NASA employees: from the legal issues of claiming another planet, to the technical challenges of colonizing a separate world. The topics Faris discusses with the young scientists strengthen the practicability of such migration, while the footage that Altindere shot, in the style of an absurdist, sci-fi B-movie, depicts Syrian kids on expedition to scout their potential new habitat. Faris argues that the Earth is too contaminated to start anew, asserts that the reconstruction of Aleppo — Faris’s hometown and one of the most heavily damaged cities in Syria — should take place not on this world, but on Mars.
The contrast between the two differently ambitious journeys that Faris has taken in his lifetime makes him a tragic figure. Deemed a hero in his country and an ally for Russia upon going to space, Faris later becomes an opponent to and a victim of the current Syrian government known to receive strong monetary and political support from the Russian government. Depicting such a dismal shift from a space traveler to a terrestrial refugee (both roles ironically influenced by Russia) manifests the unpredictable and devastatingly harsh political and social climate around the globe these days. While Altindere delivers a poignant representation of an ongoing, mass disaster through a firsthand victim’s graphic accounts, he approaches this circumstance with optimistic humor.
The artist, who emerged in the ’90s while the Turkish contemporary art scene was seeking to define itself amidst cultural and political fluctuations, has always encapsulated in his multimedia work the dichotomy between the anguish and absurdity contained in reality. In his 2015 MoMA PS1 exhibition Wonderland, he dealt with the gentrification of Romani neighborhoods in Istanbul and the discrimination Romani people face in this city, by framing these issues within an invented rap music video. Similarly, 2016’s Escape from Hell, which was first shown at the Neuer Berliner Kunstverein, presented a sardonic portrait of the ongoing conflict between secular and religious ideologies in Turkey. Through these works, Altindere observes the ever-present tumult in his home nation through a benevolent yet sarcastic lens, and his comically surreal tone in Space Refugee prompts better understanding of an exceptionally sensitive topic. The artist’s achievement is his ability to demonstrate the terrible cruelty and bloodshed on Earth, by illustrating the ironic contradiction between the reality of the Syrian war and the illusory plan invented by refugees to flee their homes for Mars, the planet the god of war has granted his name to.
Halil Altindere: Space Refugee continues at Andrew Kreps Gallery (535 W 22 Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through February 18.