Exhibition: Dreamworlds and Catastrophes

Recommended by ESPIONART in 2015, the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University, New Jersey is home to a vast collection of nonconformist Soviet art that was secretly amassed and brought to the United States by the late American economist, Norton Dodge. The latest exhibition at the museum focuses on fantastical and nightmarish scenes conjured up by Soviet artists at the height of the Cold War, inspired by the rapid technological developments in support of the Space Race and nuclear proliferation.

Sherstiuk Cosmonauts Dream

Dreamworlds and Catastrophes: Intersections of Art and Science in the Dodge Collection features more than 60 paintings, sculptures, and photographs produced between the 1960s and ’80s. The title is a nod to the book Dreamworld and Catastrophe: The Passing of Mass Utopia in East and West (MIT Press, 2000), in which Susan Buck-Morss defines the collective Soviet experience as a “dreamworld,” where the constant barrage of utopian propaganda clashed with the realities of a struggling nation.

Mikhailov Sots ArtSimilarly, the Zimmerli exhibition compares unsettling imaginings of a brave new world on earth and beyond, as in the hyperrealist fantasy of The Cosmonaut’s Dream by Sergei Sherstiuk, with works such as Boris Mikhailov’s Sots Art photographs, which reveal the underlying paranoia of artists living in the shadow of the nuclear threat. The exhibition also includes examples of kinetic art by Valdis Celms and Francisco Infante-Arana that show an attempt by some Soviet artists to emulate and appropriate aspects of military and space technology.

Dreamworks and Catastrophes continues at the Zimmerli Art Museum until 31 July 2016, with admission free. And if you move quickly, you might be able to catch the special exhibition celebration planned for 14 April, to include a curator-led tour of the display and guest lectures on Cold War art and politics.

Images: Sergei Sherstiuk, The Cosmonaut’s Dream, 1986. Acrylic on canvas, 59 x 79 inches; Boris Mikhailov, from the series Sots Art, 1975-90. Gelatin silver print handcolored with aniline dyes,  42 x 43.5 cm.

Exhibition of the Month: Beyond Zero

For the rest of this month, the dreams of the Soviet space programme are alive in London. In the exhibition Beyond Zero the Calvert 22 gallery explores how Russian artists have been inspired by man’s evolving engagement with the cosmos.

The works featured in the exhibition date from the 1930s to the present day, showing how artists have continued to challenge the conventions of time and space. In immersive and site-specific installations contemporary artists comment on the poetic power of the moon and the mythical nature of sunlight and stars to deliver a series of illuminating experiences.

And at the end of the tour you can relax on beanbags while watching Pavel Klushantsev’s two sci-fi documentaries, Road to the Stars (1957) and The Moon (1965), pre-empting Stanley Kubrick and George Lucas in their utopian visions of a zero-gravity future.

Image: Pavel Klushantsev, The Moon, 1965, still. Courtesy of Gosfilmofond, St Petersburg.

What & Where: Atomium

What: The Atomium
Where: Square de l’Atomium, B-1020 Brussels, Belgium

In northern Brussels a structure named ‘Europe’s most bizarre building’ is a permanent reminder of the Cold War’s utopian vision of the future. The Atomium was constructed for Expo 58, the Brussels World’s Fair of 1958, and was originally intended only to survive the months of the Fair. But such was the popularity of this unusual part-building part-sculpture that over half a century later it remains the Belgian capital’s most popular tourist destination.

The 335ft-high stainless steel building was designed by engineer André Waterkeyn with architects André and Jean Polak. The shape represents a single molecule of iron magnified 165 billion times. Five of its nine spheres house permanent and temporary exhibition spaces, while the connecting tubes enclose escalators and staircases. The top provides a panoramic view where on a clear day visitors can see as far as Antwerp.

Built at the height of the Cold War, when scientific developments were at the forefront of confrontations between competing nations, the Atomium recalls the idealistic dreams of the Space Race and ambitions on both sides of the Iron Curtain for an ultra-modern and super-technological future.

Images: Exterior and interior of The Atomium, designed by André Waterkeyn, André Polak and Jean Polak, 1958. Photos courtesy Shed Expedition

Yuri Gagarin: The Soviet Superman

When Soviet pilot Yuri Gagarin completed an orbit of the Earth aboard the Vostok 1 spacecraft on 12 April 1961, his life would never be the same again. As the first human to travel into outer space, marking a triumphant victory in the Soviet’s ‘space race’ with the United States, Gagarin was transformed overnight into an international celebrity.

gagarin statueThe cosmonaut’s likeness would soon appear in numerous works of art and design, while statues shot up in his hometown (renamed Gagarin), Smolensk, Monino, Saratov, Star City and Irkutsk. Yet it would not be until 1980, long after Gagarin’s early death during a routine training flight in 1968, that the Russian capital would get its own Gagarin statue.

The reason behind this appears to have been due to mixed reactions to the cult of personality that sprung up around Gagarin. Just when the Soviet government was in the process of trying to stamp out the pervasive cult of Stalin, its citizens – brought up in a tradition of idolatry – had begun to glorify this new, young Hero of the USSR.

Created by the veteran Soviet sculptor Pavel Bondarenko, with help from architect Yakov Belopolsky (the man behind the vast Soviet War Memorial in Berlin), Moscow’s statue was placed in Yuri Gagarin Square on Leninsky Prospekt, a location Gagarin had passed on his way home after his flight. The massive titanium sculpture is in the classic tradition of heroic Soviet statuary, standing 40 foot high atop a towering 90 foot plinth. But unlike earlier effigies, the figure of Gagarin is cast in the iconography of a comic book superhero, in a nod to the Western visual culture which had by 1980 crossed behind the Iron Curtain. With his youthful complexion and courageous gaze, his arms astride as if he is flying, his taut abdominals visible through a tight-fitting metal suit and his lower body morphing into a missile, Gagarin is cast as the Soviet Superman of the Cold War, perhaps not inappropriate for a man who quite literally changed the world.

Pavel Bondarenko and Yakov Belopolsky, Statue of Yuri Gagarin, Yuri Gagarin Square, Leninsky Prospekt, Moscow, 1980

One Giant Leap for Canine

This weekend we remember a very brave little dog who had the questionable honour of becoming the first animal to orbit the Earth. On 3 November 1957 Laika (‘Barker’ in Russian) shot into space on board the Soviet spacecraft, Sputnik 2, in an experiment to test the feasibility of human spaceflight.

When the stray mongrel was picked off the streets of Moscow her fate was sealed. Chosen for her good nature and calm disposition, Laika was trained for a mission into space with no plans for return. Fitted with electrodes to transmit her vital signs, she entered orbit inside a padded capsule attached to the rocket. The date and circumstances surrounding Laika’s death were shrouded in mystery until October 2002, when it was finally revealed that she had died merely hours after launch when the thermal control system in the capsule broke.

LaikaThe sorry tale broke hearts around the globe. Even one of the scientists responsible for sending Laika into space eventually expressed his regret for Laika’s suffering, commenting: ‘The more time passes, the more I’m sorry… We shouldn’t have done it… We did not learn enough from this mission to justify the death of the dog.’

In 1972 Soviet artist duo, Komar & Melamid, featured Laika as the star of their painting Laika Cigarette Box. The canvas was included in the ‘Color is a Mighty Power!’ exhibition in 1976 at the Ronald Feldman Gallery in New York, one of the first US exhibitions of nonconformist Soviet art. The godfathers of the Sots Art movement, the Soviet equivalent of American Pop Art, are known for their satirical artworks. But the depiction of Laika stands out as a surprisingly poignant tribute to the innocent animal who was unwittingly thrust into the middle of the Cold War Space Race.

Today, Laika is also memorialised in a statue at Star City, the Russian cosmonaut training facility, and in the Monument to the Conquerors of Space in Moscow, where her likeness is included alongside other heroes of the Russian space program.


Images: Top – Komar & Melamid, Laika Cigarette Box, 1972. Oil on canvas © Komar & Melamid. Courtesy Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York; Bottom – Detail of Monument to the Conquerors of Space, Moscow. Photo courtesy SeattleFlyerGuy’s All-Purpose Travel Blog

Opening the Road to the Stars

soviet-union-space-propagandaOn this day in 1957 the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1, the first man-made satellite, into space. The American public was shocked and terrified by this show of Soviet technological superiority, leading President Eisenhower to declare a ‘Sputnik Crisis’ in the United States. Meanwhile in the USSR there were widespread celebrations, with propaganda posters exclaiming: ‘Soviet man, be proud. You have opened the road to the stars from Earth!’

The resulting Space Race was a source of inspiration for artists on either side of the Iron Curtain. One such work was The Man Who Flew Into Space From His Apartment, created in 1984 by Soviet conceptual artist, Ilya Kabakov. Entering the work through a door into a series of rooms, the visitor is transported into the world of a would-be cosmonaut who appears to have shot himself into outer space by means of a make-shift human catapult.

kabakov1The text of the story, recounting the reports of three of his neighbours, tells of a man ‘obsessed by a dream of a lonely flight into space’. Of the creative process in Moscow, Kabakov has said: ‘I would take it down after each showing for fear that they [the Soviet authorities] would drop in’.

The installation was the subject of an eponymous book published in 2006 by Boris Groys (available from Afterall Books), who explores how ‘the miserable room and the primitive slingshot suggest the reality behind the Soviet utopia, where cosmic vision and the political project of the Communist revolution are seen as indissoluble’.

Images: Top – Soviet propaganda poster, 1957; Bottom – Ilya Kabakov, The Man Who Flew Into Space From His Apartment, 1984