Monday 15 February 2010

We need mirrors?

Star City – The Future Under Communism, Nottingham Contemporary

This ambitious exhibition suggests that maybe ‘Revisiting the past may help us take one small step towards a shared future’.

It’s worth, at the outset, making a short point about Nottingham Contemporary (NC) – it’s not just a gallery, it’s a big space for big ideas. For this new exhibition, the work of the seventeen plus artists is comfortably housed within its space, and art undoubtedly takes centre stage. But complementing the exhibition is a congress, a film series, a reading study group, lectures and workshops – plus a fashion show, music and other cultural events. Whilst David Hockney/Frances Stark was a crowd-drawing opening exhibition, the new exhibition is more akin in style to The Impossible prison, a Nottingham Contemporary exhibition held in town before the new gallery opened curated by NC’s Director, Alex Farquharson.

The Star City pages of the NC website promise much. The good news is that both ideas and the art on display are very strong. The Star City exhibition asks us to:

  • consider a specific time and place and ponder the influences on a culture when the future seemed like a great place to go to;

  • reflect on the changes in that culture as the political and social world changed - and how others external to that society perceived what was taking place, again through the prism of culture.
  • The ultimate aim of the exhibition is to hope that, with a heightened sensitivity to time and place and how people once imagined their future, we might reflect on how we conceive of our own destiny.

    A point in time

    The reading list (a reading list!) suggests one starting point to get you in to the mood of the exhibition – 1961. This is the year Polish author Stanislaw Lem pens the sci-fi novel Solaris. It is also the year when Soviet Cosmonaut Yuri Gargarin takes the world’s first space flight, although the building of the Star City space training centre hasn’t yet started; the building of the Berlin Wall, a key physical manifestation and emblem of the Cold War, does however commence in this year; at the twenty-second Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), Soviet party leader Nikita Khrushchev boasts that GNP growth of the Soviet economy will soon outstrip that of the United States; and John F Kennedy requests $531m from Congress to fund a space programme to put man on the moon by the end of the decade. What a year.

    A shift in time

    The evolution of ‘Solaris’, its genealogy and development from book to film, provides a good way into the spirit of the exhibition’s meaning and purpose. Solaris is a unique planet. Its ocean appears to be alive. Yet the many theories developed haven’t come close to explaining this spectacular phenomenon. How is life possible given the physical effects that should result from the planet orbiting two suns? And if the ocean is living, a sentient organism, does it think – and can contact be made? Explanations seem to have run in to the sand. Man finally encounters a new life form but can’t understand it.

    Psychologist Kris Kelvin, the main character, is charged with going to Solaris and filing a report with recommendations for this space programme. Kelvin is confronted with a whole new dimension of strangeness when he arrives as a number of other visitors are also present - it seems conjured from the memories from our earthly explorers.

    What makes this book so special is how Lem uses Kelvin’s struggle to make sense of what is going on to explore the intrinsic relationship between the pursuit of knowledge through scientific enquiry and knowledge of the human self. He chases down each side of this equation in a whole number of ways that makes the book thoroughly engaging, challenging and illuminating. But fundamentally, he sees the connection between to two as critical. Existing in this way, the human imagination can grow – and what the individual can accomplish in the real world and spiritually follows.

    Where one side of the equation peels off on its own, degeneration occurs. In the early 1960s, this takes the form of the politicisation of science for purposes of the Soviet bureaucracy’s Space Race against America and in the creation of a new utopian idealism for domestic consumption. In wider society, there is some return to utopian idealism going under the name of Cosmism. Historical materialism is the victim of the plot and, in this context, space exploration becomes merely a form of self-flattery; a way to hold a mirror up to the selves we already have the measure of – not a self that ponders the limitless potential for change. Kelvin finds himself contemplating a utopian future – but no plot spoilers here!

    Tarkovsky’s film of 1972 is run through with a different kind of pathos. A decade had passed since the novel was written and we find our man Kelvin more preoccupied with one side of the equation - the self, memories, regret and meaning. The film indicates how the science of the day had become more firmly a tool being deployed dogmatically by the Soviet bureaucracy. There is a much greater disconnection between the individual and society. In the secular Communist world, existential crisis ensues and Kelvin struggles to find meaning. Ironically, or logically, the film seems to provide a happier and more hopeful ending to that in Lem’s book which is more open ended.

    Then there’s the Soderberg/Cameron’s 2003 film collaboration – where Solaris crosses over to the West. In Lem’s book, Kelvin’s job as psychologist places him between science and the self. We also find that book’s Kelvin reacting to adverse situations by picking up a book – not as a cold hearted and unfeeling person but as a positive reaction to the fear that arises on the space station or the means to aid contemplation to make sense of the world. However in this film, science and books have largely been ejected - other than when cited as the potential cause of contemporary mental disorder - as have the more profound consideration of the human condition here replaced only by romantic love.

    And then Avatar – with Cameron at the helm this may be a distant cousin of Solaris but as a motif for our times it is useful to bring it in to the family. In Solaris we find Man encountering life on another planet and through this contemplate ourselves in relation to the universe in the context of real space exploration. Avatar is also set on a planet with a cosmic organic life form but is unarguably rooted on this earth. This life form is made sentient and conscious but, standing in for the Earth’s eco systems, this is simply a device to make it morally equivalent to the human species. Our culture has a new dimension to take account of – the influence of environmentalism. In this we find a new dystopian sci-fi scenario – one where nature (not extraterrestrial or ‘other’ invaders, machines, our authoritarian or evil or accident prone selves) is the new dominant force. Our attempt at mastery or disturbance to this natural order must end in our own destruction. In the real world of today we can also read Barack Obama’s cuts to Nasa’s space exploration budget as confirmation of our wider loss of vision about our future.

    And what of the ‘Solaris’ film montage made by Deimantas Narkevicius, which is showing in the exhibition? Well, part of the pleasure of the exhibition is making sense of all of this. My take is that the ‘alternative ending’ is the sentiment expressed rather than the story told. We find echoes of this sentiment throughout the exhibition and, it seems, it is this which forms the pivot point around which the exhibition revolves.

    Art history and archaeology

    Unusually, this exhibition attempts to bring art history in to the gallery to be considered alongside the art. A view has formed around the exhibition that it is serving a very useful archaeological function, uncovering art and theories not known or appreciated by a Western audience. In this sense, the exhibition is truly fascinating and can be engaged in on many different levels. We not only understand better the context of the art’s production but this approach also helps the viewer to reflect back modern day preoccupations and consider today’s dominant cultural influences. Often, art history seems to assume that we make sense of things only in retrospect and with the passing of time. In this instance, the exhibition asks if we can gain such a vantage point in the here and now.

    As a backward look, I would suggest that the exhibition’s accompanying written material is too generous to the Soviet bureaucracy. We now know that by the end of the 1950s the CIA had gathered a body of material indicating the extent of economic problems and deep rooted inefficiency with the Soviet economy. A critical strand of thought was already re-surfacing. The exhibition implies this didn’t really occur until the Prague Spring of 1968. Lem already challenges the future conception of Soviet Society as many will have done following the Hungarian revolution of 1956. Using theories about Solaris as a vehicle, he traces the degeneration of the intellectual revolutionary project. The point being that a substantial body of thought would have been much more sceptical of Soviet propaganda.

    Re-visiting the future

    Covering at least a fifty year period, the exhibition asks us to make sense of ideas of the moments past and of perceptions crossing between East and West. This is quite a tall order. Six of the ten Soviet and Eastern bloc countries that sent Cosmonauts to space are represented in this exhibition and eleven of the artists are from these countries. We need to be able to keep in mind a whole number of factors simultaneously and curators (Alex Farquharson and Lukasz Ronduda) assume we’re up to the task. The substantial amount of material presented, with old and new butting up against each other, presents scope for a great deal of thinking.

    For the early avant-garde artists, choosing which camp you were in – East or West – meant art of the day had a clearer ideological delineation. That line is harder to discern in the contemporary artists on display drawn from both the West and the old East. I had been under the misconception that the exhibition was a retrospective of work starting with the avant-garde. However I found that the rest of the exhibition was mainly of work made in the last couple of years.

    So we’re not really looking at an exhibition about how the past imagined the future, rather it documents how the culture of today represents and gives meaning to the past. Whilst it seems that space looms large in the imagination of artists from the old Warsaw Pact countries, space exploration and technological development are simultaneously of the moment; further complicating the exhibition. By digging in to the past, are the artists attempting to uncover lost and hidden treasures that may be of use to us today? This exhibition does do this and introduces us to some little known artists and ideas missing from the Western story of the history of art. However, we might also ask whether the exhibition shows us contemporary artists and culture using aspects of the past selectively to validate a contemporary sensibility that is critical of past ambitions.

    This appears to be the case at an intellectual level. For example, David Crowley, design historian from the Royal College of Art, at the ‘Star City: The Futurological Congress’ (taken from the name of another Lem book), dismissed the futuristic ambitions held in the past to control our future as so much ‘hubris’, while Rolf Hellebust takes a side-swipe at the attempt to place wider society in control of production as ‘all that jazz’. The old socialist realism posters can be taken to represent such delusions of grandeur. Today such interpretations could be understood as a case of baby and bathwater. Many of the artists also appear to marshal images that relate to a failed past - of the planned economy; the continued dominance of religion; the repressive apparatus; space apparatus gathered to be held in awe and wonder, but as dinosaurs of an age past – all images providing a cautionary tale for our present and future. In the context of concerns about environmental destruction, we need to reel in our ambition.

    The Greek myth about the Titan Prometheus (the name often used in science fiction, as in Solaris, for a space ship) has provided the emblem for man’s ambitions to capture nature’s secrets and use them for his own advance.

    It is important to note that much of the work in the exhibition is of a really high quality and the taken as a whole, extremely ambitious and engages the audience in many ways. However, as in the Tarkovsky, it would appear that pathos and disappointment is a strong contemporary current with fewer options projecting and inspiring us forwards. It seems that that the scope of our future orientation is constrained. We’re not just nervous about setting ambitious goals. The attempt to do so is understood as seen as arrogant. Such audaciousness will see us repeating past mistakes.

    If any work most strongly represents a vision of our future based on contemporary sensibility it is the film by the Otolith Group. Set in the future, where gravity finds our future cousins suspended in space, the narrator reflects on their ancestors – us. We appear naïve, innocent and frustrated by our lack of ability to influence the world around us – forever destined to be observers of enquiries in to our past mistakes.

    As it runs until 18 April and is free, I have the privilege of being able to go back to this exhibition as many times as I like to ponder its meaning. The over-riding reflection from viewing the exhibition is that I’m not sure yet whether we’re currently intellectually equipped to create an exciting and inspiring view of the future. That the question is posed to us is however fantastic and a fitting question to ask at the start of a new decade.

    Till 18 April 2010

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