Fearful Symmetry

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Remembering The Future

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Star City, Nottingham Contemporary

Those who have already been in space yearn with all their heart and soul to hasten there again and again. With every single day passing, time leaves my flight in the past. Occasionally the wind will whisper something from the tops of the tall pine trees, and then everything becomes silent. In such minutes I remember the most bright and wonderful experience in my life: the flight into space.

Valentina Tereshkova – the first woman in space

I had a feeling of nostalgia and melancholy over what might have been before I even entered the gallery. After leaving the railway station via the still relatively new and futuristic tram stop and walking up the hill towards the very new Nottingham Contemporary art gallery I passed a huge picture of Gordon Brown grimacing down at me from an advertising hoarding promoting the Conservative Party. It was the final weeks of the election campaign and what would prove to be the dying days of New Labour. Even before I got to the exhibition of art inspired by the Eastern European perspective of the Space Race it was impossible to not think of dashed hopes and what might have been.

Nottingham Contemporary

Nottingham Contemporary

On my previous visit to the city there had been a literal hole in the ground where the Nottingham Contemporary art gallery now stands as the foundations where being dug and Star City was one of the places’ first exhibitions. The building itself, on the edge of the Lace Market, is an attractive modern design that fits in well with its surroundings. Its fluted concrete cladding is embossed with a design based on an old lace pattern to reflect one of the city’s traditional businesses. Nottingham has always been a place of light rather heavy industry. Historically the Queen Of The Midland’s major employers were the cigarette firm Players, Raleigh bicycles and Boots The Chemists. But now the lace is just left to place names and a bit of tourism, Players has been bought out and much reduced and Raleigh is long gone. In fact the most prominent ‘industries’ in Nottingham bar Boots (which as I write has just announced major job cuts) are Experian, the credit reference agency; Capital One, the credit card company – whose European headquarters you see stepping out of the station; and the HM Revenue and Customs just down the line on the other side of the station.

"Mother Earth, Sister Moon" by Christian Tomaszewski and Joanna Malinowska

"Mother Earth, Sister Moon" by Christian Tomaszewski and Joanna Malinowska

Entering the art gallery via the lower entrance the first room of the Star City exhibition is a huge, grey concrete walled, two-story space with an industrial metallic lighting gantry. This space is dominated by ‘Mother, Earth, Sister, Moon’ – an enormous space suit, modelled on the one worn by the first female cosmonaut, Valentina Tereskova that you can walk around and inside of. It is as if a dead and hollow space goddess has crashed down to Earth. Quotes by Tereskova and about her and her fellow space pioneers are stencilled onto the walls. Completing the work the giant is joined by a row of life-sized costumes (including a bear and a eyeball covered dress) inspired by Polish science fiction movies. The overall effect is both delightful and surreal.

"Mother Earth Sister Moon" by Christian Tomaszewski and Joanna Malinowska

"Mother Earth Sister Moon" by Christian Tomaszewski and Joanna Malinowska

Upstairs brings more traditional looking galleries and the exhibition becomes a mixture of actual artefacts from the time mixed with art inspired by them. There are the traditional soviet propaganda posters, that were contemporary with the Space Race. One exhibit consisted of a wooden cabinet whose walls swing out to reveal objects from the time like the food and toothpaste used by cosmonauts. A life-sized model of Sputnik hung from the ceiling next to a buzzing and sparking cabinet of electronics isolated in a pool of water. Some of the staff were dressed in gold foil suits like extras from a sci-fi movies – actually a modernist art piece. However, there was a new ending to the film Solaris playing on a screen in front of swirling cardboard cinema seats. Other interesting films were also show – in particular one clever documentary about an Indian woman visiting Russian and meeting famous cosmonauts interspersed with the history of the atom bomb. ‘Star City’, as well as the title of the exhibition itself was also the title of a video installation by the Wilson twins consisting of footage filmed at the actual Star City – the training city for the cosmonauts – projected onto enormous screens on all four walls of a room. I had seen their work previously at a Turner Prize exhibition and this was equally mesmerising. Their camera prowled down eerie empty corridors and past hanging space suits and mysterious machinery use for testing of the potential pioneers, all long hidden from the West and newly unearthed. Another installation is encountered via stepping through a cloth curtain and consists of corridor around a doctor’s surgery from which an unintelligible disembodied voice can be heard. The corridor is lined with framed snatches of poetry and sketches telling of a story of men who dream of flying and perhaps achieve flight in the end.

'Star City' by Jane and Louise Wilson

'Star City' by Jane and Louise Wilson

Communism was supposed to replace religion but it never totally conquered it. One wall has a collection of a mixture of religious icons and space images. There is also mention of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky who, along with developing much of the mathematics used for calculating the Soviet’s space flights was also a follower of the ideas of Nikolai Fyodorov, a philosopher and Russian Orthodox mystic, believing that space exploration would lead to man defying his physical limits and achieving immortality. There a series of photographs and other pieces related to UFO sightings in the Eastern Block proving that that pseudo-religion was not confined to the West.

The overall impression coming away from the exhibition was of a dream of a future that was never to come. We expected at least moon bases and Mars landings by now, by both astronauts and cosmonauts, and the stars themselves seemed not out of reach.

Perhaps it was always an unachievable dream, the Communist system build on great misery and destruction that could not have continued indefinitely and even during those bright hopeful times there was the ever looming threat of nuclear Armageddon.

Instead we got mobile phones and the internet, but it seems not that great a consolation, especially accompanied by the Crash, Global Warming, Peak Oil and a seemingly continuous unwinnable war against terrorism. I wonder if a future exhibition will be about the unachieved dreams of Capitalism.

First published in HEAD! #10

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Written by Fearful Symmetry

November 18, 2010 at 5:01 pm

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