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Letter from Nizhny Arkhyz: under the starry skies of the Caucasus, where art and science coalesce

Letter from Nizhny Arkhyz: under the starry skies of the Caucasus, where art and science coalesce

Once home to the largest telescope in the world, the Special Astrophysical Observatory in southern Russia was transformed last month into the location for an art exhibition. Noah Sneider discovers the installations and atmosphere of the place where art, science and the stars intersect

21 November 2016

There’s a scene near the beginning of Tarkovsky’s Stalker, where the Writer, circling a younger woman in a fur coat and dragging on a cigarette, laments the lack of wonder in modern life. “My dear, the world is so utterly boring. There’s no telepathy, no ghosts, and no flying saucers. The world works according to iron-cast laws,” he says. “In the Middle Ages, life was interesting. Every house had its goblin, every church had its God. People were young…”

I found myself coming back to that moment late last month during a visit to Karachay-Cherkessia, a small republic on Russia’s southern border. I was standing in the shadow of a telescope that was once the world’s largest, talking to Yuri Balega, a mustachioed astronomer with the easy smile of a satisfied man. I had asked Balega whether he and his fellow star-watchers ever encountered inexplicable phenomena. “Oh no, nature is very primitive and standard everywhere,” he chuckled. “We have laws and we have mathematics which explains to us how the world is organised.” Outside, a thick fog enveloped the building and blurred the sky.

After the Writer leaves the woman, he moves to a cafe, where he gathers with the Stalker and the Professor to prepare to enter the Zone, a dystopian eden where there are no straight paths. “What are you, a chemist?” the Writer asks. “More like a physicist,” answers the Professor. “That’s probably boring too, searching for the truth. She hides, and you search for her. You dug in one place and aha, a nucleus consists of protons,” the Writer continues. “But it’s different for me. I dig up truth, but in the process, something happens to it. I dig for truth and turn up a pile of, well, I won’t say what…” Their conversation establishes one of the film’s central themes: epistemology, or the ways humankind searches for knowledge. What can we learn from art? How does the truth or knowledge that art digs up differ from that of science? What can the artist tell us about the stars? Or as the Writer later wonders to himself, “What’s the use of your knowledge?”

Those same questions animated my trip to Karachay-Cherkessia. I had come to see a most unusual contemporary art exhibition, the brainchild of Simon Mraz, the indefatigable head of the Austrian Cultural Forum in Moscow, Mariana Guber-Gogova, founder of the Gogova Foundation, and her twin sister Madina Gogova, now Karachay-Cherkessia’s permanent representative in Moscow. They invited a group of Russian and Austrian artists to stage an intervention in the observatory and the surrounding town of Nizhny Arkhyz, hardly a cultural capital.

What can we learn from art? What can the artist tell us about the stars?

Getting there took us past towns lined with the corrugated metal fences and winding yellow gas pipes characteristic of provincial Russia. Unfinished homes and scattered vegetable stands dotted the roads. The hills were full of hay bales and grazing lambs, and from a distance it was hard to tell them apart. While the six-metre-wide telescope had long given up its claim to glory — the Keck I in Hawaii surpassed it as the world’s largest in 1993 — the observatory continues to function, sustaining a community of curious scientists long after the Soviet collapse. The exhibit served as a meeting between the proverbial Writer and Professor.

The first hints at an answer to the Writer’s question came from Svetlana Shuvaeva’s subtle installation, A Thousand Trifles. Shuvaeva built fake objects into a circular white-walled common room in the laboratory’s dormitory: a door that can’t open, and an outlet, with an iPhone plugged into a fake cord. The license plates of the cars parked outside all matched, a detail an inattentive passerby might miss. Shuvaeva’s fakes imbued their real counterparts with new life. As we walked through town, I started to pay attention to the doors again, to consider what makes the doors real, to see the doors anew. Art, in Shuvaeva’s hands, emerged as a source of awareness, a catalyst for observation.

Yuri Palmin’s sleek architectural photographs of the nauchniy gorodok (science town) had a similar effect. Palmin says he was trying to “correct [the astronomers’] cosmic vision and focus their attention on something before them.” As we walked through the town, we passed locations from his pictures, and the buildings he had captured seemed sharper, popping out from their surroundings. It was a strange form of deja vu, borne of an encounter with an image: the representation came to frame the real. Oscar Wilde described this phenomenon in his essay, The Decay of Lying: “Nature is no great mother who has borne us,” he writes. “She is our creation. It is in our brain that she quickens to life. Things are because we see them, and what we see, and how we see it, depends on the Arts that have influenced us. To look at a thing is very different from seeing a thing.”

It was the “artistic” impulse to connect disparate dots into representative figures that helped scientists first map the far reaches of the sky

For Alexandra Paperno, inspiration came from the “abolished constellations” that did not make it into the International Astronomical Union’s list of 88 official constellations. She searched ancient maps and etchings to resurrect some 50 of these forgotten star groups, which she printed on large blue panels and installed inside a 10th century church near the observatory. The panels spoke both to the link between scientific and artistic knowledge, and to how the arbitrary nature of the systems we create to organise that knowledge. As Paperno shows, it was the “artistic” impulse to connect disparate dots into representative figures that helped scientists first map the far reaches of the sky. Constellations, she muses, “were the first abstractions”.

The exhibition ended in the observatory itself, where Balega and I began talking. When I pushed him, he conceded, by way of a reference to Roadside Picnic, the classic Soviet sci-fi novel by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, that perhaps our knowledge of the universe is limited. (Tarkovsky based Stalker on Roadside Picnic, and the Strugatsky brothers also wrote the film script.) The book opens with people having a picnic in a meadow. After they leave, insects and animals emerge from their hiding places to find mysterious artefacts: “apple cores, candy wrappers, charred remains of the campfire, cans, bottles, somebody’s handkerchief, somebody’s penknife, torn newspapers, coins, faded flowers picked in another meadow.” In the analogy, we humans here on earth are the ants, and the universe, all of the planets, galaxies and constellations, are the detritus of some cosmic picnic we can’t begin to imagine. “Maybe the world is much more complicated and we cannot understand it,” Balega told me. “The life of civilization is so short, and the life of the stars is so long.”

Timofei Radya, the elusive street artist, seemed to understand this. Outside the observatory, he had hung a message in white neon from a nearby crane, like a bit of graffiti scrawled across the night sky: “ONI YARCHE NAS,” it read. “THEY ARE BRIGHTER THAN US.”

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