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Art Without Death: Russian Cosmism @ HKW, Berlin

For the uninitiated, the subject matter of the exhibition, Art without Death: Russian Cosmism, at Berlin’s Haus der Kulturen der Welt may have seemed somewhat esoteric. Tracing its origins to the writings of the librarian-cum-philosopher, Nikolai Fyodorovich Fyodorov, the exhibition was concerned with the nexus of discourses that characterised the philosophy of “Cosmism”. Fyodorov’s vision was vast and encompassing. Influenced as much by the natural sciences as Russian Orthodox Christianity, and early Communist thought, the “Cosmism” that emerged bore the hallmarks of the utopianism of these ostensibly irreconcilable creeds. Reduced to its most basic form, Cosmism sought to create an egalitarian future based on the notion of the commons, the exploration and cultivation of extraterrestrial geographies, and, because one can never be ambitious enough, the material resurrection of every person who has ever lived on earth. While such goals may seem rather paltry to British readers, familiar as they are with the recent Brexit negotiations, Fyodorov’s ideas have survived the hundred and fourteen years since his death in far greater esteem than might have been imaginable during the 20th century.

The HKW’s exhibition brings together works from the decades immediately after Fyodorov’s death to the present. The portion of the exhibition curated by the philosopher, Boris Groys, centred on drawings and canvasses from the early years of what might be called “Modernist Cosmism” (as opposed to explicitly being “Cosmist Modernism”). Here the emphasis on the mechanical processes and scientific logic that underwrote the more technological strains of Cosmism came to the fore, but the work, for example of Solomon Nikritin and the moving quasi-abstractions of Ksenia Ender, also touches on the spiritual dimensions in which the movement was rooted.

Integrating a number of streams of Cosmist thought, particularly Fyodorov’s fixation with the physical resurrection of the dead and Alexander Chizhevsky’s concept of “heliobiology” — the examination of the role of the sun as a specific factor in biology — are Anton Vidokle’s trilogy of films, “This is Cosmos” (2014), “The Communist Revolution was Caused by the Sun” (2015), and “Immortality and Resurrection for All” (2017). Vidokle’s films are by turns evocative, otherworldly, humuorous and frustrating. The films were screened in three large theaters, themselves arresting architectural constructions positioned in the HKW’s darkened Gallery 1. At times it was difficult to keep from finding it all a bit much, particularly the third film of the trilogy, but the moments of poignance and beauty, particularly in the second film, which includes extensive footage of Kazakh villages and Islamic graveyards, demonstrate the generosity at the heart of Fyodorov’s vision. Watching the villagers picnicking and performing with their horses, one can feel Vidokle almost channelling Fyodorov’s love for life itself. But the work also prompts the question of what such an ostensibly generous vision might mean for our current society. How distant the present discourse feels from the optimistic fantasies of Fyodorov could scarcely be more starkly illustrated by centering the film’s narrative on an Islamic community. As the struggle for recognition of the basic humanity of communities of colour and Muslims in the cradle of Europe’s so-called Enlightenment continues, even moves backward, one can scarcely conceive of a world so enlightened as to allow, even mandate, the resurrection of the historically oppressed populations on whose backs modern advances are built. What, for example, would the victims of J. Marion Sims, the founder of modern gynecology whose knowledge came from the Mengele-esque torture of indigent women of colour, do if they were resurrected? Of what less optimistic narratives might they remind the Enlightened Society which reanimated them? This is not to speak of the countless prisoners dumped into the Atlantic Ocean from slave ships, or the victims of European colonialism (or even those of Soviet Colonialism, one must not forget)? Immortality and democracy might make strange bedfellows. These gloomy thoughts perhaps cut against the general tenor of the exhibition, but they are there to be found, and, perhaps, this is one of the most important lessons the exhibition contains: the past’s vision of the future can often be the most damning indictment of the present imaginable.

Art without Death: Russian Cosmism
Haus der Kulturen der Welt
John-Foster-Dulles Allee 10
10557 Berlin

Image: Anton Vidokle, film still from ‘Immortality and Resurrection for All’, 2017. Courtesy of the artist.