“It is a melancholy object to those who walk through this great town or travel in the country, when they see the streets, the roads, and cabin doors, crowded with beggars of the female sex followed by three, four, or six children, all in rags and importuning every passenger for an alms.”
Thus begins one of the most scathing pieces of satire ever written, Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal”. In the work Swift proposes a logically unimpeachable (but entirely morally deranged) solution: with so much hunger and want stalking the land, it only makes sense to use the hungry themselves as food. In an age that increasingly defies the capacities of even the most imaginative of satirists, Halil Altindere’s “Space Refugee” at the Neuer Berliner Kunstverein promulgates a modest proposal for our times. In the face of the greatest displacement of human beings since the end of the Second World War, European politicians are desperate for solutions that will satisfy both the minimal requirements of humanity but also the fetid populist discourse that has arisen in the wake of various social, political and financial crises. In such times, it is surely profitable—in more ways than one—to think outside the box. Or, as Altindere would have it, think inside the space capsule. What if European governments simply launched the refugee populations clambering on dinghies and tattered inflatable rafts into outer space to colonise Mars?
A strong stomach is required to engage with humour this dark. Indeed, like Swift, Altindere’s exhibition is less an exercise in gallows humour than it is a cry of anguish in the face of a political class far more concerned about their own electoral ambitions than about the need for traumatised people to exist in dignity and safety in order to attempt, in whatever minimal way possible, to rebuild their shattered lives. Altindere places the story in the context of the real-life Syrian astronaut, Muhammed Ahmed Faris. Faris was launched into space in 1987 along with Alexander Viktorenko and Aleksander Aleksandrov in a Soyuz capsule to the then-Soviet space station, Mir. Altindere includes footage of the mission, and it is humbling, particularly from a Western European perspective, to see the hope and optimism at the heart of the space missions of the late 1980s. The footage is interspersed with Swiftian interviews with astrophysicists and scientists about the potential benefits of launching young refugees into space to explore Mars. Yes, it might take a while to get there, but once 3-D printing comes into its own, Mars can be supplied by earth with minimal expense. The refugee children, naturally curious of course, will be the eyes and ears of a grateful planet—not grateful enough, mind you, to let them live in dignity down here on Earth of course.
Satire is often a matter of detail and Altindere leaves no possible reference untweaked; as scenes of young refugee astronauts making their way about the rocky wastes of Mars in ill-fitting space suits, the viewer might notice a lander named Palmyra whirring along beside them like K-9 from Tom Baker-era Dr. Who. The lander also features in an installation another section of the exhibition, along with a virtual reality helmet that immerses the viewer in wonderful Martian landscape of the future. Other works in the exhibition, notably a series of paintings depicting Faris and his fellow cosmonauts in stilted Stalinist Realist mannerism, also seek to engage chains of reference and association, but somehow the knowingness of such aesthetic games undercuts the deadpan quality of the film. It is a fair question to ask if topics like the refugee crisis are a fitting subject for humour, no matter how infused with moral outrage it may be. With that question in mind, I should note that Space Refugee is not a show everyone will enjoy, but it is one that raises uncomfortable questions about the moral universe contemporary Europe is dwelling in that every empowered citizen of Europe must address.
Neuer Berliner Kunstverein
Until 6 November
Exhibition views Space Refugee, Neuer Berliner Kunstverein, 2016 © Neuer Berliner Kunstverein / Jens Ziehe.
Courtesy the artist and PİLOT Gallery, Istanbul.