BY Paul Han in Exhibition Reviews | 30 NOV 23
Featured in
Issue 241

Earthly Alienation in the Wake of the Space Race

‘Cosmos Cinema’, the 14th Shanghai Biennale at Power Station of Art, explores economic exploitation and escapism during our current Cold War


BY Paul Han in Exhibition Reviews | 30 NOV 23

According to its curatorial mission statement, ‘Cosmos Cinema’ – the 14th edition of the Shanghai Biennale – seeks to position film not only as a storytelling medium, but as a ‘cosmic phenomenon with the potential to change our understanding of the universe and our place within it’. It’s an ambitious aim, yet chief curator Anton Vidokle delivers a sharp show with abundant references to Soviet cosmology, which can be read as an extension of his own film trilogy Immortality for All (2014–17), at a time when a non-occidental perspective feels all-the-more pertinent given that we are living, once again, in a Cold War.

Installation view of reflective sculptures along with yellow scaffolding
‘Cosmos Cinema’, 2023, installation view. Courtesy: the artist; Altman Siegel, San Francisco; Pace Gallery and Power Station of Art, Shanghai

At the entrance to the exhibition is a series of sculptures by Trevor Paglen, including Prototype for a Nonfunctional Satellite, (Design 4 Build 4) (2015–18) – a suspended reflective sphere nearly five metres in diameter, the scale and sheen of which dominate the visitor’s field of vision in the dimly lit space. This brilliant spectacle can be read in conjunction with his Orbital Reflector (Triangle Variation #4) Scale Model (2015–18) a nearby sketch for an unrealized 1990s plan by a Russian-European space consortium to launch orbital satellites that, capable of reflecting moonlight at 100 times its natural brightness, could provide illumination for resource exploitation in remote areas. Following the collapse of the USSR in 1989, post-Soviet nations faced economic challenges that made them less keen to pursue spaceflight and more interested in the financial potential of extraction processes.

Installation view of three, mostly dark canvases
‘Cosmos Cinema’, 2023, installation view. Courtesy: the artist; Pilar Corrias, London; Antenna Space, Shanghai and Power Station of Art, Shanghai

Projected in a corner, David Lamelas’s 24-minute film, A Study of the Relationships between Inner and Outer Space (1969), includes interviews with pedestrians about the impending moon landing. Their general indifference and, specifically, the unrelatability of space to their daily lives – ‘Maybe focus on the issues on the Earth first,’ quips one interviewee – is undergirded by a strong sense of alienation.

An installation view of what looks like two telescopes in front of a wall of drawings
Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, The Center of Cosmic Energy, 2007, sketches on paper (prints), 293 × 62 × 96 cm. Courtesy: the artists and Power Station of Art, Shanghai

Three more recent films shown in the exhibition – Saodat Ismailova’s Two Horizons (2017), Liu Yujia’s The Market (2023) and He Zike’s Random Access (2023) – are marked by a yearning to escape reality. Two Horizons, for instance, overlaps the story of Korkut, the first shaman of the Great Eurasian Steppe, who evaded death by levitating, with the Baikonur Cosmodrome, from which the Soviets launched their spacecrafts, similarly defying gravity in search of eternal life via colonization of Mars. In The Market, on the other hand, Liu explores the borders of Northeast Asia, where shamanism is commonly practised by the local people. Here, instead of looking to space, Liu focuses on the Earth, documenting the trade of ginseng, a root herb with mythic properties that symbolizes immortality and is believed to promote longevity.

Installation view of a film of people singing
‘Cosmos Cinema’, 2023, installation view. Courtesy: Power Station of Art, Shanghai

Fear of the unknown is encapsulated perfectly in ‘Solarisology’, a section of the exhibition on the gallery’s second floor that takes its cue from Stanisław Lem’s sci-fi classic Solaris (1961), which follows a crew of scientists searching for extra-terrestrial intelligence. The novel’s eerie tranquillity inspired director Andrei Tarkovsky to make a film version in 1972 as a Soviet counterpart to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). This led, in turn, to an unofficial sequel by Deimantas Narkevičius, Revisiting Solaris (2007), as well as to the found-footage documentary Solaris Mon Amour (2023) by Marcin Lenarczyk, Kuba Mikurda and Laura Pawela – both of which are screened here.

Installation view of sculptures and films
‘Cosmos Cinema’, 2023, installation view. Courtesy: Power Station of Art, Shanghai

The Soviet references and aesthetics of ‘Cosmos Cinema’ find particular resonance in China where figures such as Yuri Gagarin – the first man successfully to fly in space – were household names and inspired many, myself included, to dream of becoming an astronaut. This fascinating exhibition explores not only the continued impact of last century’s space race but the sense of earthly alienation left in its wake.

Cosmos Cinema’, the 14th Shanghai Biennale, is on view at Power Station of Art until 31 March 2024

Main image: Sung Tieu, What is your |x|?, 2023. Courtesy: Power Station of Art, Shanghai

Paul Han is a writer, translator and curator based in Shanghai, China.