Cradle of Humankind

1ST ROOM

Arseny Zhilyaev’s installation Cradle of Humankind presents a fictional museum of the future. The legend is that humanity left Earth many years ago and turned the planet into a network of museums dedicated to the history of human civilization, starting from the Big Bang and the origins of life. Now visitors can learn the history of the human interstellar empire, examine some of the achievements of its greatest citizens, and purchase services from the museum corporation. The installation display is rooted in Soviet experiments with museum design in the 1970s. It continues the logic of late Soviet modernism that combines the elements typical of Western architecture and premodernistic influences such as marble, tapestries, and stained glass. The first room is dedicated to the emergence of life on Earth. The artist explores the visual aesthetics of the Soviet space program and combines pompous architectural elements, such as monumental stained-glass windows, with painted compositions made of fragments of sublime cosmic landscapes. At the entrance of the room there is a sculptural portrait of Nikolai Fedorov. Fedorov was an exponent of Russian religious philosophy and an originator of Russian Cosmism, which inspired the Soviet space program in many respects. He promoted ideas of real physical resurrection as a result of the Common Task, by which he meanta common effort of all humankind where science and art would be unified in one Resurrected Museum. Zhilyaev used this utopian model of the museum as the primary concept for Cradle of Humankind. The only significant deviation from Fedorov’s speculation is that according to the Russian philosopher, capitalism should have been defeated, where-as in Zhilyaev’s dystopian installation it survived.

The first object in the next room is a mysterious golden sphere, a prehistoric spaceship that is said to have brought life to Earth from outer space. The motif of the geodesic sphere was taken from Buckminster Fuller’s pavilion built for the American National Exhibition in Sokolniki Park in Moscow in 1959. His concept of “Spaceship Earth” was an independent development of Fedorov’s idea formed in the late nineteenth century. Fuller’s sphere was an important symbol for Soviet kinetic artists who tried to continue the tradition of Russian Cosmism in a new historical period and connect to its technical aesthetics. Variously shaped paintings, titled “Voskhod-Amaravella,” were made by a fictional painting brigade of the resurrected artist. The first part of the title refers to a Voskhod-2 spacecraft of Alexey Leonov, who became the first human to exit the capsule and conduct extravehicular activities in space. He also practiced as an artist, and was recognized for his paintings of outer space. One of his landscape works is quoted in a portrait of Laika (the first dog to orbit the Earth) and in two abstract pieces that refer to the second part of the title, Amaravella, which was an almost unknown Soviet avant-garde group from the 1920 and 1930s. That collective was fascinated by visuality of outer space and Russian Cosmism. One of Amaravella’s landscape paintings is referenced in a triangular collage painting.

2ND ROOM

This room is dedicated to the expansionist nature of the new intergalactic empire. The walls are covered with tapestries, which show maps of six different areas of the universe, called “angles” in the museum text. The logo indicates that they all constitute the mighty Russian Cosmic Federation: the triangular element, used as a kind of coat of arms, resembles the structural element of both the sphere and the paintings from the first room, thus conveying the idea of continuity between the past and the future. The military agenda is counterbalanced with an example of the first artificial body that was used for resurrection, Yuri-1.

The idea of the work is based on an artistic interpretation of a human body in the philosophy of another proponent of Russian Cosmism, Alexander Gorsky. His text from the 1930s, “Phallic Pupil,” describes the evolution of the human body as a transformation into a sun-fed creature without the usual digestive apparatus. According to Gorsky, in the future human body, two main parts will play a large role: the pupil, as the organ that is the most sensible and responsive to sunlight, and the phallus, as the most active organ.

The combination of those two parts will provide for endless reception and creation of the world. Additionally, the light body without inner organs will be able to overcome gravity and learn to fly. The perfect body manufactured with the face of Yuri Gagarin by the Cradle of Humankind corporation represents the first experiments in this field. Tourists are offered a unique service: they get the chance to resurrect their ancestors, thus performing an operation advertised as the highest aim of any living human being.

Zhilyaev interlaces the idealism of outer-space exploration with humanity’s hopes relying on technology in the stained-glass window with the figure of a futuristic Prometheus, which symbolizes both colonialist tendencies and the inhuman consumerist approach toward life and memory. The story behind this practice remains unrevealed: we never find out if the Russian Federation as we know it in 2015 still exists, or if these are just local cultural peculiarities being praised in this particular place. Nor do we know if the technology actually works, or what social, cultural, and political effects it has. The unsettling environment combines sci-fi aesthetics with a modernist utopia and Eastern exuberance.

3RD ROOM

Konstantin Tsiolkovsky was one of the fathers of the Russian space program back in the late nineteenth century. Self-educated and working as a schoolteacher in a small provincial town, Tsiolkovsky managed to develop the concepts of reactive motion as well as the basic principles of rocket construction. He was profoundly involved in developments of philosophical thought in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Calling himself an utter materialist and perceiving the universe as a complicated but cognizable system, he believed in the overall harmony of the world, inhabited by a multitude of civilizations. He believed in the sensitivity of materiality and that humanity would transform itself into an immaterial “radiant” state during the course of its development. This combination of a pragmatic scientific mind with limitless optimism and idealism are typical features of Russian Cosmism. Zhilyaev examines this by juxtaposing one of the genuine (although slightly altered) tracts with new drawings of Tsiolkovsky after resurrection. An Album of Cosmic Journeys explores the conditions of life in zero gravity in outer space and demonstrates the technical aspects of rocket launch and movement, as well as Tsiolkovsky’s life, in the reconstruction of his rocket as a branch of the Cradle of Humankind museum network, represented by personal things.

4TH ROOM

The last room of Cradle of Humankind is dedicated to the history of the universe before the Big Bang. What is there to say about a time when there was nothing? Zhilyaev singles out two main concepts, the void and rhythm-complementary forces that together acquire the potential to engender primary energy and turn it into something substantial. Just as the whole installation is built on a juxtaposition of opposite approaches, here the method reachesits climax. There are two main visual elements in the room: copies of Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square (according to legend 4 “original” by artist and 5 painted after resurrection) and kitschy maneki-nekos, Asian cat figurines that serve as charms for luck and wealth. The paintings are black, the figurines golden; the images are endlessly static, the cats’ paws are moving; the squares stand for the very height of artistic expression, while the cats are a symbol of an aesthetically depleted, commercially manufactured commodity. Zhilyaev makes modernism and postmodernism confront each other. Mingled in the same space, the items are drawn into a single cosmic experience of persistence, hope, greed, and inspiration.