How to Deal With Dystopia: “The Missing Planet” at Pecci Centre, Prato
by Sofia Gotti
The exhibition The Missing Planet: Visions and re-visions of ‘Soviet Times’ from the Pecci Centre’s and other collections presents artworks from countries under Soviet influence—from the Balkans to Central Asia—spanning a period from just before Perestroika to the present day. The show examines how artists grappled with the legacies of failed utopian projects—from Soviet Communism, to space colonization, to those of the Russian historical avant-gardes—and presents the tangible tensions between utopia and dystopia, memory and ruin, and science fiction and archeology. The exhibition’s venue could not be more apt; the Pecci Centre in Prato, Tuscany, is the product of a retrofuturistic architectural intervention by Maurice Nio onto an original 1980s building by Italo Gamberini.
The Pecci Centre looks like a U.F.O. that just landed. As you walk into this unusual environment and up a flight of stairs to the exhibition space, you are accompanied by a life-size photomural of a crowd also climbing a staircase. The photograph was sourced by Vladislav Shapovalov from the Italy-USSR archives, which contain the documentation sent from the USSR to Italy as propaganda. It depicts a mass ascending an iconic staircase in Milan, a meeting spot near Piazza del Duomo during Soviet Week in 1967. Crowds are an uncommon occurrence in Italy at the moment, as the recent coronavirus outbreak has forced all forms of public assembly to be temporarily banned. When entering an exhibition that explicitly addresses the failures and legacies of the Soviet utopian project, it can be productive to draw parallels with the current socio-political climate. In today’s context, the exhibition shows us how artists have dealt with dystopia and the collapse of an ideological and economic system.
The show’s backbone is Andrej Tarkosky’s iconic 1972 film Solaris, which is referenced time and again throughout the display. The film, based on the homonymous 1961 sci-fi novel by Stanisław Lem, tells the story of a space mission to the planet Solaris. Imagined to be a potential alternative planet to Earth, Solaris could also represent Planet Nine, the hypothetical celestial body located in the furthest regions of the solar system. Building on that metaphor, the exhibition considers the USSR—the ideological alternative to the West—as the missing planet. In doing so, it examines the epistemological consequences of the USSR’s vanishing.
At the beginning of the exhibition path, the display evokes the space station in Tarkovsky’s film, and it sets out to collapse the linear passing of time. It brings us on a journey backwards from the present to the late 1970s, right before Perestroika. Because the galleries of the museum are circular (the end of the tour returns you back to the beginning), the visual journey guides the viewer on a loop, seeking to confuse linear notions of time and space. The first section of the exhibition is themed Space travels in another world (the museum, the cinema, the cosmos) and it features works by artists working on the legacies of Soviet Russia today. Prominent is the film trilogy Immortality for All (2014-2017) by Anton Vidokle. The work studies the relevance of cosmism, a philosophical position that was diffused in Russia at the end of the nineteenth century. Cosmism promoted the unification of religion, technology, ethics, evolution and art, and understood the cosmos and humankind as inseparable: a theoretical shift supposed to make immortality possible. The objective of the films is on one hand historical and on the other experimental. They seek to highlight the importance of cosmism in the construction and destruction of Soviet Russia by making reference to cosmist thinkers, including the movement’s founder Nikolai Fedorov and artists like Kazimir Malevich. Meanwhile, they challenge the ways we understand space, time, life, and death in the West. For example, in the final installment of the work, Vidokle tests Fedorov’s idea of the museum as a site of resurrection of the dead.
The exhibition unfolds across two further sections. The post-Soviet space and the impossible transition, examines highly politicized artistic production right after the fall of the Soviet Union, marking a decisive break from the a-temporal and space-like display at the beginning. Here, we find the video work Perestroika Songspiel (2008-2010) by the collective Chto Delat? (literally meaning what is to be done?). Songspiels are a Brechtian neologism that pun on the German word for popular opera singspiel. In this work, the group replace the lyrics of traditional funerary songs with a critique of official narratives around the Westernization of Russia since Perestroika.
The final section, The space of the perestroika and the end of a world, features historical works by Moscow Conceptualism as well as Apt-Art, reflecting the unofficial art production that was frequently shown in apartments to avoid censorship until 1991. Accompanying viewers across this temporal transition is Deimantas Narkevicius’ Once in the XX Century (2004), a video showing in rewind mode the taking down of a monumental sculpture of Lenin in Lithuania, which fools the viewer into thinking the sculpture is being erected. Around the corner, Sergey Volkov’s Art Storage (1990), a collection of objects in formaldehyde, continues a commentary on what a transition towards the West might implicate for culture. Nearby, the poetic work by Ilya Kabakov Concert for a Blue Fly and Yellow Pencil (1990), reflects on mechanisms of control and surveillance. Composed of seven lecterns—each supporting a drawing of a fly and a pencil, organized in a circle around a suspended yellow pencil and a drawing of a fly—the work exhibits modes of control, even on the simplest things: a fly and a pencil. Finally, the mood of the section is lifted with Soviet responses to Pop, such as Leonid Sokov’s Two Profiles (1990), the gilded bronze profile of Stalin superimposed onto a photograph of Marilyn Monroe. The overall checklist of works showcases pieces that have seldom (if ever) been shown publicly in Italy. Yet, I must in good conscience lament the small number of women artists represented. Admittedly, the field is male-dominated and much work is yet to be retrieved from history, but an effort in that direction surely would have borne fertile fruits.
At the end of this review, the museum’s historic commitment to Soviet art must be celebrated. Amongst its first exhibition projects was Contemporary Russian Artists, curated by curator Amnon Barzel and scholar Claudia Jolles in 1990, the year prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union, which marked a sense of deep uncertainty and optimism for an unclear future. This project was followed in 2007 by Progressive Nostalgia, curated by Russian theorist and curator Viktor Misiano, which conversely presented the sense of disillusionment and failure that characterized post-Soviet cultural production. The Missing Planet weighs out the theses of both prior exhibitions. The show is curated by Marco Scotini—who has notably organized multiple research-led exhibitions in the field including Non-Aligned Modernity Eastern-European Art from the Marinko Sudac Collection (FM Center for Contemporary Art, Milan, 2016)—in collaboration with Stefano Pezzato, expert conservator at the Museum.
The display of the exhibition was designed by artist Can Altay. His practice is centered on activating the public space by, in his words, questioning “how we inhabit the institutional frames we are subjected to.”1 The particular success of the design is that the viewer’s body is involved in the experience of the art. Especially when it comes to archival documentation and video—the hardest elements to display in compelling ways—the design is conducive to interaction, making the show accessible, and (dare I say it?) fun. To watch a video, one may climb scaffolds or walk around the structure supporting the screen. Being exposed to the technical apparatus of the display opens up space for participation, where the viewer takes agency in the process of “re-vision” of “Soviet Times” hoped for in the exhibition.
In some ways, The Missing Planet can help us map out pathways to escape certain conditions of collapse or retreat that have characterized international (and specifically Italian) socio-politics over the past month. “The idea […] is to propose through art, a complex reading of the great forces that are transforming our present, one that stands in opposition of all too frequent simplifications,” explains Cristina Perrella, director of the Centro Pecci.2 As she suggests, a recognition of complexity may offer counterpoints to feelings engendered by dystopian circumstances. The missing planet may just be the ideological alternative we need to alter the status quo.
Note: This review was written before the radical measures to contain COVID-19 were implemented in Italy, when museums and stores were still open to the public.
1. Can Altay in email correspondence with the author, 5 March 2020
2. Original: “L’idea della mia direzione è quella di proporre, attraverso l’arte, una lettura complessa—che si opponga alle semplificazioni molto frequenti—delle grandi forze che stanno trasformando il nostro presente.” See: https://www.exibart.com/opening/al-centro-pecci-luca-vitone-mario-rizzi-e-the-missing-planet/
at Centro Pecci, Prato
until 3 May 2020