A remote Russian observatory housing what was once the world’s largest mirrored telescope has become the setting for an art installation that explores the near-infinite reaches of both outer space and the human imagination. The works on display at the Special Astrophysical Observatory by artists from Russia and Austria reflect their views of life, history and the cosmos. They also bring the observatory, where visitors once were prohibited, into the public eye.
Operational since the 1970s, the observatory and the village that houses its staff offered some of the best conditions in the Soviet Union. In those days, the scientific elite were eager to live here, bringing their families to a purpose-built town with its own laboratories, schools, sports facilities and shops.
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The observatory’s 6-meter telescope was the largest in the world from 1976 to 1993, when the title passed to the Keck I telescope in Hawaii.
In the past two decades, the facilities’ prestige has deteriorated along with the post-Soviet economy. Young people leave Nizhny Arkhyz for better opportunities outside the Caucasus Mountains village some 1370 kilometers (850 miles) south of Moscow where the observatory is located, and it is harder to recruit and retain talented scientists.
“All the people who live here in this village are enthusiastic. They are slightly crazy with their science because of their activity and their fanatic tendency to observe, to study stars and galaxies,” former observatory director Yuri Balega said. “Only because of that we are still alive and we can continue.”
Photographs by Yuri Palmin evoke both the comfort of the old days and the melancholy of the present, showing the clean lines of the purpose-built ‘Nauchny Gorodok’ (Science Village) nestled in forested hills, but with public spaces devoid of people. The village’s population has declined by about a third from its height, to about 800 people.
Much of the artwork, though, attempts to portray the spiritual connection astronomers have to their work. Russian artist Irina Korina created small “street shrines” around the village, dedicated to “the mysteries scientists still labor to unravel.”
In Anna Titova’s installation “Why Work?” visitors can lie on a bench while gazing at a wind-god drawn in green neon tubing on the ceiling. As visitors leave, their shoes track pigment in silver trails across the floor.
“When it’s dry, it is like sand, but when you step on it, it becomes metallic silver color and I thought that this could be the closest metaphor to stardust, as if the stars are made here,” Titova said.
Curator Simon Mraz, of the Austrian Cultural Forum in Moscow, worked with identical twin sisters who are from the region to bring the exhibit to this remote corner of Russia: Mariana Guber-Gogova, whose Gogova Foundation supports contemporary art in Russia and Kazakhstan, and Madina Gogova, who is the representative in Moscow of the Karachayevo-Cherkessia Republic, where the observatory is located.
Mraz said he was inspired to do the exhibit by how “people are in their scientific world and the artists are in a completely different also possibly isolated world, wherever they are working.” He wanted to see the two worlds meet and watch creative sparks fly.
Alexander Moskavin, 31, a specialist in gamma bursts who plays drums in the Observatory’s rock band, is part of a new generation of Russian astrophysicists. He thinks art and science have much in common.
Both “reflect on why we are here and the other big philosophical questions’, he says, and “this unites us.”