Issue #142 Introduction to Cosmos Cinema

Introduction to Cosmos Cinema

Anton Vidokle

Trevor Paglen, Prototype for a Nonfunctional Satellite (Design 4; Build 4), 2015–2018. Courtesy of the artist, Altman Siegel Gallery, and Pace Gallery. Photo: Power Station of Art.

Issue #142
February 2024

As an artist I work primarily with film. When the academic committee of the Shanghai Biennale approached me about curating a new edition, I immediately thought that I would like to focus on the cinematic potential of an art exhibition. But rather than simply include a lot of moving-image work in the show, I wanted to use the tools and methods of filmmaking—editing, montage, scenography and staging, sound and narrative—to make an exhibition.

In a sense, filmmaking is diametrically opposed to museography. Museums use space to create an atmosphere of contemplation, while cinema works by exercising the emotions through psychological projection and immersion in time. Yet there are similarities between exhibition curating and film editing in how the selection, juxtaposition, and combination of objects and images produces meaning. The most radical and dynamic syntax in filmmaking is generated by montage, which operates both at the granular level of individual frames and in constructing larger sections of narrative. It was montage’s focus on the recombination of elements to produce new meanings and states that I wanted to explore.1

Taking inspiration from Stanisław Lem’s 1961 science-fiction novel Solaris, the Solaristics room responds to the following questions: Is it even possible for humans to conceptualize an extra-terrestrial intelligence? And might art help us to imagine a consciousness radically different from our own? Photo: Power Station of Art.

In addition to this, I wanted to experiment with the application of such cinematic devices as scenography, sound and music, and the contrast between light and darkness to foster an experience of estrangement or defamiliarization that museography has historically lacked.2 Considering the contemporary interest in engaged, immersive, participatory experiences of art, it’s surprising that there have been so few attempts to curate an exhibition-as-film.3 This is precisely what we tried to do with “Cosmos Cinema.”

This exhibition-as-film also draws on more than a decade of research into the relationship between our understanding of the cosmos and our attitudes to life, death, and immortality. Art has from the very beginning been deeply intertwined with reflections on our position within the cosmos and what this might teach us of mortality. My goal with “Cosmos Cinema” was to consider how these themes are addressed by artists working both historically and today, and to place these artists into new sets of relations.

The starting point for this was my long-standing interest in cosmism, which has guided much of my own practice as an artist. This unusual philosophy investigates the possibility of technological immortality, the ethical imperative of materially resurrecting every being that has ever lived, and ways of populating the cosmos. The main premise of its founder, Nikolai Fedorov,4 is that human evolution is incomplete because we are still mortal. Death is the enemy from which not only the living but the dead must be liberated by all possible means: all science, technology, medicine, and art must be directed towards this end. As our planet cannot sustain every resurrected being, the natural conclusion of these premises is that we must urgently become an interplanetary species adapted to life in the cosmos.

Developed in late nineteenth century Russia, these ideas were taken up by scientists, intellectuals, and artists after the October Revolution. It can be argued that cosmism made an impact on aspects of Soviet society ranging from state-funded healthcare to the development of manned spaceflight. As an artist, I was fascinated by the imprint it left on the artistic imaginary. In fact, from about 1920 onwards, it’s hard to find a significant artist, dramaturge, poet, architect, or filmmaker in the USSR who was not in some way affected by these ideas. The Black Square of Kazimir Malevich made its first appearance in a futurist opera titled Victory over the Sun (1913) and can be seen as a mimetic representation of the cosmos; Vladimir Tatlin’s proposed Monument to the Third International (1919–20) is angled to reproduce the planetary tilt of the earth in relation to the sun; architects such as Ivan Leonidov created a system of proportions based on relations within the solar system; even the technique of biomechanics5 for actors developed by Vsevolod Meyerhold had as its secondary goal to harmonize terrestrial life with the cosmos through movement (a tertiary goal was to produce immortality).

In the context of museography, Fedorov proposed that the museum should be an observatory with hands and feet. This meant that the act of looking was not one of passive contemplation; it should rather provide the observer with tools to transform the chosen subjects of their gaze, no matter how remote. The kind of action at a distance he alludes to is meant to animate and spiritualize the cosmos: to make dead matter alive, conscious, and capable of thoughts and feelings. This includes the resurrection of dead ancestors.

My research into cosmism led me eventually to artists outside of the Soviet avant-garde working with the same themes, from ancient civilizations to contemporary artists. Artists working today have addressed cosmist themes through a range of forms, from works on the implications of new technologies to the varied meditations on spirituality, agriculture, medicine, science fiction, economics, computing, astronomy, urban design, and ancient and Indigenous cosmologies that are gathered in “Cosmos Cinema.” And these attempts to intuit and express the relationship between life on earth and the totality of the cosmos can be traced backwards through the histories of art, architecture, music, and literature.

Erika Velická, 222.3, 2023. Concrete and iron, 190 × 190 × 600cm. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Power Station of Art.

It can convincingly be argued that modernity as a whole, and specifically abstract art, flows from the desire to reimagine human relations with the cosmos. Piet Mondrian and Wassily Kandinsky were deeply inspired by theosophy, while Rudolf Steiner’s doctrine of anthroposophy—according to which “cosmic beings” inhabit the higher planes of reality and have played a role in the evolution of humanity—had a profound impact on artists from Hilma af Klint to Paul Klee and Joseph Beuys, as well as on movement and dance, architecture, education, and even agriculture (through the principles of biodynamic farming). In his lectures, Steiner even discussed the existence of spiritual beings associated with different planets in the solar system. Helena Blavatsky also developed and promoted many of these ideas, including the doctrine of the intelligent evolution of all existence, which describes our world as part of a larger cosmos that includes many other levels or dimensions. In terms of film, Alexander Kluge writes that cinema is itself ontologically cosmic because we experience both cinema and the cosmos as flickers of light in the darkness: light that carries information about the past, present, and future.

Humans have always made sense of our own lives, families, and social organizations by inserting ourselves into the systems that order the cosmos. Large segments of the world’s population still believe that the positions of the stars and planets have a measurable and predictable influence on human affairs, with certain constellations associated with good or bad fortune. In Chinese cosmology, the positions and movements of the sun, the moon, stars, and planets effect the flow of qi—a cosmic energy that enables all things—so that disturbances in this balance lead to disruptions in the natural world. These events, such as solar and lunar eclipses, were believed to have negative effects on human well-being. In all their variety, these complex systems establish a relationship between the microcosm and the macrocosm.

Just as the position of the stars and planets at the time of a person’s birth might determine their health, relationships, and career, they are also thought to prefigure our final destination or dwelling place. The star Sirius was associated in Egyptian religion with Isis and was a symbol of immortality; the Pole Star was believed to be the abode of the Hindu gods. In traditional Chinese cosmology, the “Great Emperor of the North Star” achieved eternal life through his mastery of Taoist practices. In some Taoist texts, he is referred to as the “Emperor of the Tao” and symbolizes immortality as the ultimate goal of spiritual cultivation.

Just as the planets are named for gods in the Greco-Roman tradition, so in Mayan, Aztec, and other pre-Columbian civilizations celestial bodies were interpreted as divinities moving between the earth, the underworld, and across the sky. These gods were deeply involved in human affairs, and events in Mayan life were planned to coincide with celestial moments. The Mayans built astronomical tools and observatories, and kept records of solstices, equinoxes, and zenithal passage days, using these astronomical observations to determine farming cycles and religious practices. Knowledge of the cosmos was deeply integrated into their culture and mythology, and in a practical sense offered significant social power.

All of these examples demonstrate that humans have throughout history and in diverse cultural contexts understood social life on earth as intimately entwined with the operations of the cosmos. One of the earliest known works of literature, the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, exemplifies this. Composed as a long poem more than five thousand years ago in one of the earliest urban centers, the Mesopotamian city of Uruk, it tells the story of a quest for immortality launched by Gilgamesh, the King of Uruk, who falls into despair following the death of his best friend Enkidu. The sight of the decomposing corpse of the person he held most dear is grotesque and traumatic, and it makes him realize that he too could meet the same fate. Throughout his journey, Gilgamesh communicates with the gods through dreams and the observation of celestial bodies. In another important Sumerian literary work, the Enūma Eliš, the movements and daily activities of Sumerian celestial gods are described in terms similar to the trajectories of planets and comets in the solar system: hypnotically circular, recurrent, cyclical. All possible knowledge was thought to be contained in the night sky. The ability to read the heavens and its constellations of stars—almost as though it were a newspaper—was a highly valued skill requiring extensive education.

Observation of the cosmos and contemplation of our position within it thus played a key role in the development of agriculture, architecture, medicine, social and political organization, marriage and reproduction, military planning, and many other aspects of human civilization in all its expressions. And yet, to the best of my knowledge, there have been no major exhibitions devoted to this rich tradition. This is especially astounding given the urgency with which humanity is now trying to reimagine its damaged and degraded relationship to the systems of which it is a part. Given the proliferation of recent work on art’s entanglement with its terrestrial environment—nature, climate, forests, oceans, ecology, biology, extraction—it seems like an appropriate moment to expand the scope of these investigations to include the cosmos.

“Cosmos Cinema” brings together artworks and films by more than a hundred artists from many parts of the world and spanning more than a century. We conceived the show as a cross section of thought with and about the cosmos. The selection is just a glimpse into the myriad practices of artists working with cosmist themes, but we hope it marks a good beginning. To my mind, each new imaginary of life beyond earth leads to new imaginaries of life on earth, whether literary, scientific, technological, or political. In our complex, tense times, when interplanetary travel is posited largely as a form of escape from the problems of life on earth, perhaps a new imaginary of life in the cosmos could point towards a more harmonious terrestrial life as well.

Arseny Zhilyaev, Shanghainese Operations Room. Performance duration approximately 15–30 minutes. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Power Station of Art.






Filmmakers such as Sergei Eisenstein were explicitly indebted to the cosmological and philosophical systems rooted in Chinese culture for their embrace of modular and aleatory processes, such as the Nine Palaces, feng shui, the I Ching, and the character-based writing system.


The protocol of the museum as a site of calm contemplation might be traced back to the opening of the royal collection to the French public in the wake of the Revolution. This treasure horde of decadent monarchs excited a violently negative reaction until the painter Hubert Robert had the brilliant idea of adding didactic labels that repositioned these luxury items as objects of educational, “scientific,” and contemplative study. Emotions and feelings were too dangerous to countenance, so they were suppressed in favor of cool analysis.


Jean-Luc Godard’s exhibition “Voyage(s) en Utopie” at the Centre Pompidou in 2006 used montage as an organizational principle. Similarly, montage was cited as an influence on Georges Didi-Huberman and Arno Gisinger’s curation of “Nouvelles Histoires de Fantômes” at Palais de Tokyo, 2014.


Russian librarian, 1829–1903.


A system of physical training for movement on stage.

Philosophy, Contemporary Art, Religion & Spirituality
Cosmism, The Cosmos, Biennials, Soviet Union
Return to Issue #142

I would like to express my sincere gratitude to Boris Groys, who first introduced me to the philosophy of cosmism, and whose thinking and writing has deeply influenced my approach to this and many other subjects over the years. I would also like to thank my cocurators and all the artists who took the risk of participating in this unusual project.

Anton Vidokle is an editor of e-flux journal and chief curator of the 14th Shanghai Biennale: Cosmos Cinema.


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