Eve Sussman and Rufus Corporation

Fort Worth Contemporary Arts

Benjamin Lima

Eve Sussman and Rufus Corporation, Yuri's Office, 2008; mixed media; 9 x 16.5 x 11 feet; courtesy the artists and Fort Worth Contemporary Arts, Fort Worth

Yuri’s Office, an installation by Eve Sussman and Rufus Corporation, is a palimpsest of media. The artists visited the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonauts Training Center in Star City, Russia, where Sussman photographed the office of legendary cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the first human being in space. A painstaking reconstruction of the office based on the photograph is on display at Fort Worth Contemporary Arts. The photo itself is on view too, off to the right side of the environment, enabling a comparison. The reconstruction pointedly reflects its photographic origins: it is cropped on the left side, where the photograph stops; its edges recede at an eighty-seven-degree angle, mimicking the foreshortening in the image; and there is an unsettling blurriness in the fine details (of the map on the rear wall and the inkjet-printed carpet), just as in the image itself. It appears unstable, even hyperreal. In contrast to a work such as Thomas Demand’s Poll (2001)—an office reproduced in paper, then photographed—here, the sense of unstable reality coexists with tactility and texture.

The layout and contents of the office generally correspond to expectations. In this sense, its very ordinariness is a mark of Gagarin’s distinction; that is, he became such a hero that not only his space capsule and suit but even his unspectacular office are worthy of conscientious preservation. It is also easy to read the careful diligence with which Yuri’s Office was constructed as a kind of homage to the cosmonaut. The technical feat of perfect reproduction looks like a sign of reverence to Gagarin, whatever ironic overtones may also be intended by Sussman and Rufus Corporation. The installation suggests that even the space program, quintessential symbol of modernity, can produce icons, relics and shrines.

Gagarin was a hero many times over. The peak of his celebrity lasted from 1961, when he became the first human being to escape the force of gravity and orbit Earth, to 1968, when he was killed during a test flight and buried in the Kremlin Wall Necropolis with other Soviet heroes. Every decade since, he has been the subject of Soviet, later Russian, commemorative coins issued on the anniversary of his historic 1961 space flight. However, his fame specifically transcended national borders and the Cold War. Both Western and Soviet publics could admire his achievements and his charisma. The British writer Richard Evans, visiting Star City for the BBC in June of this year, recalled how Gagarin had been “mobbed by thousands of people” on a 1961 arrival in Manchester, England. He was young, good-looking and athletic; one might even say Kennedy-esque. Gagarin’s tragic, violent death—like that of JFK, RFK or, indeed, James Dean—set the stage for hero worship.

Eve Sussman and Rufus Corporation, Yuri's Office (detail), 2008; mixed media; 9 x 16.5 x 11 feet; courtesy the artists and Fort Worth Contemporary Arts, Fort Worth

Gagarin’s period of space exploration also stands for an era when techno-scientific optimism was expressed through the rapid expansion of scale and distance. The United States and the USSR competed to build more and bigger. Recently, the frontier metaphor is more often invoked in the microscopic contexts of nanotechnology, genomics and particle physics. At the same time, the practice of space exploration itself has been reduced to the scale of Earth orbit and become commercially available to select billionaires. In Yuri’s Office, the heyday of superpower ambition and scale is suggested through the enormous wall map and the sleek metal rocket sculpture on the desk—Brancusi echoed in a symbol of national greatness.

Among the installation’s many resonances of universalizing modernist aspiration, the one that shows through perhaps most strongly, and surprisingly, is that of industrial design. All of the pieces of office furniture—chairs, desk, lamp, telephones, end table—are marked by a restrained good taste identifiable as Bauhaus heritage filtered through Danish Modern and Charles and Ray Eames, later to culminate in the worldwide triumph of IKEA. This too was a part of Soviet culture. To a nonexpert viewer, the most stereotypically “Soviet” aspects of the room may be those that reflect a degree of shabbiness: the tears (painstakingly reproduced) along the pull-down map’s lower edge, the grimy telephone cord that trails partway along the molding before falling irregularly across the wall, and the single fluorescent light tube hanging above the room’s front edge, wholly inadequate to its task. In the post-Cold War years, these may even come across as charming, evoking what Germans call Ostalgie, nostalgia for the East.

Installed in Texas, a home to the United States’ own space program, the effect of Yuri’s Office is less “ostalgic” than uncanny—an echo in another language. (Since 1993, Star City has been an official sister city of Nassau Bay, Texas, site of the Johnson Space Center.) The fact that the work is made by a New York-based artist with a concurrent exhibition at the Meadows Museum in nearby Dallas only adds to the sense of displacement, estrangement or, to reference the early twentieth-century Russian Formalists, ostranenie. Although this concept of ostranenie is what leads my own interpretation back to the Revolutionary moment in Russia, Sussman and Rufus Corporation actually make reference to the same milieu by a different but parallel path: they cite Kazimir Malevich’s Suprematist painting in reference to the genesis of both Yuri’s Office and their related film, whiteonwhite:algorithmicthriller (also set in Star City). Malevich and Star City both give concrete visual form to the primal yearning to escape the weight of Earth and its things. Yuri’s Office, on the other hand, presents those very things to us, albeit in an estranged form. In the end, the distance between Malevich’s otherworldliness and the Office’s blunt typicality may be the most thought-provoking aspect of this interesting work.

Benjamin Lima is assistant professor of modern and contemporary art history at the University of Texas at Arlington. His research concerns photography, media and performance in post-1945 art.

This exhibition will be on view until October 31, 2010.

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