Russia has a long history of fascination with space. In 1893, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, an astronautics pioneer who devised the Tsiolkovsky rocket equation, penned “On the Moon” (translated in Red Star Tales, published in 2015 by Russian Life Books), a short story that uses art as a medium for marveling about lunar physics.
Soon after, the country saw an explosion of science fiction that, though mostly unknown in the West, easily matches the Western sci-fi oeuvre in size and scale of imagination. Between the 1905 revolution and the end of the NEP, space in fiction was a stage on which to perform ongoing debates over socialism, industrialization, and the future of Soviet Russia. By Khrushchev’s time, space had become the final frontier (to quote Gene Roddenberry) of Communism.
The race to conquer space took on existential dimensions: if the Soviet Union could conquer the cosmos, then it could prove once and for all that it, and not the capitalist West, held a messianic mandate to transform the world in its image.
Things look different in Russia today. In fiction and art, there has been a turn from works about space to fantasy and speculative fiction about Earth. Meanwhile, Roscosmos, Russia’s national space program, is plagued with technical issues and corruption allegations. Is there any room in the artistic world for a space lover? Director Anna Radchenko seems to think so.
“Space is part of every Russian’s DNA,” Radchenko asserts, and that will always be true no matter whether space is or isn’t at the forefront of the cultural imagination. And thus, to commemorate this year’s Cosmonautics Day (April 12, commemorating the day in 1961 that Yuri Gagarin became the first person in space), as well as express her own longtime fascination with the unknown, she has directed a two-minute short film, Kokosmos, a surreal fantasy that visually dissects the concept of space.
Radchenko’s primary inspiration is Japanese manga artist Shintaro Kago, whose illustrations famously deconstruct the human body and put it back together in unsettling, yet deliberate and symmetrical, ways. What Kago does for the human body, Radchenko does for the idea of space.
The film opens with the image of a pink crystal inside a cosmonaut helmet, a juxtaposition of a piece of technology that usually carries a human (the cosmonaut suit) and an inorganic object that nevertheless glows with a life of its own. A few scenes later, we realize that this cosmonaut is one of several scattered along a forest floor, all with their helmet visors down. We do not know if they are alive or dead, or even if the suits have anyone inside them.
Contrast this image with that of Valentina Tereshkova spilling out of her capsule upon landing on Earth. Tereshkova has taken off her suit, while curious fellow humans surround the scene.
In Radchenko's scene, however, there are no people. Space is larger than all of us, as is human curiosity about space. Gagarin is dead and Tereshkova will die eventually, and every cosmonaut in the future will at some point face their end. After we humans have died, the only evidence of our existence will be the suits that we made in our image.
Later in Kokosmos, model Yana Dobroliubova portrays multiple guises of a humanoid yet otherworldly being. Sometimes the character is depicted with multiple small eyes where her right eye should be, each tiny eye surveiling its own corner of the universe. At one point, when the character holds open her eyes, we see in them the expanses of space, and planets tumble out like tears.
Much as we talk about Mother Earth, this is Mother Space: she is maternal in the most literal sense of bringing life. She is simultaneously a “higher being,” according to Radchenko, who draws the planets along their orbits, and almost disgustingly human, with pink goo running from her tongue and a snail languishing on the back of her neck. At the film’s end, she explodes in a geyser of crystals that consolidates into a single pink crystal, much like the one from the film’s beginning. A fragment of Mother Space, it seems, resides in all of those who seek to explore the universe.
Earlier works of Russian/Soviet space-centered art and literature saw space as a means to an end, a stage on which to play out philosophical debates or an empty expanse to be conquered.
Radchenko, however, envisions space as a character with agency: unpredictable, omnipotent, and part of all of us. In a way, space is almost divine. Even if you are not religious, every time you look up to wonder at the stars, you are worshipping at the altar of Mother Space.
Director and Executive Producer: Anna Radchenko
Co-director: Mikhail Svjatogor
DoP: Roman Yudin
Producer: Anastasia Limarenko
Model: Yana Dobroliubova
CG Artist and Supervisor: Murat Kılıç
CG artist: Yanis Georges
CG compositing: Murat Kılıç
Music and Sound Design: Lister Rossel, Utkucan Eken - We Are Playhead
Singer: Alyusha Chagrin
Editors: Suga Supiah, Ikki Dhesi
Colour: Tobias Tomkins - CHEAT
Post-production producer: Jack Goodwin - KODE media
Make-up: Darya Kholodnykh
Stylist: Anna Bakhareva
Fashion designers: o5o.moscow, AVA11, Go Authentic, Anya Komyagina
Banerjee, Anindita. 2017. Russian Science Fiction Literature and Cinema: A Critical Reader. Cultural Syllabus. Boston: Academic Studies Press.
Laruelle, Marlène. 2019. Russian Nationalism: Imaginaries, Doctrines, and Political Battlefields. Abington, Oxon: Routledge.
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