If no country will accept refugees from Syria, then why not resettle them on Mars? That’s the provocative—and only semi-facetious—proposal made by artist Halil Altındere in his exhibition “Space Refugees” at Neuer Berliner Kunstverein (NBK). The idea is not so far-fetched, in certain ways. The Syrian refugees have a cosmonaut among them, Muhammed Ahmed Faris, who has already traveled into space aboard a Soviet Soyuz TM-3 spacecraft and spent nearly eight days on the Mir space-station in 1987. Like millions of his fellow Syrians, the national hero fled the violence of Bashar al-Assad’s regime and now lives in Turkey, where he survives by giving talks to school children in Istanbul. And like many displaced by the war, Faris’s expertise was being squandered, so Altındere (symbolically) recruited him for the mission of a lifetime.
“Space Refugees” begins with a hero-like—or Buzz Lightyear-like—miniature figurine of Faris in a space suit beneath a blue-neon sign of the exhibition title in Arabic. Faris’s biography is depicted through a series of paintings, found in the Soviet space program’s archives of the cosmonaut, portraying him at home, in uniform and with Soviet colleagues. Altındere had these images re-painted by the young artist Alican Leblebici and framed them in a flexible blue-neon tubing which makes them appear to float in front of the museum’s darkened walls. Adding to the ersatz science-museum presentation are three space suits—one adult and two child size, stitched from a quilted fabric that looks more home-sewn than high-tech—paired with footage that recreates Faris’s voyage from a Soviet launch pad over the Middle East, up to the Mir space station and then beyond the solar system, presented in a winking rendering of clichéd sci-fi graphics (think “warp speed”). These objects, as well as a VR film, are more fully elaborated in a filmic work at the exhibition’s center.
As two Turkish scientists, Umut Yıldız and Alper Aydemir, who both work for NASA, explain in Altındere’s 20-minute video Space Refugee (2016), the human colonization of Mars is likely in coming decades. The quasi-documentary also features Faris himself, who proudly points out that modern Syria was the site of some of the first human civilizations on earth 10,000 years ago. He further notes that those peoples had pioneered agriculture and figured out how to extract iron from the earth and make it into tools—the implication being that Syrians would be perfect pioneers for the arid but iron-rich planet of Mars. Scenes of this imagined voyage to Mars, dubbed by Altındere as the “Palmyra” mission after the ancient city in central Syria, depict geodesic domes on the plains of a craggy landscape navigated by astronauts and rovers. “I hope we can build cities for them there in space where there is freedom and dignity, and where there is no tyranny, no injustice,” says Faris after Nazlı Can, an aviation lawyer explains that several international treaties have already prohibited claims of national sovereignty in space.
Altındere’s “modest proposal” walks a fine line between the far-fetched and the plausible, the serious and the humorous (and sometimes even the hokey). The Martian landscape depicted in the film, for example, is quite obviously Cappadocia, an area of central Anatolia (in Turkey) known for its other-worldly landscape of rock formations, cave dwellings and rock churches. But this setting isn’t entirely incidental. As Sefer Çağlar, from the Istanbul design firm Autoban explains, Martian colonizers will need to build underground cities to live in—much like the people who inhabited Cappadocia, many of them Christians who sought refuge during the Roman empire and later centuries when Turkic peoples and Islam had spread across Anatolia. And the Martian settlers, for all their futuristic technology, will likely resemble the subsistence of the potato farmers of Cappadocia, whose soil is similar to that on Mars. In these ways, Altındere’s vision of human civilization’s future looks much like its past, as groups are compelled to set off into the great unknown to start life again, in order to re-establish their communities.
The plight of Syrian refugees has been a theme in two other recent works by Altındere that were shown elsewhere in Berlin this year. The music video Homeland (2016) was featured in the Berlin Biennale and stars Syrian rapper Mohammad Abu Hajar rapping about his journey out of Syria, across Turkey, into Greece and eventually onto Germany, where he lives today. The video begins with shots of a yoga class being held at a resort on the Turkish coast while refugees jump into inflatable boats in order to cross to a nearby Greek island. It is a scenario that looks ridiculously implausible on camera, but very much encapsulates the real situation on the touristic Aegean coast during the summer of 2015, when thousands and thousands of refugees crossed the sea while millions of Turks and tourists enjoyed their vacations. Altındere’s works have always trafficked in colliding such explicit contradictions—like showing his mother sitting on divan adorned with multicolored floral cushions reading a book about pop art, or a portrait of a transgender woman in a state-hospital nurse uniform, with her shirt open and holding a finger to her mouth.
In the same vein, another work that was recently shown in Berlin was Köfte Airlines (2016), a billboard-sized photograph of dozens of refugees sitting atop a plane that recalls iconic photographs of other mass-migrations—like those of over-crowded trains during the 1947 Partition of the Indian Subcontinent—which was displayed at the HAU Hebbel-am-Ufer theater in September. As with other of Altındere’s projects, Köfte Airlines is an imagined absurdity wrapped in real absurdity. In northwestern Turkey, there is in fact a restaurant called “Uçak Restaurant” serving Turkish meatballs (köfte) outside a decommissioned Köfte Airlines passenger jet sitting in a field by the highway. Addressing real tragedies with some measure of humor may strike some viewers as glib, but serious discussions around the Syrian refugee crisis have proved futile and arguably far more dehumanizing (body counts and government expenditures are the main currencies in this crisis). Of course absurdity is the last-ditch measure of discourse, but that’s where we are in 2016. So why not let Faris lead Syrian refugees to Mars?
Halil Altındere’s “Space Refugee” is on view at Neuer Berliner Kunstverein, Berlin, until November 6, 2016.
HG Masters is editor at large of ArtAsiaPaciifc.