Between Heaven and Earth: Himl un Erd (Yiddish Cosmos)

Yevgeniy Fiks, Heaven and Earth: Yiddish Cosmos, Stanton Street Shul, New York, November 18–December 16, 2018.

The Soviet Space Age visual project conjures familiar images of charismatic and triumphant cosmonauts, rockets, courageous animals, and dazzling, mysterious planets, all under the banner of the Red Star. During the Cold War, both the Soviet Union and its eternal rival, the United States, mounted sophisticated political projects using the visual arts to promote their own version of a utopian, innovative future and even laid claims to conquering and colonizing outerspace. Today, these efforts have been by and large historicized and the propaganda machine propelling them has been exposed. Yet, the allure of the Space Age future, as seen from the not-so-distant past, still has a hold on our consciousness.

Images framed on a wall. First is of an astronaut.

Installation view of Heaven and Earth (Yiddish Cosmos), Stanton Street Shul, 2018. Photographs: Igor Khodzinskiy.

In the historic Stanton Street Shul (The Stanton Street Shul is one of the few tenement shuls still left of the 700 LES congregations. Incorporated in 1893, the community of Jewish immigrants from the town of Brzezan in Southeast Galicia (formerly Austria-Hungary, then Poland, now Ukraine), created their place of worship from an existing structure on the site in 1913, within a thriving Lower East Side Jewish community. This is the first contemporary art exhibition in the shul.) on New York City’s Lower East Side, conceptual artist Yevgeniy Fiks invites audiences to take a different kind of voyage, revealing hidden aspects of this familiar Space Race history. It is not a story of a striking victory, but rather a reclamation of the narratives of Jewish anarchists, astronauts, scholars, and all those others who dreamed of a voyage to the stars but never quite reached their destination. Positioned above the first level of the shul, the exhibition is quite appropriately called Heaven and Earth: Yiddish Cosmos(The exhibition travelled to Galerie Sator, Paris (January 5 – February 9, 2019).), and it indeed appears suspended between two realms. It may seem an unlikely, though ingenious, location for such a presentation.(A “shul,” also commonly known as a synagogue, is a Yiddish word derived from the German word for “school,” and emphasizes the institution’s role as a place of study. ) Indeed, the stories woven together by Fiks appear utterly disparate at first glance: the Eastern-European Jewish experience in the Soviet Union and the United States; the Soviet space program; and the radical explorations of astrolinguistics, or interplanetary communication. As an artist who immigrated to the United States from the Soviet Union(Fiks was born in Moscow in 1972 and has been living and working in New York since 1994. He has produced numerous projects on the subject of the post-Soviet dialog in the West.), Fiks has a personal connection to these histories. In our conversations, he revealed that he considers his practice as a response to the forgotten histories of the Cold War within the post-Soviet space today, and especially the lesser-studied micro-historical narratives that have the potential of revealing complex relationships between the West and Russia in the twentieth century.

Fiks has divided the exhibition into three distinct, yet interconnected chapters, which I will analyze throughout this text. The first chapter of the story, chronologically speaking, is entitled “Cosmopolitans in Space” and revolves around the exploits of Volf Gordin (1889 -?)(Volf Grodin’s exact death year remains unknown.), a seminal, yet marginally studied, anarchist theoretician and Yiddish-speaker in the Russian Empire. Together with his brother Aba Gordin (1887-1964), he created his own organization; they called themselves “panarchists.”(Pananarchy refers to an all-embracing anarchy. “The Manifesto of the Pan-Anarchists,” the platform of the Society of Anarchists Communists, which the Gordin brothers founded in 1917, was directed towards those who suffered most under capitalism: workers, oppressed minorities, women, youth and the individual.) During the fateful revolutionary period between 1917 and 1920, the brothers put several publications on panarchism (Pananarchism recognizes different types of anarchism, emphasizing their commonalities rather than their differences. The movement goals are opposing and overthrowing statism, capitalism, and imperialism, and replacing these with, autonomous municipalities, decentralized cooperative economics, non-imperialist militia defense systems, and self-determination for cultural, ethnic, and religious communities.) into the world. However, Gordin’s calling not only lay beyond the boundaries of his native country but also those of this planet. His most significant achievement was the creation of AO, a language of cosmic and, in his view, universal communication, that is, being able to communicate across time, space, matter and the laws that govern them. The 1917 October Revolution was the perfect backdrop for such ambitious ideas to take form. The Bolshevik leaders of the newly created Soviet Union embraced science, technology, and the allure of space travel as gateways to an optimistic vision of the future in the wake of the tragedies of the First World War.

Blue posters with white, Hebrew text.

Installation view of Heaven and Earth (Yiddish Cosmos), Stanton Street Shul, 2018. Photographs: Igor Khodzinskiy.

Gordin’s first words in his grammar book echo the rebellious, anti-religious sentiment of the times through the prism of anarchism: “There is no god, no nature. Talk like humans, use ‘AO.’” This imperative ties into the larger paradigm shift that had happened across the continent, in the wake of the Revolution, hinting towards the radical reorientation of ideologies and epistemologies at the turn of the century. A hundred years later, Gordin’s universal language, which excluded any existing alphabet, has been reclaimed in Fiks’ exhibition through a series of figure-size posters that include not only AO, but also Yiddish, Russian, and English translations. The series comprises of a row of seven posters, featuring quotes from Gordin in the three aforementioned languages, in white letters on a navy blue background. The artist plays on his hypothesis that there are connections between AO and Yiddish, which have not been fully articulated or researched before. The idea is intriguing, and it functions on both a conceptual and an aesthetic level. Like many of the historical figures and forgotten stories in this exhibition, Volf’s ideas are now reaching new audiences, facilitating a shift in the way we see the stars, the planets, and cosmic pioneers. Gordin would only reach a larger audience during the First International Exhibition of Interplanetary Machines and Mechanisms in Moscow (1927)(The exhibition reflected on the history of space travel, from the 19th century to the ideas of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, Fridrikh Tsander, Robert Goddard, Hermann Oberth, and others. The exhibition was a great success and is considered a key model for later space exhibitions.), where a revised “AO-2” was presented.

Despite the promises of universal suffrage and equality for the working class, the ideological disposition of the 1920s was still decidedly anti-semitic. Therefore, the connections Fiks invites us to consider would not have been possible during the period when the material for his show came into being. Indeed, looking at the reconstituted fragments of Gordin’s language in today’s shul is like peering through a palimpsest of altered meanings: the posters allude to what we could know but also point towards what remains hidden.

The next chapter in the exhibition is entitled “Rootless Cosmonautics,” which as the artist explains is a play on the expression “rootless cosmopolitans,” a widely used anti-semitic term in Stalin’s time that referred to Jewish people as unreliable enemies of the Soviet Union. This component of the exhibition is comprised of photographic prints, journals, and a bright orange suit resembling that of a cosmonaut, featuring various insignia the artist collected. The protagonist of this chapter is the Polish-born Soviet Ary Sternfeld (1905-1980), another pioneer of the times, an immigrant who engaged both with the problem of space travel and the capacities of human technology. He is evoked in the show through a striking giclée print juxtaposing a photograph of the scientist together with his colleagues at the Jet Scientific Research Institute in Moscow sometime after his emigration to the USSR in 1935, with a black and white reproduction of a 1885 painting by Wacław Koniuszko depicting Jewish people during Kiddush Levanah (the Sanctification of the Moon)(Wacław Koniuszko, Return from the synagogue; Kiddush Levana – Sanctification of the Moon, 1885, National Museum in Warsaw, Poland.).

Orange suit on a wall, framed objects and posters further down the room.

Installation view of Heaven and Earth (Yiddish Cosmos), Stanton Street Shul, 2018. Photographs: Igor Khodzinskiy.

Sternfeld is credited as a co-creator of modern aerospace science and for introducing the word “cosmonautics” into the language of science and engineering.(Sternfeld ’s principle works dealt with the calculation of the most energy-efficient flight trajectories for spacecraft. Sternfeld received the REP-Hirsh International Astronautical Prize in 1934 and, for outstanding achievements in space science, the Galabert Prize in 1963.) A native Yiddish speaker, he lectured about the cosmos and cosmonautics, in Yiddish, at the Workers Jewish School in Paris during the 1920-1930s and continued corresponding in Yiddish on matters of space exploration into the 1970s. According to research presented by Fiks in the exhibition, in his memoirs, Sternfeld stated he first arrived at the idea of space exploration while reading the Hebrew Kiddush Levanah in his youth. Such revelations would not have been made public during the time, as the scientist’s Jewishness was suppressed in the Soviet Union to which he emigrated.

The final chapter, “Sovietish Cosmos,” consists of a series of giclée prints installed in a row of five towards the end of the second floor of the shul. The series brings together the enormously popular figure of the Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin his historic flight into space with that of the lesser-known Jewish cosmonaut, Boris Volynov, who was a friend and close associate of Gagarin’s. In the 1960s, the Soviet Space Program was widely discussed and had become part of Soviet Jewish identity and culture through magazines such as Sovetish Heymland (tr. Soviet Homeland).(Sovetish Heymland was a Yiddish-language literary magazine published by poet Aron Vergelis in Moscow. The magazine was published bi-monthly from 1961 to 1965, then monthly until 1991, when the Soviet Union was dissolved.) However, just because such publications were published in the USSR, did not imply that their Jewish readership was fully integrated into the Soviet Union. As Fiks explained during our tour of his exhibition, Volynov’s scheduled space explorations were canceled due to officially sanctioned anti-Semitism. According to the research he put together for this exhibition, certain “concerned citizens” had sent letters to Soviet authorities demanding in no uncertain terms that they not “send a Jew into space.” Volynov would only be allowed to fly into space much later, in 1969 and again in 1976. In a striking, modified portrait of the astronaut, Fiks modified his helmet by superimposing the Yiddish acronym for the Soviet Union over the Russian one.

At the same time in the 1960s, an exodus of Soviet Jews from the USSR to the United States and Israel was well underway. The exhibition presents documentary images culled by Fiks of the Let My People Go movement (1967-1995)(In December 1976, approximately 250,000 people rallied for Soviet Jewry at the Freedom Sunday in Washington DC. The demonstration of solidarity with millions of Jews in the Soviet Union, who were unable to practice their religion or emigrate, coincided with a summit at the White House between then President Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev.) that agitated and lobbied internationally for this migration, gathering worldwide support. Black and white photographs of the movement are juxtaposed with images of rocket launches, as the USSR was poised to conquer the celestial heavens. It strikes a poignant contrast.

The cleverly juxtaposed giclée prints in black and white displays have the appearance of documentary photographs, yet Fiks presents them together with Yiddish translations of cosmonauts’ names and Soyuz spacecraft details, which works to complicate mainstream understandings of the history of the Soviet Space Program. Moreover, Fiks invites us to speculate that the cosmos became an (un)attainable homeland for Soviet Jews, one which embraced rather than marginalized them. The people in these photographs are beholden to the idea of an exodus in search of a much-desired sense of belonging, one that has eluded or been denied to them. Although within the space of the exhibition the Soviet Jewish diasporic community does not quite reach this promised land, their identity, history, and culture are returned to them, albeit symbolically, and not without a sense of humor. Pushing beyond the traditional boundaries of the photographic medium, Fiks presents unexpected visual compositions, employing irony and camp (such as in the unlikely juxtapositions of Yiddish over Russian, and the portraits of Gagarin and Volynov collaged together) to commemorate the times. These are perhaps some of the most interesting works in the exhibition and serve as a metaphor for reclaiming fragments of the past that have been elided in official narratives.

Yet, the experiences and identities presented in the exhibition are decidedly those of men. Women are still not fully part of these narratives, appearing only around the margins of this history. Volf Gordin’s version of a universal cosmic language was meant to be “genderless” as well as classless, but for all its liberatory intentions, it remains rooted in a male perspective of the world.

And yet, the plight of those who wanted to emigrate but were denied permission to leave, of those who struggled to maintain their identity despite pressure from the authorities, certainly strikes a chord in today’s divided world.

Leaving the exhibition, I am reminded of a bright orange suit (like that of a cosmonaut) standing near the entrance, decorated with activist badges and Soviet Soyuz vintage pins that Fiks has carefully collected. These objects have a character and a presence that harkens to the longevity of the ideas of the dreamers and doers featured in his exhibition. But it also seems to be a nod to the dreamers of the present and the future who will not let all forms of discrimination and oppression prevent them from reaching their version of a borderless cosmos.