Conversation with Natalia Sidlina on 'Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age'

The Art Partners spoke with Natalia Sidlina, one of the curators of ‘Cosmonauts – Birth of the Space Age’ at London’s Science Museum about the concept of the show. The exhibition, which was on view until 13 March 2016, received outstanding reviews and visitor feedback. The project was awarded with a Diploma from the British Council and a letter from the Consul for the support of culture between Russia and Great Britain. All departments within the Science Museum were engaged on bringing the project to fruition, and it was supported by the Ministries of Culture of both Russia and the UK, as well as the Russian State Museum centre ROSIZO and Roscosmos State Corporation for Space Activities.

The identity of curators involved in institutional shows like ‘Cosmonauts’, even when on a large scale, often fades into the background. However, their knowledge and insights are what makes the show happen; finding out how they do it brings the creative process of making a show come alive.

  The identity of curators, even during realisation of such large-scale projects, often stays behind the scene, however, they keep all secrets and to their work the attention has to be paid.

The identity of curators, even during realisation of such large-scale projects, often stays behind the scene, however, they keep all secrets and to their work the attention has to be paid.

The Art Partners: How did the idea of an exhibition arise?

Natalia Sidlina: The history of creation began long before implementation of the project. The Science Museum began to develop the concept of an exhibition connected with the Russian history of space exploration more than 20 years ago. However, the dissolution of the Soviet Union, a space industry that was part of the military industrial complex and difficulties in acquiring Russian space hardware on loan – all this made negotiations back then to come to a deadlock.

Five years ago the Director of the Science Museum, Ian Blatchford, gave consent to carry it out and then participated in all preparatory stages, from meetings with astronauts in underground bunkers to receptions with the Deputy Prime Minister in the White House. Preparation of any large-scale project takes time – from the moment of the original idea to the opening of an exhibition takes many years.

 Natalia Sidlina and Anastasia Petrovskaya and Maria Korolevskaya (The Art Partners)

Natalia Sidlina and Anastasia Petrovskaya and Maria Korolevskaya (The Art Partners)

Tap: Exploration of space became a source of inspiration for people not only in Russia but also around the world. It is a once-in-a-lifetime exhibition which also investigates the representation of space in art, media and visual communications and its influence on them. How did you select the works, what were the criteria?

NS: For us it was very important to show that the history of space exploration has not only the scientific component, but the spiritual and cultural as well. Creative thinking of philosophers and artists sparked a widespread interest in space in the early 20th century. We wanted to show the key role that was played by the visionary philosophy of cosmism of people like Nikolay Fedorov, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky or Sergey Korolev.

At ‘Cosmonauts’ the biggest art selection is in the first section, which is dedicated to the earliest stage of space exploration. Between ourselves, we call this section "dreamers and enthusiasts". It was all begun by people who weren't professional scientists, but they dreamt about space travel and believed that if you make enough effort, everything is possible.

  A selection of spacesuits and the TM-14 Soyuz descent module in the Cosmonauts exhibition

A selection of spacesuits and the TM-14 Soyuz descent module in the Cosmonauts exhibition

The influence on art of achievements in the field of space exploration is well known. For example, in 50-60 years space played a huge role in the development of design and graphic arts, especially posters. Because all the space equipment was kept secret, artists needed to invent a modern visual language without seeing for themselves real spacecraft and without having access to design engineers who could explain how everything works. At the same time, the space industry treated design seriously – professional architects, such as Galina Balashova, in the early 60s created designs for a space station and a spaceship interior.

TAP: How can art influence the development of technology, or, on the contrary, how technological innovations will influence art? In your opinion, whether always there will be such a line of development in achievement something new?

NS: Absolutely. Especially now, when art moves from traditional forms to digital. Video art, computer technologies and digital photographs now play a significant role in art production. You go to exhibitions and sometimes see more technological devices than in the museums of industry or innovation. The same situation is in design – in architecture, for example, 3D has appeared –  modelling where everything is projected on computers in advance. We all depend on a technical aspect more and more. Nowadays even the chip of a mobile phone exceeds by tens of thousands of times the memory of the computer which, for example, in 1985 helped the astronaut Vladimir Dzhanibekov to join the abandoned space station Salyut-7, get inside and manually reanimate it.

Progress helps us to move ahead and changes our visual culture and art – the reflection of this culture.

  RD-108 rocket engine in the Cosmonauts exhibition

RD-108 rocket engine in the Cosmonauts exhibition

  Visitors with the LK-3 lunar lander in the Cosmonauts exhibition

Visitors with the LK-3 lunar lander in the Cosmonauts exhibition

TAP: How did you feel at the end of this 5-year project? Whether it surpassed your expectations and what results could you sum up?

NS: It was incredibly interesting to work on! I hope I will have a lot more art projects, but this type of exhibition happens only once in a lifetime. Of course, one of the biggest results will be that these pieces, which are only now being given the scrutiny they deserve, will be officially recognized as cultural objects.

We are also delighted to see such strong emotional response from the public that visited 'Cosmonauts', and how this exhibition has increased interest in the history of space exploration. This is one of the key results. I hope that the story told by us will help a new generation to become interested in working in the development of space programmes as well. The final section also urges every visitor to stop, to cease rushing or looking at mobile phones or iPads, and to listen to the music and to think what awaits us in the future.

Maria Korolevskaya and Anastasia Petrovskaya (The Art Partners)