Observatory as Gallery

The village of Nizhny Arkhyz plays host to both astronomers and contemporary artists.

The Large Altazimuth Telescope (LAT). Photo by Evgeny Rodin.

“We are all going to die in four billion years and our planet will turn into dust,” says Oleg Verkhodanov as we meet in the village of Nizhny Arkhyz, in the foothills of the North Caucasus.

Located in the Karachay-Cherkess Republic, this so-called “scientific town” is home to the staff of the Special Astrophysical Observatory (SAO) of the Russian Academy of Sciences. The observatory houses the radio telescope RATAN-600 and the Large Altazimuth Telescope (LAT) – which, until 1993, was the world's largest single primary mirror optical reflecting telescope.

I have come for the opening of the region’s first international contemporary art exhibition, organized by the Austrian Cultural Forum Moscow and the Gogova Foundation, with the participation of the Karachay-Cherkess Culture Ministry and the Russian Academy of Sciences. The project is entitled “The Observatory.”

Oleg Verkhodanov, a leading scientific specialist at the Special Astrophysical Observatory (SAO). Photo by Evgeny Rodin.

A leading scientific specialist at the SAO, Oleg is of average height with unruly hair and a close-cropped beard. He is wearing an old sweater, jeans and sneakers and looks much younger than his 51 years. When I mention that he looks like a character from a Strugatsky brothers’ sci-fi novel, he is flattered: “I love their books. I even communicated with the younger brother Boris, who was also an astronomer and was supposed to visit the observatory with his family, but he had a heart attack and his wife convinced him not to come.”

When studying in Leningrad, Oleg’s supervisor happened to be Yury Pariysky, the creator of RATAN-600. He wound up focusing on Pariysky’s area of expertise: cosmic microwave background and radio galaxies.

The RATAN-600 radio telescope.

He has lived in the village since 1987, meeting his wife Natalya, an astronomer from Kazan, and raising their daughter here. When asked if it has been difficult to live in such an isolated village, he says: “You might not believe it, but this is a perfect place for work. If you want to concentrate on something, you need calm environment where no one bothers you.” Although he often travels to Moscow for work, staying with colleagues, the 90-minute commute to the Astro Space Center leaves him exhausted. In Nizhny Arkhyz, he says, “you get clean water from the tap – to say nothing of the air, the nature, mushrooms, and berries that grow right next to the house.”

After becoming involved with popular science about three years ago, he has been traveling more frequently to give public lectures. “It started with [Dmitry Zimin’s now defunct charity] the Dynasty Foundation,” he says. “Last year was just crazy – I gave 15 talks on cosmic microwave background, cosmology, and the origin of the universe.”

The village of Nizhny Arkhyz revolves around the SAO, with scientists and staff both living and working in the town. There was a brief period of discord when the local media convinced people that the RATAN-600 was emitting radiation, rather than absorbing it from space, according to Oleg. But that has quieted down and the greatest inconvenience is now the booming tourism center in Arkhyz, a town about 20 kilometers away. The increase in tourist traffic, particularly to the observatory, bothers Oleg: “When you go to the forest and see ten other people picking your mushrooms, that doesn’t feel so great. Also the lights from Arkhyz hotels and restaurants interfere with observations at the SAO.”

"Svetilishcha" by Irina Korina.

Oleg only heard of the exhibition the day before, but had since read about it online and spoken to the artist Irina Korina. All three of her works relate to astronomy. “It’s an ironic and interesting project,” he says, “I like irony in general.” He did suggest that she remove the explanations next to her artwork to force viewers to to figure it out themselves.

Korina’s mixed media objects are entitled “Svetilishcha,” from the Russian words “svetilo,” a celestial body, and “svyatilishche,” a shrine. According to the artist, they are meant to represent great events, such as the birth and death of stars and even entire galaxies.

“The Observatory” is made up of several exhibitions located in and around Nizhny Arkhyz. An operational workshop houses Anna Titova’s piece “Why Work,” a neon image of the wind god Eol hanging over a bench, it’s an object that inspires stargazing. A dormitory contains several installations, and an exhibition by Yury Palmin is located at a former grocery store – the tiled walls worthy of any trendy New York gallery. Palmin’s photographs depict the brilliant modernist architecture of Nizhny Arkhyz.

Alexandra Paperno's “Abolished Constellations” at the tenth-century Middle Temple in Nizhny Arkhyz.

After a 15-minute walk through the drizzle in the archaeological park located near the town, we reach a tenth-century Middle Temple. Here, the artist Alexandra Paperno has made an installation devoted to 51 constellations that were abolished at an international conference in 1922. Fascinated by the fact that “something that had never objectively existed was officially abolished,” Paperno recreated the maps of these former constellations. She says that a couple astronomers had visited her installation and had been completely unaware of the abolished constellations.   

The Large Altazimuth Telescope (LAT).

While approaching the observatory, the structure is entirely obscured by fog and the onset of twilight. Only once we arrive does its silhouette appear, looming above us at the top of the staircase. The SAO’s Scientific Director Yury Balega explains that the observatory is closed for the day on account of the weather – a common enough occurrence in the North Caucasus. A perfect example of Soviet modernism, the observatory building is the final stop of the exhibition tour and contains installations by Austrian artists, curated by the “Section A” group from Vienna.

Balega says that organizers had imagined something on a larger scale, but he is not unhappy with how it has turned out. The temple installation and Anna Titova’s “Why Work” are his personal favorites. 

“Why Work?” by Anna Titova.

He has been director of the observatory for over two decades and tells me that being a director in Russia is mostly just waiting in reception areas for some big shot to see you and then asking for money. “I’ve been at meetings where people literally fought over funding with their fists,” says Balega. A classically-trained artist himself, he paints portraits and landscapes in oil and watercolors. While Balega does not exhibit his work, he does present them as gifts to important bureaucrats in exchange for funding for the observatory.

We leave the observatory in complete darkness – the only thing shining through the fog is an artwork by Timofey Radya, a street artist from Ekaterinburg. Three words are projected onto a background of black sky: “Oni Yarche Nas” (Brighter Than Us).

Timofey Radya's installation “Brighter Than Us.”