Cradle of Humankind


Arseny Zhilyaev’s installation Cradle of Humankind pres-
ents a fictional museum of the future. The legend is that
humanity left Earth many years ago and turned the planet
into a network of museums dedicated to the history of hu-
man civilization, starting from the Big Bang and the origins
of life. Now visitors can learn the history of the human
interstellar empire, examine some of the achievements of
its greatest citizens, and purchase services from the muse-
um corporation. The installation display is rooted in Soviet
experiments with museum design in the 1970s. It continues
the logic of late Soviet modernism that combines the ele-
ments typical of Western architecture and premodernistic

influences such as marble, tapestries, and stained glass.
The first room is dedicated to the emergence of life
on Earth. The artist explores the visual aesthetics of the
Soviet space program and combines pompous architectural
elements, such as monumental stained-glass windows,
with painted compositions made of fragments of sublime
cosmic landscapes. At the entrance of the room there is a
sculptural portrait of Nikolai Fedorov. Fedorov was an ex-
ponent of Russian religious philosophy and an originator of
Russian Cosmism, which inspired the Soviet space program
in many respects. He promoted ideas of real physical resur-
rection as a result of the Common Task, by which he meant
a common effort of all humankind where science and art
would be unified in one Resurrected Museum. Zhilyaev
used this utopian model of the museum as the primary con-
cept for Cradle of Humankind. The only significant deviation
from Fedorov’s speculation is that according to the Russian
philosopher, capitalism should have been defeated, where-
as in Zhilyaev’s dystopian installation it survived.

The first object in the next room is a mysterious
golden sphere, a prehistoric spaceship that is said to have
brought life to Earth from outer space. The motif of the
geodesic sphere was taken from Buckminster Fuller’s pavilion
built for the American National Exhibition in Sokolniki
Park in Moscow in 1959. His concept of “Spaceship Earth”
was an independent development of Fedorov’s idea formed
in the late nineteenth century. Fuller’s sphere was an important
symbol for Soviet kinetic artists who tried to continue
the tradition of Russian Cosmism in a new historical
period and connect to its technical aesthetics.
Variously shaped paintings, titled “Voskhod-
Amaravella,” were made by a fictional painting brigade of
the resurrected artist. The first part of the title refers to a
Voskhod-2 spacecraft of Alexey Leonov, who became the
first human to exit the capsule and conduct extravehicular
activities in space. He also practiced as an artist, and
was recognized for his paintings of outer space. One of his
landscape works is quoted in a portrait of Laika (the first
dog to orbit the Earth) and in two abstract pieces that refer
to the second part of the title, Amaravella, which was an almost
unknown Soviet avant-garde group from the 1920 and
1930s. That collective was fascinated by visuality of outer
space and Russian Cosmism. One of Amaravella’s landscape
paintings is referenced in a triangular collage painting.


This room is dedicated to the expansionist nature of the
new intergalactic empire. The walls are covered with tap-
estries, which show maps of six different areas of the
universe, called “angles” in the museum text. The logo
indicates that they all constitute the mighty Russian Cosmic
Federation: the triangular element, used as a kind of coat
of arms, resembles the structural element of both the
sphere and the paintings from the first room, thus convey-
ing the idea of continuity between the past and the future.
The military agenda is counterbalanced with an example of
the first artificial body that was used for resurrection, Yuri-1.

The idea of the work is based on an artistic interpretation
of a human body in the philosophy of another proponent
of Russian Cosmism, Alexander Gorsky. His text from the
1930s, “Phallic Pupil,” describes the evolution of the human
body as a transformation into a sun-fed creature without
the usual digestive apparatus. According to Gorsky, in the
future human body, two main parts will play a large role:
the pupil, as the organ that is the most sensible and respon-
sive to sunlight, and the phallus, as the most active organ.

The combination of those two parts will provide for endless
reception and creation of the world. Additionally, the light
body without inner organs will be able to overcome gravity
and learn to fly. The perfect body manufactured with the
face of Yuri Gagarin by the Cradle of Humankind corpora-
tion represents the first experiments in this field. Tourists
are offered a unique service: they get the chance to resur-
rect their ancestors, thus performing an operation adver-
tised as the highest aim of any living human being.
Zhilyaev interlaces the idealism of outer-space ex-
ploration with humanity’s hopes relying on technology
in the stained-glass window with the figure of a futuristic
Prometheus, which symbolizes both colonialist tendencies
and the inhuman consumerist approach toward life and
memory. The story behind this practice remains unre-
vealed: we never find out if the Russian Federation as we
know it in 2015 still exists, or if these are just local cultural
peculiarities being praised in this particular place. Nor do
we know if the technology actually works, or what social,
cultural, and political effects it has. The unsettling environ-
ment combines sci-fi aesthetics with a modernist utopia
and Eastern exuberance.


Konstantin Tsiolkovsky was one of the fathers of the
Russian space program back in the late nineteenth century.
Self-educated and working as a schoolteacher in a small
provincial town, Tsiolkovsky managed to develop the con-
cepts of reactive motion as well as the basic principles of
rocket construction. He was profoundly involved in devel-
opments of philosophical thought in the late nineteenth and
early twentieth centuries. Calling himself an utter material-
ist and perceiving the universe as a complicated but cog-
nizable system, he believed in the overall harmony of the
world, inhabited by a multitude of civilizations. He believed
in the sensitivity of materiality and that humanity would
transform itself into an immaterial “radiant” state during
the course of its development. This combination of a prag-
matic scientific mind with limitless optimism and idealism
are typical features of Russian Cosmism. Zhilyaev examines
this by juxtaposing one of the genuine (although slightly
altered) tracts with new drawings of Tsiolkovsky after resur-
rection. An Album of Cosmic Journeys explores the condi-
tions of life in zero gravity in outer space and demonstrates
the technical aspects of rocket launch and movement, as
well as Tsiolkovsky’s life, in the reconstruction of his rocket
as a branch of the Cradle of Humankind museum network,
represented by personal things.


The last room of Cradle of Humankind is dedicated to the
history of the universe before the Big Bang. What is there
to say about a time when there was nothing? Zhilyaev
singles out two main concepts, the void and rhythm–com-
plementary forces that together acquire the potential to
engender primary energy and turn it into something sub-
stantial. Just as the whole installation is built on a juxta-
position of opposite approaches, here the method reaches
its climax. There are two main visual elements in the room:
copies of Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square (according to
legend 4 “original” by artist and 5 painted after resurrec-
tion) and kitschy maneki-nekos, Asian cat figurines that
serve as charms for luck and wealth. The paintings are
black, the figurines golden; the images are endlessly static,
the cats’ paws are moving; the squares stand for the very
height of artistic expression, while the cats are a symbol
of an aesthetically depleted, commercially manufactured
commodity. Zhilyaev makes modernism and postmodern-
ism confront each other. Mingled in the same space, the
items are drawn into a single cosmic experience of per-
sistence, hope, greed, and inspiration.