Abolished Constellations

“These constellations are all false, but deliciously false! They have grouped totally foreign stars in a single figure. Between real points, that is between stars that are isolated like one-of-a-kind diamonds, the dream of constellations has drawn imaginary lines.” – Gaston Bachelard, Air and Dreams

The ancient Sumerians, and later the Greeks (as recorded by Ptolemy), established most of the northern constellations in use today. When explorers mapped the stars of the southern skies, European and American astronomers proposed new constellations for that region. In 1922, the International Astronomical Union adopted the modern list of 88 constellations, which depict 42 animals, 29 inanimate objects and 17 humans or mythological characters. It was agreed that the list would be final and no new constellations would be added. The number 88 has no specific scientific or cultural significance — it is random.

Some constellations were not recognized by the International Astronomical Union in 1922 and thus have been abolished. More than 50 constellations fall in this category. Some of them appear in old maps and etchings, among them Argo Navis, which was one of the 48 proposed by Ptolemy. This list of the “victims” of unification and standardization forms the basis of Alexandra Paperno’s project. This list of 51 former constellations is the result of a peculiar bureaucratic process: something that had never objectively existed was officially abolished. Paperno’s artworks, which carefully recreate the maps of former constellations, have been placed in the tenth-century Middle Temple in Lower Arkhyz, creating a dialogue between the medieval and modern history of this location. They demonstrate the link between the scientific and artistic aspects of the evolution of human thought.

Special Astrophysical Observatory of the Russian Academy of Science and its campus at Lower Arkhyz, Russia. Photographs by Yuri Palmin.

The Abolished Сonstellations project has been conceived and executed on the occasion an exhibition titled The Observatory. Ten international artists have been invited to the Special Astrophysical Observatory of the Russian Academy of Science at Lower Arkhyz for a short-term summer residency in 2016. Three months later they were to be back to make an artwork at any of the observatory locations.

The site was built on a mountain in North Caucasus in 1966, but its conceptual origins date back to the 1930s, when the Soviet Union set out to build the largest planetary observatory in the world. The observatory’s six-meter telescope was indeed the biggest, for about 20 years, until the 1990s. Since early 1970s the observatory and the scientific town that houses its staff offered some of the best conditions in the Soviet Union. In those days, astronomers and engineers were eager to live here, bringing their families to a specially built town with its own laboratories, kindergarten, school, sports facilities and shops. Though the observatory is still active, the years of its grand significance are in the past. The Soviet-era scientific campus’s population has declined by about a third from its height, to about 800 people. The melancholic charisma of a place once astonishing and grandeur is supported by surrounding ruins of Alanian temples, a Scythian people who converted to Christianity in IX century and were wiped off by the Mongol invasion. One of these churches became the setting for the Alexandra Paperno’s installation.

“Abolished Constellations” at Galerie Volker Diehl [Cube], Berlin, 2018