Basim Magdy: Newman Popiashvili Gallery
Stillman, Nick, Artforum International
In an obtuse tribute saturated with irony, Russian novelist Victor Pelevin dedicated his 1992 novella Omon Ra to the "Heroes of the Soviet Cosmos." It was, after all, the Soviet Union that launched Yuri Gagarin into space in April 1961, trumping America's Alan Shepard by nearly a month. But despite the USSR's pioneering legacy, America grandly upstaged it by landing men on the moon in 1969, making eternal heroes of the Armstrong-Aldrin duo and a trivia question of Gagarin. In Pelevin's sci-fi satire of the Soviets' insufficient technology and unrelenting ambition during the Space Race, cosmonaut-hero Omon Krizomazov is asked by his aviation school to accept a one-way suicide mission to the moon. Without quite realizing as much, Omon nonetheless remains on terra firma.
A pathetic astronaut also figures as the protagonist in Basim Magdy's installation In the Grave Intergalactic Utopia, 2006. A drywall chamber built within the gallery contains most of the action, though our initial confrontation is with two stacked bales of hay placed just outside it. These emit a pastoral, homely, utterly earthly odor. Passing through the cube-within-a-cube's ragged hole-in-the-wall entrance, one discovers a slightly smaller than life-size astronaut mannequin imprisoned in what looks like a chicken coop, slumped against a wall, with peanut shells scattered in his lap. A doggie pail contains a scant supply of water sullied by hay and filth. The red light of a surveillance camera blinks drowsily. The captive has become an animal in a zoo, something to gawk at. A video of grazing sheep taunts the astral aspirant with an undeniable fact: Like the pictured herd, he remains earthbound.
The identity of the figure's captors is ambiguous, though clues from several works on paper suggest, alternately, simian thugs and menacing, red-eyed creatures packing heat. Victory is Mine, 2005, shows a chimpanzeelike beast in shorts and shirtsleeves lofting a big fish; Unexpected Olympic Winner, 2005, features a helmeted figure, which could be either human or ape, sporting a baby pink shag. …