Julijonas Urbonas is an artist, a designer, the former head of an amusement park, a researcher and the founder of the Lithuanian Space Agency - an organisation dedicated to the investigation of imaginary celestial architectural projects. For his exhibition at Collective, Urbonas has created a new iteration of ‘Planet of People’: an evolving participatory installation that explores what would happen if, instead of humans colonising existing planets, there was a planet made entirely of human bodies. The project, an engaging fusion of science, visual art and technology, is part of the programme representing Lithuania at the 17th Venice Architecture Biennale 2020.
Visitors step into the centre of the domed space at Collective, a restored 19th century observatory, where six 3D scanners flash to immortalise their body mass, volume and appearance. Soon after you look up to see your body, frozen in its posture, floating as part of the simulation amongst the other visitors. The bodies gradually coalesce into a larger whole or, as Urbonas puts it, a “cosmic fossil of humanity. A monument to humans of humans.”
Beyond the obvious narcissistic pleasure of seeing your body as part of a planet, the work has considerable substance. The 3D scanning process and visualisation are complex; the projections are created by a series of code which translates the data into the constantly evolving human planet, growing as more people’s bodies join the mass.
Julijonas is interested in the relationship between gravity and physical sensation; in some ways, gravity acts as his artistic medium. In ‘Euthanasia Coaster’ (2010), for example, he designed a euthanasia machine in the form of a rollercoaster: a tool for a future in which human life has been extended so much it has become unbearable. The machine design manipulates gravity in order to humanely (‘with elegance and euphoria’) end a human life. With this project, the central idea is to send humans to L2, one of the ‘Lagrangian points’ in space: a finely balanced point where the gravitational pull from two objects compensates for one another, such that a third body, for example, a human planet, can stay fixed in that point. With this in mind, Urbonas imagines that the weak gravity pull of human bodies would cause them to float in space and coalesce into a tangled web.
The work is rich with sci-fi potential: are these bodies corpses, deposited in space as an elite graveyard for the ultra-wealthy? Or are they human clones, substitutes sent from earth to create a new world. Could this planet function as a memorial to humanity? In this way Urbonas forces us to look at people as pure mass, at their interaction outside of individual or even collective consciousness, and outside the Karman line which demarcates the earth’s atmosphere and what lies beyond. Rather than feeling nightmarish or bleak, Urbonas’s project feels fun - an adventure into the imaginative limits of outer space.