Deniz Üster

Deniz Üster

New Space Age, The End of History and Repetition as Neurosis

“The idea of the finite, of the enumerable, [is] at once far more difficult to conceive of, and, at the same time, far richer in terms of its rigor, than that of the infinite.”(1)

In 1971 when Apollo 14 left the Earth for the third moon landing, it carried with it about 500 seeds from different tree species including pine, sycamore and redwood. The intention was to see how the seeds would be affected by space travel. Upon their return to the Earth, the seeds were planted and grown under the supervision of research stations equipped for plant propagation. During the first few years the moon tree seedlings garnered much attention. Most were planted near historical and political landmarks in the United States, some were gifted at the occasion of the bicentennial celebrations to ally countries such as Japan, France and Brazil. However, once it was established by researchers that moon trees had no “detectable” difference from ordinary trees grown on Earth, the public interest slowly faded and for decades, no records were kept as to the whereabouts or future becomings of the Moon trees. Three decades would pass before the mythical trees would take hold of human curiosity once again, looking back from the dawn of our so-called new space age. Today, 67 Moon trees are accounted for, all of which are still alive and have been the source of new generations of trees, called “Half Moon Trees” (2).

From this account, let us keep the idea of “detectable difference”.

Deniz Uster’s installation titled Poetics of Egress holds fragments from the leaf of a Moon Sycamore whose seed was carried into outer space with the original Apollo 14 mission in 1971 (3). A real-size sculpture of a recoiling human hand holds in its palm multiple miniature leaves sculpted from the original. A scaled-down miniature astronaut figurine sits atop its index finger, enjoying the view provided by the mossy geological formation emerging from what would have been the indented wrist, at the peak of this fantastical formation stands the most ordinary of birds, a pigeon. This vertical articulation of heterogeneous bodies birthing one another is accompanied by a horizontally laid structure one could mistake for a found tree branch, which is, in fact, entirely sculpted using some of Uster’s favorite blend of fine arts and construction materials such as aluminum, resin putty and acrylic paint. Everything that looks “natural” in this scene, is in fact the product of some kind of artifice, pushed to the extremes of mimesis. If we move away and scale up to include the plinth, the imitation of nature finds its apex in the art deco furniture that seems to be generating this still life rendering.

Human culture is defined by successive layerings of truth and fiction, much like a woven textile, or an organism whose memory relies on accumulations of matter, truth is fictioned into a shared reality over time, which is then diverted or subverted by new fictions to create space for alternative realities to emerge. What is the reality of a moon tree leaf? Is it natural? Is it cultural? How is it that what we once deemed mysterious and full of wonders – like the moon tree seedlings in 1971 – becomes ordinary and unworthy of attention over time?

“Detectable difference” holds the key here. Our understanding of facts and truth is contingent upon the tools of knowledge at our disposal at any given time and space. What may not have been detected as a “difference” fifty years ago, may be so today.

And this is precisely where Deniz Uster’s artistic compositions operate a re-alienation effect. By exploding any semblant of spatio-temporal cohesion both through the choices of materials, artefacts and material processes at work in her sculptures, and through the activation of timescales, stories and histories far beyond and below our human time spans, she serializes troubling scenes depicting the infinite growth of the undead, captured in glass cases.


There are several ways in which fiction as a method contributes to shape human reality, one of which concerns social conventions. “Terra Nullius”, the legal term that gives this exhibition its title, derives from a fundamentally human modus operandi at the heart of every human system devised to measure, pacify and conquer the unquantifiable, unknowable world. Claiming its origin from Roman law to designate a territory that does not belong to anyone, Terra Nullius’ first use in the context of international law dates back to the 19th century, placing it at the heart of late modernism at a historical moment of colonial contraction within the system of modern nation states. So, the designation of not belonging to any one means in fact, not belonging to any “nation-state”. As such, Terra Nullius is a legal fiction which makes a certain kind of human activity realizable: first by defining an “inside” and sustaining its political organization, then by designating the “outside” of this culturally specific system taken as universal, it makes it possible (and justifiable) to annex territories which remain outside of that system, by externalizing the rules of property. Seen from this perspective, every political system is science fictional, much like the famous “null island” which is a digital fiction that makes possible the operations of geolocalisation systems (4), or the fiction of “infinite growth” which remains a blind spot shimmering at the heart of late capitalism.

What then, of planetary limits, and the limits of life?

Taking up such normalized fictions as points of departure, Deniz Uster’s worlding can be read as attempt to uncover the fantasmagorical foundations of the infrastructures that sustain our present in a normalized global context, and to recover fictioning as a tool to speculate on alternative pasts and futures, with a focus on the dawning space age and the legacies of cold war space race.

The South, The Ore and Them, a miniature sculpture sealed inside a glass case, itself articulated across two pentagon-shaped faces of a dodecahedron shape offers an entry point to the kaleidoscopic compositions of Deniz Uster, across microscopic and macrocosmic scales and narratives at hand. There is no beginning nor end, as is the case for every sculptural scene in the exhibition, but multiple circular and systemic strands of material, causality and meaning that coexist. For the purposes of this piece of writing which has to stick to linearity, we can begin with the miniature world trapped inside the glass box. The scale model of Chandrayaan-3, the lunar lander operated by the Indian Space Research Organisation, first to land on the Moon’s southern polar region(5), stands on an unspecified planetary surface. Another political fiction is activated here through the presence of the International Flag of Planet Earth – organizing an inside, in order to capture an outside (6). Groups of miniature workers in uniform inhabit the landscape, engaged in mining, extracting, loading and unloading minerals, rocks, soil, dust. This could be a scene from a soil production factory for space agriculture, or it could be an experiment for using lab-generated land moss to turn Mars green (7). Together with the distance introduced by the glass dome enclosing this scene, a strange feeling of anachronism occurs: the most cutting edge, privately funded commercial space technologies coexist with century-old forms of labor and construction; we are landing on the moon, exploring mars and probing the solar system for water and other minerals, and yet our wildest dream harks back to the romantic idea of a lush green nature. Deniz Uster has carried out for years this multidirectional research across the latest developments in astrobiology, speculative physics and 21st century deep space missions, and yet, the apparatus she chooses to display her diorama-like sculptural scenes and pastiche-like compositions all originate in the 19th century.

Scaling back to the large shape of the dodecahedron, the encapsulated scene appears connected to a small porthole close to the ground, where a miniature ladder disappears into the geometrical shape. Suddenly the lunar lander, the workers and the mining activity all become dependent on some causality situated elsewhere. I am reminded of Platonic solids, recent astrophysics calculations used to model the shape of the Universe, and Roger Caillois’ idea of finitude(8). Dodecahedra do not occur in nature, they are constructs of the human mind as it encounters nature (or reality). At the turn of the last century Poincaré famously arrived at complex three dimensional models for the shape of the universe based on the dodecahedron shape. Today, the amplituhedron, which is the basis of the most recent cosmological models is still a polyhedron, the only difference being its quantum multi-dimensionality. Through all these complex geometric forms and computergenerated models engaged in speculative calculations over the shape of the universe, one constant remains, which is their finitude. In Roger Caillois’s thinking, if there is magic in the world, it is not because of infinite possibilities or infinite growth, but because of this inescapable theoretical finitude.


The aesthetic regimes and imaginary of 19th century Europe are indeed a prominent feature in the exhibition through two modalities. The first is the dynamic relationship between finitude, as in enclosed spaces; and infinite possibilities of proliferation. The second is the mirror-game of projections between organic movement (life) and mechanical animation (artefact). The glass dome structures which encapsulate Deniz Uster’s imagined worlds where multiple scales of time and space coexist, can be likened to pre-cinematic 19th century visual technologies such as the diorama or tableaux vivants which used human artifice and technology to achieve a semblance of organic movement through juxtapositions of light, color and matter. Only a few decades later, aquariums were invented, this time, displaying life - organic movement - through a technical invention which allowed for the visualization of underwater life forms behind transparent glasses. The distinction between the automaton and the technically sustained organic life started to blur(9). Throughout these inventions and onto the 21st century, the Duchampian desire to reproduce with the mechanical bride, and now probably the artificial mind, remains an anthropological constant. The enclosed architectures of the hermetically sealed glasshouses and oxygenated aquariums of the 19th century are also at the origin of space suits and the hermetically sealed spacecraft. As one sculpture in the exhibition, Monument to Laika commemorates, the history of space exploration has been marked by attempts to export life outside of planet Earth, endeavors gathered nowadays under the general title of “exo-ecology”. Besides the Moon Sycamore and Laika the dog, there was also Albert II the macaque monkey (1949); Russian stray dogs Dezik and Tsygan (1951); the rabbit Marfusha (1959) and countless unnamed guinea pigs, frogs and mice sent out alone into deep space in order to understand how their bodies would react to space travel and zero gravity conditions(10) .

Once upon a time, in 15th century when parts of the Earth and Oceans remained uncharted, bizarre sea monsters were drawn on maps to indicate danger of the unknown, so that seafarers would stay away from those regions. Fiction was projected onto the unknown, defined in maps as a spatial zone, or in fables as a temporal zone (the future). Nowadays, that space of projection would be outer space, but alongside blockbuster anthropomorphic alien depictions or romantic landscape projections, we are filling it up with Western private property and junk through DHL sponsored payloads(11). That leaves us with the future, which, in turn, seems overwhelmed by catastrophe models and financial risk calculations to monetize time and volatility regardless of ongoing societal collapse.

Imagining Deniz Uster’s Terra Nullius, I am left with dead organic bodies, sometimes the shape of an animal is discernible, at others it is putrefying organic matter upon which power stations and coal mines rise, tiny humans labor in and labor out, while underground pipelines and energy producing reactors appear more alive than all of those bodies. Maybe the surface of projections for all of our desires and horrors is now located not in the future, but in our past. Colonialism is once again consolidated through the fiction of eternal growth while time is always, in truth, limited and the cost is, always, the eternal cycle of violence. Such a compulsive suicidal gesture itself becoming some sort of immortal automatism by the undead . Maybe we are already at the other side of extinction, counting faster and faster to escape from a future past, one thousand and one nights of delirium in frantic excess.

Aslı Seven
March, 2024

(1): Roger Caillois, «Reconnaissance à Mendeleïev», in: Cases d’un échiquier, Gallimard, Paris, 1970.

(2): For an updated account, see

(3): As indicated by the artist, this specimen was provided by the Keystone Heights Public Library in Florida. Conversation with Deniz Uster, December 18, 2023

(4): Theo Reeves-Evison, Jon K. Shaw (Eds.), Fiction as Method, Sternberg Press, 2017

(5): Chandrayaan-3 landed on the Moon’s Southern Pole on 23 August 2023.

(6): Proposed in 2015 by a Swedish design student, the flag project is currently carried by a non profit organization under a commons license:

(7): Conversation with Deniz Uster, 13 December, 2023.

(8): Roger Caillois, «Reconnaissance à Mendeleïev», in Cases d’un échiquier, Gallimard, Paris, 1970.

(9): For further elaborations on the 19th century exxhibionary complex, see Guillaume Legall, Aquariorama. Histoire d’un dispositif, Paris, Editions Mimesis, 2022 and Tristan Garcia, Vincent Normand (Eds.), Theatre, Garden, Bestiary. A Materialist History of Exhibitions, Sternberg Press, 2019.

(10): It is not a coincidence that the currently ongoing 14th Shanghai Biennale tackles these questions at a time when China is launching its new space program: every named animal enumerated here was commemorated with a small pin, as a give away to audiences during the opening of the biennale in November 2023.

(11): This DHL sponsored moon delivery scheme is referenced in one of Deniz Uster’s drawings in the exhibition titled The Coronation of The Peregrine Queen. The Peregrine Lander is operated by Astrobotic, a US government funded private company providing lunar delivery services to other companies, institutions and individuals. The partnership with DHL allows any individual to send a memento to the Moon for reduced fees :

(12): Jalal Toufic, What Is The Sum of Recurrently, Galeri Nev, Istanbul, 2010