LIVERPOOL—Arena & Convention Centre 13 - 15 July 2015
Space, Society and Culture, session led by Marek Kukula, Royal Observatory Greenwich
UK Space Conference, Space-enabled Futures. Organised by the UK space community
Art & Legacy
While it might seem strange to show a 15 year old art work at a conference concerned with innovation, what is interesting about this project, is not its novelty but its continued relevance and endurance, which in fact only seems to be increasing with time.
First Woman on the Moon was conceived in response to the media attention given to the 30th anniversary, in 1999, of the original Moon landing. The first man first stepped on the Moon on the 20 th of July 1969, and during a total of 6 missions 12 men eventually walked on the Moon. For the rest of the world’s population these events were mediated experiences, mediated primarily through visual means, such as photography and television.
I am a visual artist and as such, I am primarily a producer and analyst of images. I am interested in not only how images represent reality, but also how they produce reality in and of themselves. My research is concerned with how mass media images circulate and become part of a shared language and eventually how they become official history. As an individual creator, who works with my hands as well as with variety of tools, from pens, to cameras and computers, I am also able to intervene and contribute personally to this evolution and economy of images, wherever I see it lacking. So when in 1999 I heard the recording of Kennedy’s famous speech from 1961 during the height of the space race with the Soviet Union, where he declared his intent to 'put a man on the Moon and bring him safely back to Earth before the end of the decade', I knew that if a woman was going to put her foot on the Moon before the end of the millennium, she better built the Moon herself. So, this is what I did.
My resources at the time were limited. I was a young artist working in a day job as a receptionist in a doctor’s surgery in between my gigs.
First Woman on the Moon was produced on a zero budget, but had such a strength as an idea that it eventually pulled in 50 volunteers, 2 municipalities, 10 bulldozers, local and Dutch national media plus 4 television stations that then sold their footage all over the world.
The Swedish camera producer,
Hasselblad, which had equipped all the Apollo missions with their cameras also equipped the crew and myself, resulting in among other things, this spectacular aerial shot. Hasselblad’s interest in the project stemmed from their already thirty year long relationship with the Moon. ‘The Moon is ours’ they claimed, and the question of my own Moon landing being a fake was not even raised. What mattered to them ultimately were the images, and I presume also a great story.
Two years after the event, I then sent the tape to both Neil Armstrong in Cincinnati and Arthur C. Clarke in Colombo. Both replied, Arthur C. Clarke on a letterhead dated 2001, and Neil Armstrong exchanged a few emails with me.
The film, of which you just saw a short excerpt, has now been touring the world continuously for the past 15 years, and 7 years after it was made, it was considered to be of such art historical importance that it entered the permanent collections of both the Guggenheim Museum in New York and Tate Modern in London, where last year, when put on year long display, it was viewed by more than four million visitors. The nicest thing about being collected by museums is in the quiet meeting with the museum conservator who pragmatically asks, 'So, how do you want us to handle this after you are dead'? This is when I know I am in good hands.
In the case of the Guggenheim Museum, I have signed a 'Variable Media Agreement', which means that the work which was initially shot on magnetic video tape and already migrated to newer digital media twice, will forever be untied to its original medium and that future generations will determine for themselves how best to preserve and share the work. This flexible approach and an open mind to what will come is what effectively will guarantee the work’s continued relevance and survival.
Every year, thousands of people, presumably many of which were born after the Apollo missions, go online and enter the search terms ‘Who was the first woman on the Moon?’ The reason I am aware of this, is because they show up in my website statistics, as in response to their genuine question, they receive my name. Now, that is not OK, but that’s where we still are at as a culture today. As we now head towards the 50
th anniversary of the Moon landing, the interest in my work is mounting in parallel. More and more museums and educational institutions want to show the film and more and more people are asking, ‘Who was she?’ But ‘she’ of course, the ‘First Woman on the Moon’, does not exist beyond her image and as simply providing a catalyst to provoke more questions. As I was standing there on the top of the mountain, inviting the public to join me on the ‘Moon’, three people came up and they declared themselves to be the first black man, the first gay man and the first German on the ‘Moon’.
First Woman on the Moon allowed people to put themselves into the picture. In a wider sense it has satisfied a need for diversity and identification, a need that is continuously present.
Now let me take you even further back in time.
“The International Exhibition of Arts and Technology in Modern Life’ took place in Paris, between the 25
th of May and the 25 th of November 1937. Presenting the latest scientific and technological developments from around the world, it was intended to promote commerce and boost morale at a time of economic slump.
A significant feature of the exhibition was the commissioning of murals by some 550 artists, and sculpture by more than 300 artists. These included works by some of the leading Modernists and most well-known fine artists of the day: Fernand Léger's mural of a hydroelectric plant decorated the entrance hall of the Science Pavilion in the Grand Palais, while the Palace of Electricity and Light contained a vast 60 metre mural by Raoul Dufy celebrating the spirit of electricity and its transformation of everyday life.
Russian-born French artist Sonia and her husband Robert Delaunay were invited to oversee the decoration of both the Railway and Air Pavilions with a cohort of out-of-work artists to assist them. According to one journalist at the time, “these immense panels of Robert and Sonia Delaunay constitute the decoration most suitable to aerodynamic constructs, racing cars, planes meant to dash up in the sky. The abstract character of their art symbolises the advance of a technique increasingly removed from man and nature. But its dynamism affirms faith in progress that transcends man's being crushed by the machine”.
This quotation that I just read, comes from a wall label at the Sonia Delaunay retrospective exhibition that is currently showing at Tate Modern where you can see these fantastic murals for yourselves until the 9
th of August this year. Now 80 years old, the technologies they depict may be dated, but the artworks are still as fresh as can be.
Science and Art may have different objectives, but where they converge is in their shared concern for technology.
This is my own drawing depicting the workings of the London Eye. To make this drawing I used a camera, a printer, black felt tip pens, masking tape, primed canvas, rulers, a calculator and of course my own body.
My drawings are large, and I require a lot of assistance, an approach that is common in most creative industries where people collaborate in various roles. Think of a film director on a set with a large cast and crew or a dance choreographer who bring a precise vision to a work that then is executed by a group of dancers who contribute their physical interpretations of that vision, and the myth of the genius artist who does it all himself in solitude quickly dissolves. A work of any sizeable ambition requires both clear direction and many people’s engagement to take off at all.
My drawing assistants are typically young artists or graduates from various art schools, who are specifically recruited for each project that runs for one to several months leading up to a show. These days assistants are well-paid and properly credited and a job such as this is often their first crack at the creative industries.
I do the research, create the drawings and my assistants then work with me filling in my outlines, enhancing the work using their individual touch and energy. I highly value the variety that they bring to the work. What I am after is precisely the very diversity that all these different hands will bring, which is what makes the final drawing so dynamic and powerful.
As you can see I have completely done away with any colour in my drawings. My position is that I don’t need it, that I can instead convey everything that colour traditionally gives, such as contrast and emotional value, simply by using line, texture, density and the variety of creative energies as my palette. Colour is the aspect of things that is caused by differing qualities of light being reflected or emitted by them, so if I apply the diverse energies of a group of people into one work that then becomes strikingly vibrant, it is colourful, in my mind.
This view shows the same drawing of the London Eye within the context of a wider cityscape. The subject of this particular show was the dynamism and variety of London’s architecture, but it could be anything from space to the oceans, which can be shown as a view through as a micro or telescope, depending on my research resources and preferences of display. During the working process I teach my assistants all my techniques, and then they leave to do their own work or seek employment elsewhere having had the opportunity of a valuable experience. But a show of this scale also requires a great deal of support behind the scenes. Expertise of various sort contribute their input. Fundraisers and administrators do their part. In all, it is a transient and flexible dynamic which allows many people to enter and affect the direction of the artwork during the production process.
Here is a section of the same work depicting various railway bridges in London, a funky house Elephant and Castle underpass and the upside down Shard cutting the space in the middle. More than just a detailed observation, it is also meant to convey a certain experience of London.
In this photograph we can see the final work. A 34 metre mural on canvas, executed over nearly 1000 collective drawing hours, with felt-tip pens alone.
The opportunity to collaborate with me on these large-scale projects that have developed over the past 10 years, has become very popular. For example at this last exhibition at the Drawing Room, the only public art gallery in Europe devoted exclusively to the art and craft of drawing in London, I had 150 applicants for just 10 assistant positions. The idea is now create a work large enough to employ up to 100 young people. So this year, I have started a larger project be over four times this size and will require multiple venues to be seen in full. The work will be titled
The Space Tapestry and it is a project that everyone in this room is invited and welcome to become part of, whether by way of helping to inform the process, contribute ideas or access to information, or simply support some aspect of the creative production of the artwork. The project will premier with an exhibition at the Museum of the History of Science in Oxford, in 2017, before going on tour.
The Space Tapestry is inspired by the work of the anonymous artists who created the Bayeux Tapestry, in which they depicted the appearance of Halley's Comet 1000 years ago. This small image fragment represents a creative departure point for me.
Created 800 years before the advent of photography, the image of the comet might easily be taken for a naive child’s drawing, but is in fact an incredibly sophisticated synthesis of scientific observation, artistic liberty and imagination. The comet has speed, direction and luminosity, while the group of people situated below it, give us a clear idea of the awe, fear and excitement that its appearance inspired. These people lived more than 1000 years ago, and yet, in experiencing the same feelings when I look up in the sky and see something that startles me, I become one of them.
Although a relatively fragile textile, the Bayeux Tapestry has survived war, political upheavals, weather, neglect, vandalism and endured changes in location and ownership. It has enjoyed the protection of no less than 30 successive generations of patrons who saw in it a cultural legacy worth preserving and, told in 50 scenes, a narrative worth passing on through the ages. The first 400 years of the Tapestry's whereabouts are still unknown and therefore its origins can only be speculated on. However many have claimed it as their own: English historians have claimed it to be a fine example of craft made on English soil, Napoleon, who identified with William, Duke of Normandy, the hero of the conquest depicted in the work, used it as war propaganda against the English, and Adolf Hitler found in the Norman ships, traits of Viking and therefore Germanic culture. While the French, initially failing to burn it during the French Revolution, despite destroying all other stone and wood artefacts in Bayeux Cathedral where it was then kept, now grant it the status of a National Monument. Not bad for an embroidery!
In the 1970s, the advertising industry rediscovered the tapestry and fragments from it began to appear in adverts for products ranging from Ryanair to Harley Davidson motorcycles. This millennium old image world has generated a copyright free goldmine around itself, it keeps on giving and keeps on asking questions, which in turn then keep on giving. Ultimately this is the whole secret and formula, to the lasting relevance of an artwork. It does not offer one single solution, not one single message with only the lasting power of a season. It is complex, it is rich, it is entertaining and yet serious, it is both intellectually challenging and very simple to grasp. It makes you want to be involved.
In 1885, Elizabeth Wardle, a skilled embroiderer and wife of Thomas Wardle, a natural dye manufacturer and associate of William Morris, visited Bayeux and was inspired to create a replica of the tapestry for England. She brought together 35 women from the Leek Embroidery Society to complete the work, which then toured all over England and internationally for more than a decade before settling into its current and permanent home at the Museum of Reading, thanks to the generous acquisition and gift of former Mayor Alderman Arthur Hill.
So if this work has sustained its power to interest and inform for 1000 years, what kind of images can we produce today that could possibly provide an equivalent source for the future?
One purpose of
The Space Tapestry is to create an image bank for our times that has the same enduring quality. So ultimately what will itlook like? Well of course we cannot know that yet, but here is a sketch that can give you an indication:
As part of last years
Reinventing Space Conference I visited Inmarsat in London, which is located just a stones throw from my studio. Learning about satellites, being astounded by their control room and then leaving dizzy and exhilarated walking home, I looked around at all the people on the street fiddling with their mobile phones and thought to myself, if they knew more about how this technology worked, if it was presented to them in an exciting, sensual way, they would be looking up every time they receive a text message, not just down.
In January I was a guest teacher at the International Space University in Strasbourg and I was blown away by the engineering students openness to the art. Nobody walks around on this earth which just half a brain, so the whole division between STEM subject and the humanities is absurd. What really matters to students with still flexible and fearless minds is the ability to experiment and explore all their natural and inherent faculties. Rational thinking, Intuition, the capacity to react and reflect, to poeticize freely, develop some crazy vision and then rely on rigorous maths to figure out how to make it all happen. It is the interplay of all those things that moves us ahead, not the bureaucratic compartmentalization of disciplines that only have alienating effect on each other.
I have also recently visited Airbus Defence & Space in Stevenage and was given a tour of all the advanced new technologies and mind blowing missions being developed there. But of all things, what impressed me most was seeing how much of the equipment is actually assembled by human hands. For some reason I had thought that virtually all machines today were being assembled by other machines. As a result of the visit we are now in talks with Airbus about trying to organise a residency for me to come back and draw my impressions, to try to close a circle between the human hands who build these amazing machines and the human hands who can tell their story to the world.
So how do you fit into this picture? Where do we start? Well, we start with a dialogue right here, in this room today. I only have these short 20 minutes but I would be very interested to sit down with each one of you, to invite you to the studio and to hear about what you are doing in the space world, what contributions you made. I would like to know what intrigues and excites you, what you believe in, even what it is that you doubt, so that your input next to all others, can become woven into the fabric of the artwork. If you are interested, please do come and speak to me or get in touch with me by email after this event. More details and information on the project are on this leaflet that I have placed out in the room and that you can pick up here.
Thank you for having me,
Aleksandra Mir, 14 July 2015
Space, Society and Culture, UK Space Conference, Liverpool, 2015
A Permanent State of Landing, International Space University, Strasbourg, 2015
They used to call it the Moon, Baltic, Gateshead, 2014
Hypothèse de l’impact géant, Le Carreau and Visages du Monde, Cergy, 2014
Höhenrausch - Moving Space, OK Center for Contemporary Art, Linz, 2014
They used to call it the Moon, BALTIC39, Gateshead, 2014
The Space Age, M - Museum Leuven, 2013
9th Bienal do Mercosul, Fundação Bienal de Artes Visuais do Mercosul, Porto Alegre, 2013
Energy and Process, Tate Modern, London, 2013
Situation(s) [48°47'34" N / 2°23'14" E], MAC/VAL, Vitry-sur-Seine, 2012
Museum Under Construction, Tokyo - Warsaw, Mori Art Museum, Tokyo, 2011
Specters of the Nineties, Marres - Centre for Contemporary Culture, Maastricht, 2011
Once Upon a Time, Deutsche Guggenheim, Berlin, 2011
Space: About a Dream, Kunsthalle Wien, Vienna, 2011
Deceitful Moon, Hayward Gallery, London, 2009
Vague Terrain: Analogues of Place in Contemporary Photography, FLAG Art Foundation, NYC, 2009
KOSMOS, Neue Fotografien aus dem Weltraum, Stadthaus Ulm, 2009
ART vs. STARLIGHT: Sight-Specific, Memorial Union, Madison 2009
Weltraum als Fluchtlinie, Kunstverein Wolfsburg, 2009
Entrance Strategies, SFMOMA, San Francisco, 2009
Gravity: The Eternal Countdown, Institute of Contemporary Art, London, 2007
Space is the Place, Bedford Gallery, Walnut Creek, 2007; Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, 2007; Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, 2007; Cranbrook Art Museum, Bloomfield Hills, 2006
The Shapes of Space - Part IV, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, NYC, 2007
Space Soon: Art and Human Spaceflight, The Arts Catalyst, Roundhouse, London, 2006
The Starry Messenger: Visions of the Universe, Compton Verney, Warwickshire, 2006
First Woman On The Moon, Vita Kuben - Norrlandsoperan, Umeå, 2006
Return to Space, Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg, 2005
Cine y casi cine, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofìa, Madrid, 2004
Welcome Back to the Earth, Kunsthalle St. Gallen, 2003
First Woman on The Moon, Casco Projects, Wijk aan Zee, 1999