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Houston, we have an exhibition in space

This month, art is launched into the final frontier (again)

Cosmonaut Alexander Polischuk and Arthur Woods' Cosmic Dancer. Courtesy Arthur Woods

BY Jonathan Griffin
writer and critic

In Analysis

When future generations (quite possibly on other planets) retell the story of the human race in the second half of the 20th century and the first half of the 21st, the exploration of space will surely constitute a major narrative thread.

It weaves not only in and out of global politics and advancements in all areas of technology (particularly warfare, environmentalism and communications) but also, importantly, through the poetic, imaginative consciousness of our species. As the artist Forrest Myers put it, “Darwinian evolution seemed to happen in fossil time, but seeing Man leave the Earth and step foot on the Moon was both instant and epic.”

This month, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket is scheduled to launch from Vandenburg Air Force Base, California, carrying Trevor Paglen’s sculpture Orbital Reflector. The ambitious work will join the small but distinguished category of astronautical art—that is, art not about space or which pictures it, but which is actually designed to enter space and exist there either temporarily or permanently.

Design concept rendering for “Trevor Paglen: Orbital Reflector” (2017), co-produced and presented by the Nevada Museum of Art. Courtesy of Trevor Paglen and Nevada Museum of Art.

Orbital Reflector is a satellite the size of a shoebox which will be ejected from the rocket along with 70 other shoeboxes (known in the industry as CubeSats) about 350 miles above the Earth. Compressed carbon dioxide canisters will then inflate a 100ft-long balloon made from a shiny plastic similar to Mylar, which will—if all goes according to plan—serenely orbit the Earth for a scheduled two months.

Paglen’s intention is to create a satellite whose purpose is not to look down at Earth or to look further out into space, as with almost every other satellite ever made, but to be seen. An app will enable viewers standing anywhere on the globe to see, at dusk—a comet-like point of light progressing across the night sky.

As the Orbital Reflector website puts it, Paglen’s $1.3m project—organized in collaboration with the Nevada Museum of Art—“could help to change the way we see our place in the world”. Indeed, this has arguable been an aim of all astronautical art. Here, we take a brief tour through some of the historical precedents for Paglen’s satellite.

Kazimir Malevich, Suprematist Satellites from “Suprematism: 34 Drawings” (1920). Courtesy the Dallas Museum of Art

Malevich’s fellow travelers

While the German mathematician and astronomer Johannes Kepler is thought to be the first person to imagine extraterrestrial travel in his 1608 novel Somnium, Kazimir Malevich was probably the first to conceive of a work of art designed to exist in space.

The Kiev-born Suprematist was obsessed with astronomy and the cosmos, and during his years living and teaching in Vitebsk, in modern-day Belarus, (1919-1922), he was never without his pocket telescope.

In 1920 he published Suprematism: 34 Drawings, an astonishing illustrated text about his theories. It was here that he famously first used the Russian word “sputnik”, meaning “fellow traveler”, to describe man-made satellites. He also presented designs for such objects—termed planits—which were essentially floating space versions of his arkhitektons, constructions that could house the earthlings of the future in self-sustaining, hermetic utopian communities.


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Lost and found in the ocean of storms

Various Artists with Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg, David Novros, Forrest Myers, Robert Rauschenberg, John Chamberlain, Moon Museum (1969) © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NY

While working with the organization Experiments in Art and Technology, founded by artists Robert Rauschenberg and Robert Whitman with engineers Billy Klüver and Fred Waldhauer, Forrest Myers came up with the idea of putting a work of art on the Moon. Apollo 11 had just landed on the Moon in July 1969, and Apollo 12 was already scheduled to lift off in November that same year.

The object comprised drawings by Myers and five other prominent artists: Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, David Novros, John Chamberlain and Claes Oldenburg. Each drawing—in Rauschenberg’s case, a single line; in Oldenburg’s, an abstraction of Mickey Mouse; in Warhol’s, weirdly, a scrawled cock and balls—was inscribed on a thin ceramic chip about an inch long.

Myers waited anxiously for final approval of the project from NASA. It never arrived. Instead, he persuaded an engineer working on Apollo 12 to surreptitiously insert the chip into a leg of the lunar lander. In the final hours before launch Myers received a telegram from the engineer: “You’re on. A-OK. All systems are go. John F.” As far as anyone knows, Moon Museum is still on the lander in the Ocean of Storms today.

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From a dinner party to outer space

Paul Van Hoeydonck, Fallen Astronaut (1971). Courtesy NASA via Wikimedia Commons

The second work of art to go to the Moon was Belgian artist Paul Van Hoeydonck’s aluminum sculpture Fallen Astronaut (1971). The piece remains mired in controversy, ironically in part because, in contrast to Moon Museum, it was approved by NASA.

Van Hoeydonck had long been inspired by the cosmos and by humankind’s recent explorations of its reaches. After meeting Apollo 15’s commander David Scott at a dinner party, the pair agreed, with the approval of NASA, to place one of Van Hoeydonck’s works on the Moon.

The piece needed to be small enough to fit into Scott’s personal effects, light, and resilient to extreme heat and cold. Van Hoeydonck designed and fabricated a 3.3in-tall abstract figure from solid aluminum, which he felt represented the future of the human species.

However, the crew had their own ideas, and dedicated the sculpture on the Moon, along with a small plaque, as a memorial to all the astronauts who had died in the race to the stars, titling it Fallen Astronaut. Van Hoeydonck was uncredited for a long time after the Apollo 15 mission, and remains dismayed by the misinterpretation of his work.

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One of the oil paintings by Ellery Kurtz that was flown aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia. Courtesy of Vertical Horizons, Ellery Kurtz © 1986

Getaway special

The challenge for artists attempting to get their work into space is that on any mission, everything on the spacecraft must be an operational or scientific necessity. In 1976, however, NASA conceived of an initiative whereby unused cargo space on the space shuttle could be offered (at a price) to external agencies and individuals.

The scheme, wittily known as the Getaway Special (or GAS)—named after a cut-price flight from LAX to Hawaii—was similar to the arrangement that will enable Paglen to send his satellite payload on SpaceX’s rocket. All projects nevertheless had to be evaluated for their scientific, educational or technological worth.

Artist Ellery Kurtz and environmental psychologist Howard Wishnow founded the organization Vertical Horizons to explore the cultural enrichment of life in space. In 1986 their GAS proposal to send four of Kurtz’s oil paintings into Earth orbit was accepted by NASA, on the basis that their experiment would test the effects of space travel on traditional art media. Aboard the space shuttle Columbia, Kurtz’s oil paintings became the first to orbit the Earth.

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Everything and nothing

Artist Lowry Burgess. Courtesy Carnegie Mellon University School of Art

Artist Lowry Burgess also harbored ambitions to send a work of art into space but was determined that his project would not be mischaracterized as a scientific experiment. He intensively lobbied NASA to relax its criteria for inclusion on a space mission, and in 1989 his sculpture Boundless Cubic Lunar Aperture became the first non-scientific payload launched by NASA.

Boundless Cubic Lunar Aperture is a six-pound, five-inch cube of bronze-tinted transparent glass, symbolic, in Burgess’ words, of “everything and nothing”. Inside, a glass cube contained distilled samples from 18 rivers, lakes and water sources around the world, augmented with additional traces of every stable element in the periodic table. The cube stands for “everything”. Floating inside this cube is another, smaller one, a vacuum surrounded by exposed but blank photographic holograms—this is “nothing”.

After 90 orbits of the Earth the cube returned to Earth and is now displayed encased by petrified sycamore from the Grand Canyon, permanently floating in a magnetic field and sunk into a stone outcrop, in the grounds of the DeCordova Sculpture Park and Museum in Massachusetts.

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Dancing through space

Cosmic Dancer stowed in the Mir space station spacesuit compartment. Courtesy Arthur Woods

The American-born, Swiss-based artist Arthur Woods was contracted to create a sculpture to be taken aboard the Russian space station Mir. In comparison to astronautical art precedents, the parameters set by the Russian Aviation and Space Agency were rather more generous: the resulting piece, Cosmic Dancer, weighs exactly 1kg in weight and measures 35cm x 35cm x 40cm—small enough to fit through the airlocks of the space station.

In many respects, Cosmic Dancer is a rather conventional non-objective sculpture. Made from square aluminum tubing, it is painted with a spatter effect reminiscent of Jackson Pollock, but which Woods has called Pointillist. Given its designation as a “non-gravitational space sculpture”, it has no top or bottom, no obvious right or wrong way up. The Russian cosmonauts allowed it to float freely in their living space and are documented on video “dancing” with the object.

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Spotted on Mars

As with earlier works of art that were permitted on space missions on the condition that they did double duty by being scientifically useful as well as aesthetically or conceptually interesting, Damien Hirst’s spot painting on the Beagle 2 Mars lander is actually a functional instrument disguised as art.

Calibration device, designed by Damien Hirst, installed on Beagle 2. Courtesy the Fitzwilliam Museum Press Department

The director of the consortium which developed Beagle 2 was British scientist Professor Colin Pillinger, who described his role as “professor of PR” and “pop entrepreneur”. Hoping to raise publicity for the project and attract funders, he enlisted the pop band Blur to write a nine-note call signal, and commissioned Hirst to produce a painting that was also a visual calibration target for several on-board cameras and instruments.

The small aluminum plate was imprinted with color samples similar to the tones of the Martian terrain. In addition, Hirst added two discs of non-functional colors, green and blue, representing the Earth, and designated it an example of his well-known “Spot Painting” series.

Beagle 2 was scheduled to land on Mars on Christmas Day 2003 but after successfully deploying from its orbiter lost contact and was never heard from again. It was considered lost until 2015, when a subsequent Mars mission discovered the lander on the planet’s surface. 

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Trevor Paglen, Prototype for a Nonfunctional Satellite (Design 4; Build 4) (2013). Courtesy of Altman Siegel Gallery and Metro Pictures

Trevor Paglen’s post-human art

Before Paglen’s long-held ambition to launch his own satellite became a reality, he was commissioned by public art organization Creative Time to develop an artifact designed to last billions of years. Mounted on the exterior of the EchoStar XVI communications satellite, The Last Pictures consists of a silicon disk in a gold casing with 100 images micro-etched into its surface. The images were chosen by Paglen in consultation with scientists, philosophers, anthropologists and artists as a record of the human race to be seen and interpreted so many years into the future that the human race may no longer exist.  

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