The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

The painting The Irreversible Downfall of Intercostal Six by Lia Halloran is one of the more conventional works of art on display in “Space is the Place”. (courtesy Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts)

Review: Space Is the Place

“Space Is the Place”
at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia
through December 30, 2007

When you hear the term “space art”, what first pops into mind? Odds are, it’s probably some kind of painting or other illustration of a scene in outer space: a view from the lunar surface, a portrait of Mars or another world in our solar system, or perhaps a distant, unfamiliar planet, star, or galaxy. Such illustrations can also include explorers, human and/or robotic, either reenacting the first fifty years of space exploration or suggesting what could happen in the next fifty years and beyond. It’s a style popularized by many, from Chesley Bonestell to Robert McCall to Apollo 12 astronaut Alan Bean, among many others.

What probably didn’t come to mind was an array of dozens of wine bottles on a floor, with speakers mounted in them. Or a small blue object on a mahogany table. Or a “soundscape” of mumbles and grunts.

Yet those are just three of the unusual—to say the least—pieces of art one finds in “Space Is the Place”, a traveling exhibition currently at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in downtown Philadelphia through the end of the year. (The exhibition has previously appeared in museums in Michigan, California, and Arizona; it’s slated to be in museums in Cincinnati and Yonkers, New York next year.) “Despite recent setbacks,” reads the description of the exhibition by the organizer, Independent Curators International, “travel to outer space remains a powerful catalyst for contemporary artists, inspiring nostalgia, fantasy, and, at a time of great terrestrial conflict, consideration of serious earthly concerns.”

The exhibition is full of unconventional works of art, most of which are less about space or spaceflight than about using space as a means of critiquing “earthly concerns”, serious or otherwise.

There’s a mix of all three in this exhibition, although not necessarily in easily recognizable forms. The blue object on the table was an umbilical adaptor from one on the Apollo 17 spacesuits; the table itself was used for autopsies of executed prisoners at the infamous Sing Sing Prison. The juxtaposition of the two, in the mind of artist Ronald Jones, was designed to illustrate the extremes of human endeavor. Without the explanatory text, though, it simply appears to be an odd blue object sitting on an otherwise empty table. The mumbles and grunts are from the audio of the Apollo 11 mission, with all the intelligible words removed; the intent of the artist was to demonstrate how insufficient words are to describe something as spectacular as walking on the Moon. (Although Buzz Aldrin’s two-word description of the lunar landscape, “magnificent desolation”, is both simple and powerful.) And the wine bottles with the speakers? They’re supposed to play space sounds of some kind, but they didn’t seem to be working during a recent visit. Or maybe they were working; it can be hard to tell.

Those are not the only unconventional works of art in the exhibition, most of which are less about space or spaceflight than about using space as a means of critiquing “earthly concerns”, serious or otherwise. A CD-ROM (running on an antiquated Mac, with an obtuse user interface) tries to draw parallels and contradictions between the Space Race of the 1960s and the civil rights movement of the same era. A video tries to link spaceflight to gender politics by reenacting the Apollo 11 landing with a female crew on a Dutch beach; the video, though, is more about the making of the project, with little narration to explain what’s going on. Another artist, Julian LaVerdiere, went to great lengths to contrive a hoax: that in 1942 Wernher von Braun launched a manned V-2 that crashed into the sea, to be “found” by an undersea expedition. His efforts included a documentary-like film and “photos” of the crashed V-2 on the seafloor, complete with Associated Press-style captions. “In a final gesture of humorous defiance,” reads the exhibition’s brochure, “he inserted some of these fabricated images into the Associated Press archive, certain to confound future V-2 and space program researchers.” That sounds less like “humorous defiance” than historical defacement.

There are a few hidden gems (or, rather, things that aren’t that bizarre) in the exhibition. A 12-minute video from a group called Microgravity Interdisciplinary Research shows what happens when you take a group of artists on a zero-g aircraft flight in Russia. (Hint: in weightlessness any old rug can become a magical flying carpet.) Arguably the most famous artist in the exhibition, Laurie Anderson, has a series of photos from a visit she made to Star City during her time as NASA’s only artist-in-residence. The photos of facilities there, though, are small and almost lost among the bigger and stranger installations in the gallery. What “Space Is the Place” shows is that the intersection of space and the arts is more than just conventional spacescapes. What it doesn’t prove, though, is whether any of that additional art is worth viewing.