On September 12, 1962 John F. Kennedy visited Rice University
and delivered a gripping speech in which he explained, “…If I were
to say, my fellow citizens, that we shall send to the moon, 240,000
miles away from the control station in Houston, a giant rocket more
than 300 feel tall … on an untried mission, to an unknown celestial
body, and then return it safely to Earth, re-entering the
atmosphere at speeds over 25,000 miles per hour, causing heat about
half that of the temperature of the sun … and do all this, and do
it right, and do it first before this decade is out—then we must be
bold.”1 Over forty years later, that boldness has
dwindled. We exist in an era where the focus of space exploration
is tired and deficient of the excitement of the early Mercury,
Gemini, and Apollo missions. The National Aeronautics and Space
Administration’s golden age has long since passed. Despite the lack
of interest in our current space program, there is a renewed
appreciation of space exploration as a recurring theme in the work
of many twentieth century artists who were merely newborns at the
time of the Apollo missions. Artists such as Sylvie Fleury, Jane
and Louise Wilson, Vincent Fournier, and Aleksandra Mir were born
towards the end of the nineteen-sixties and early seventies, yet
they follow in the footsteps of the previous generations and
address mankind’s biggest fantasy by memorializing their love of
science fiction and all things space age and promoting a revival of
the discovery of the cosmos for generations to come.
It is up to twentieth century artists like these to surpass the artists that came before them while maintaining an artistic response to our achievements in space flight. In 1962, NASA established an art program and commissioned well-known artists such as Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol to use their artistic talents to interpret the milestones of space exploration. Administrator James E. Webb felt it was necessary to go beyond photographs and to advance historic documentation to include artistic expression.2 There is a potential for the artist to rekindle the fascination with the cosmos, much like Purdue University student Charles Walker’s observation, “It’s like mankind has developed fire all over again. Perhaps this will be the kindling light to put men together now,” upon watching Neil Armstrong’s Apollo XI craft take flight on July 16, 1969.3 It is important to remember that the phenomenal experience of the moon landing inspired not just the Nation, but also the entire world, which celebrated the triumph of technology in the quest for the final frontier. As Nikola Jankovich points out, “there is a certain nostalgia in the work of artists who did not experience the golden age themselves.”4 As a result, a group of younger artists have internationally taken interest in making the quest a reality with sculpture, installation, video, and photography.
Swiss artist Sylvie Fleury’s (b. 1961) installations of metallic rockets began in the mid-nineties with First Spaceship on Venus, inspired by the 1960s science fiction movie of the same title.5 Fleury is often categorized as a feminist artist given that her early work of scrutinizing and appropriating designer labels, cosmetics, stiletto heels and shopping bags corresponds with the topic of beauty and consumption in the world of high fashion. On the other hand, her work transcends feminism as she pokes fun at the ultra-masculine imagery of high-speed vehicles, including cars, spaceships, and rockets, in the quest for all things aesthetically pleasing, and dramatizes them into mixed media works of art and ready-made sculptures. These futuristic vehicles go beyond the examination of the façade and communicate the conquest of outer space. Sylvie Fleury (nicknamed “Sylda von Braun,” after the SYLDA carrier on the Ariane rockets6) applies the “What’s next?” mentality of pop culture to mankind’s insatiable desire for discovery. The focus in her work has transitioned away from the fast-paced society of sex and beauty into the out-of-this-world fantasy of space travel. The shift is legitimate since the phallic rockets continue with her early evocativeness. They are painted bright and shiny in varying shades of pink and red—much like lipstick—as well as a few white, fur-covered rockets. The work retains the feminist concern while modernizing into a more intuitive exploration of our existence.
When asked in an interview if she believes in scientific findings Fleury replies, “I think what interests me most is what cannot be proven. If something’s kind of foggy, I’ll go for it and believe in it—much more than anything that can be proven.”7 It is this sentiment that shows through in her latest creations where she constructs artificial UFO crash-sites. The spaceships, “Volvaria,” “Pluteus” and “Chitonia,” look as if they fell from the sky and landed directly in front of Les Printemps de Septembre in Toulouse, France in a disastrous mission. The public “crash-site” brings absurdity to life. It is easy to imagine an alien invasion when looking at Sylvie Fleury’s UFOs. The ships are abandoned, but the purple-coated spacecrafts shimmer brilliantly in the sunlight and yet it is believable that they collapsed in an ill-fated battle between mankind and extraterrestrials. The fact that they are fixed in the open air rather than indoors within the confines of a gallery affirms their existence in our own reality removing them from the realm of science fiction altogether.
The same sentiments are at work in her installation High Heels
on the Moon. The thought of three-inch, red stiletto heels leaving
footprints on the dusty surface of the moon is illogical.
Nevertheless, the subliminal image of a supermodel walking the
moon’s catwalk is vividly entertaining. It is interesting to note
that Fleury chooses to use lights comprised of gaseous neon
illuminating the clear, glass tubing as a way of expressing her
message High Heels on the Moon thus translating the artwork into a
completely different meaning and immediately catching the eye of
the viewer. Neon is frequently used in both advertising and
contemporary art to make a flashy statement, but in Sylvie Fleury’s
case, the neon truly complements the futuristic subject matter in a
successful manifestation. The glowing slogan looks like an “open”
sign at a bar. It represents temptation and suggests that anyone
can strut on the moon. Something as serious as the first moonwalk
becomes playful where science fiction is at hand, launching your
imagination into outer space and closer to the heavens.
Fleury admits that she likes the “idea of life on other planets, in the sense that it recalibrates our own perception of ourselves."8 While she uses space-themed objects to express the fantastical departure from our planet Earth, she also chooses to entertain her obsession with space as a means to explore and observe our own existence. There is a definite fascination with futurism and retro space age in Fleury’s work that is readily appreciated. Her context is grounded in reality even though her contemporary installations feature vehicles of sci-fi space travel. Buckminster Fuller, one of the greatest visionary minds of the twentieth century and a fore founder of space age design, said, “Sometimes I think we’re alone. Sometimes I think we’re not. In either case, the thought is staggering.”9 Sylvie Fleury’s eccentric spacecrafts embody this forthright notion of possibility and potential for discovery.
Contrary to Fleury’s otherworldly subject matter, British artists Jane and Louise Wilson (b. 1967) remain grounded choosing to spotlight historic sites within our atmosphere. The Wilson sisters are frequently featured in space-themed exhibitions, such as ‘ Stardust or the Last Frontier’ at the Musee D’art Contemporain du Val-de-Marne, France in 2007 and the traveling exhibition ‘Space is the Place’ circulated by the Independent Curators International in 2006. They are more interested in the emotional impact and reality of visiting and recording an authentic location connected to space flight rather than generating an imaginative response in the viewer. In 2001, the Wilson sisters were granted access to explore Baikonur Cosmodrome, the oldest space facility to date. The artists were permitted to document the first Russian-American rocket launch to the International Space Station resulting in their 35mm film, Dreamtime. Their solemn film recalls the secrecy and espionage of the Cold War and paints an incredibly dismal perspective using the facility’s architecture. Art critic, Cherry Smyth describes:
The film begins with multiple shots of the space factory to the evocative strains of the soundtrack to Tarkovsky’s 1972 film Solaris. The split-screen images are then slowed down and the sound of machinery and wind becomes increasingly alienating. It has the degraded look of 70s Soviet footage and the sound of the film projector in the background enhances the sense of anachronism. The generals pose like actors. The rocket is cradled by the metal launchers in what the Wilsons called a ‘huge mechanical catapult.’ A death white cold envelops those gathered to witness the launch. There is no applause, only a deafening roar and then a fat tail of flame which quickly vanishes into grey emptiness.10
Jane and Louise Wilson’s collaborative effort throughout their career of split-screen video installations mirrors their own lives as fraternal twins. Their partnership is akin to that of the Gemini mission’s two-man crew. There is both a literal and psychological experience of being directed through the emblematic training facilities and being shown two camera views. They work exceptionally well filming and photographing together and as Jane points out, “It’s always interesting, when we’re filming, to see what she’s pictured and what I’ve pictured.”11 In examining the Dreamtime still Pre-Launch Site, the complex looks empty and out-dated. It clearly lacks preservation and, if not for the figure peering over the guardrail, it appears to be abandoned. A gloomy haze above the launch site blurs out everything in the distance while the painted blue lines lead the viewer directly to the lonesome figure in the background. In comparison, Pre-Launch Site Two makes the stark abandonment even more obvious. This second image of the site shows the backdrop of the totally empty structure with an ominous quality fully accentuated by their double vision.
It is remarkable that Baikonur Cosmodrome is still fully
functional and that the Russian government allowed the Wilsons’
artistic visualization to be exhibited internationally. The
depressing facility shown in Dreamtime is potentially damaging to
the Russian space program’s image, but the realistic
representations are not lacking in reverie. These iconographic
C-prints from Dreamtime request the viewer to take a step back and
remember the once glorious dream of Russian space conquest and to
focus on the new potential. Brian Dillon examines, “The title is a
clue: not ‘Dreamtime’ (as the gallery’s publicity had it) but
‘dream time’: almost an order. Can we dream time, fantasize the
pure element adrift from its spatial moorings? The film attempts
just that; testament to a take-off both grandly futuristic and
oddly archaic, it suggests that such dreams only seem fantastic to
the waking mind: a moment of clarity captured here in the closing
shots of post-lift-off space, abandoned rooms, dusty windows
opening on to earthbound reality.”12 And with that, Jane
and Louise Wilson present the aftermath of the Russian space
program and the frozen-in-time facility that sent Sputnik I into
orbit and consequently inspire a monumental and artistic testimony
to what was once a magnificent competitor of NASA, now a time
capsule holding the memory of our Cold War fears.
French photographer Vincent Fournier (b. 1970) and Jane and Louise Wilson share a common approach in documenting environments associated with space travel. A similar detachment is present in Fournier’s Space Project photographs. Inspired by the novel From the Earth to the Moon by Jules Verne, Fournier aims to communicate the mystery of the universe and the romance of the celestial body.13 Like the Wilson sisters, he takes photographs of space complexes from all over the world including the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Center in Shchelkovo, Russia and the Mars Desert Research Station in Hanksville, Utah. In his artist statement, Fournier explains, “This project came from the experience that we all have whilst looking at the stars during our childhood, when we suddenly realize the infinity of the universe and that we are but a tiny part of it.”14
In the absence of human hands, the gloves in Fournier’s Russian Sokol Space Gloves look like movie props from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.15 Even the wallpaper is a dated backdrop to the modern looking gloves that are still not completely current in design. Both Fournier and the Wilsons have documented the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City. The discarded spacesuits in Jane and Louise Wilson’s Skafandry convey a depressing tale of a disenchanted era while Vincent Fournier’s gloves remain hopeful of Russia’s future space legacy. Notably, a Russian-American partnership is underway with the retiring of the space shuttle in 2010 where NASA will rely on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft and Baikonur Cosmodrome to transport astronauts to the International Space Station while awaiting the new Constellation program.16
In Fournier’s photograph NASA’s Space Study Team Headed by
Commander John Rack it is hard to believe that the setting is not
elaborately staged. The landscape is unbelievable, leaving an
unsure consideration of whether or not it is on Mars or if it is a
place that exists on Earth. There is a lingering possibility that
the photographer has carefully selected the woman’s plain
spacesuit. Nevertheless, that is not the case because the red
terrain is an authentic location at the Mars Desert Research
Station designed to imitate the realistic habitat of the Red
Planet. There is a strange sadness to the woman gazing into the
distance. Is she a confident frontierswoman or a lonely drifter? If
this were a scene in a movie, we might hear the poignant pop hit
from 1965, “Everybody’s Gone to the Moon” on the
soundtrack.17 Her childlike posture suggests that she is
daydreaming of her capsule, ready to make the leap into space and
voyage to Mars without looking back. Like the calm before a storm,
she is waiting for the fulfillment of departure.
Fournier’s imagery and explorations of space on Earth has an unreal quality. The photographs are quiet and composed, yet there is a sense of strangeness and detachment like watching a scene in a play that is being acted out on cue. There is a definite mystery at hand in each image in the Space Project series leaving the viewer to read between the lines. The historically charged environments in Fournier’s work are paralleled in the Wilson sisters’ videos and film stills. Instead of tempting the viewer with the heavens, such as the conception of Sylvie Fleury, Fournier romanticizes the groundwork of celestial transportation and revives the naive fascination with the universe. Subsequently, it is imperative to have a realistic view of space exploration in conjunction with the fantasy of science fiction.
In the midst of our countless accomplishments in space flight, there are citizens and politicians alike who are opposed to space travel, believing that we have no business going into outer space and that it is a colossal waste of government funds. Folk legend Bob Dylan is part of this opposition. In his song “License to Kill” he contests, “Oh, man has invented his doom/ first step was touching the moon.”18 Dylan performed the song two weeks after the Challenger disaster in 1986 and declared it a “tragedy” before dedicating it to “all those poor people who were fooled into going up there.”19 Despite the resistance to the space program, artists continue to persist with space related fine art.
Polish-born artist Aleksandra Mir (b. 1967) visited the Kennedy Space Center in 2004 where she had her picture taken in front of the rocket garden. A year later, this crucial photograph inspired her to stack random objects to assemble four “rockets” in Garden of Rockets. Mir placed various household items on top of one another in a minimal display of imagined futuristic propulsion mimicking NASA’s retired rockets at the Kennedy Space Center. Notice the assortment of items that she uses to construct the rockets: the ordinary objects include a Pringles can, a plastic cup turned upside down, and a can of Bed Head hairspray topped off with an open lipstick container to make the tip. She explains the piled items on top of storage containers as “a housewife’s simple distraction, her predicament and dream of breaking out.”20 It may seem odd to exhibit household objects turned into four abstracted rockets in a gallery, but Garden of Rockets lead to an even larger scale installation of ready-made assemblage. Most notably, Mir’s trip to the Kennedy Space Center stimulated her interest in the idea of space exploration.
Hence, in 2006 Aleksandra Mir set out to plan and erect a 20-meter high rocket built completely from junk and what resulted was her site-specific piece, Gravity. The junk rocket commissioned by The Arts Catalyst was constructed for a five-day exhibition ‘Space Soon’ at the Roundhouse, a former industrial warehouse turned into an exhibition space, which imitated NASA’s vehicle assembly building during its construction. The enormous production took great lengths in planning each section of the rocket including the task of acquiring steel, fiberglass, tractor tires, and discarded storage tanks. Mir employed found objects in opposition of all things modern and brand new. It was essential for Mir to work with the “ready-made aesthetic” to redefine each object in the assemblage.21
The lighting in the warehouse is aimed from the tip of the
rocket down to the ground. Smoke creates a haze around the rocket
as if a countdown has begun and it is awaiting lift off. The
spectacular construction of found objects may possibly be an end
result of the creativity and imagination of a little girl in her
parent’s backyard. Gravity is not just a sculpture, but
also a believable force ready to shoot up into outer space. It
stood in the Roundhouse for only three days as a massive beacon of
imagination with the intention of “going nowhere” and as Aleksandra
Mir dissects, it is “a metaphoric comment on what holds us back,
rather than articulating any real intention to go.”22
Three years after the dismantling of Gravity, the rocket
continues to exist through Mir’s documentation of drawings,
diagrams, video, and production stills.
Today, amateur rocketry is reaching new heights with the first successful launch of a civilian rocket attaining an altitude of 72 miles on May 17, 2004, exceeding the 62-mile classification of outer space.23 With groups like the Civilian Space eXploration Team, there is a momentous amount of interest and participation in cosmic adventure. Early this year, four teenage students launched a camera-operated weather balloon into space that took breathtaking photographs twenty miles above the Earth as they tracked its course using Google Earth.24 It is astonishingly evident that you no longer need a specialized aerospace engineering degree to partake in the final frontier.
The topic of space in contemporary art plays a crucial role in the growth and understanding of our celestial existence. Sylvie Fleury, Jane and Louise Wilson, Vincent Fournier, and Aleksandra Mir’s artistic depictions of the cosmos, whether based in reality or science fiction, will produce interest for continuing generations and promote the bond between science and art. The long-term benefits of linking art with science could lead to a revival of the space age that we experienced in the 1960s. In the last ten years, artists such as Annie Liebovitz and Judith Eisler have been added to the list of contributors for NASA’s flourishing art program with a Smithsonian Institution traveling exhibition scheduled nationwide starting in 2009 through 2011.25 When asked in an interview to delineate her interest in space, Aleksandra Mir summed up, “Global events in popular culture, such as the moon landing, the development of a mass aviation culture, the future of the space program, etc., have massive influence on how we live and perceive ourselves in the world. To contribute to these grand narratives as an artist means that I can attempt to formally mimic their orchestration, play and make believe.”26
Sean Topham, author of Where’s My Space Age?, concludes that the resurgence of space in contemporary art and the fascination with the “cosmic spectacle” is the result of twentieth century artists “embarking on their own voyage of discovery” and reacting to the scientific breakthrough of previous generations.27 They are following in the footsteps of twentieth century artists like Robert Rauschenberg and expanding on that generation’s romantic view of outer space. Yves Klein (b. 1928-1962) created a series of planetary reliefs in the last year before his death. In his Chelsea Hotel Manifesto he declares, “Neither missiles nor rockets nor sputniks will render man the ‘conquistador’ of space. Those means derive only from the phantom of today's scientists who still live in the romantic and sentimental spirit of the XIX century. Man will only be able to take possession of space through the terrifying forces, the ones imprinted with peace and sensibility. He will be able to conquer space—truly his greatest desire—only after having realized the impregnation of space by his own sensibility. His sensibility can even read into the memory of nature, be it of the past, of the present, and of the future!”28
In closing, the future is not behind us. We are still
starry-eyed and steadfast on discovery, hypnotized by the cosmos.
The desire to explore mankind’s greatest dream will live on in
artistic legacy as long as scientists explore the universe. Art can
be an effective medium for interpreting events and promoting a
dialogue between the past and the present. The breach between
reality and fantasy will always exist in the case of historic
documentation, making it necessary for artists to go beyond
celestial representation and articulate the astonishing emotional
impact of scientific breakthroughs. Futuristic “other worlds” and
modern utopias will continuously engage our imaginations. Artists
will carry on creating work based on outer space with the hopes
that their visual fantasies will gradually cross the threshold of
the galleries and cross over into every day life. In the words of
John F. Kennedy, “ . . . man, in his quest for knowledge and
progress, is determined and cannot be deterred. The exploration of
space will go ahead, whether we join in it or not, and it is one of
the great adventures of all time . . .”29
Copyright © 2009 by Whitney Dail. All rights reserved.
1 John F. Kennedy, Presidential address at Rice University on the Nation’s Space Effort, Houston, TX, September 12, 1962, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.
2 Loretta Hidalgo Whitesides, “‘NASA|Art’ Shares Emotion, Beauty of Space,” Wired (2008).
3 James R. Hansen, First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong, (New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2005), 5.
4 Nikola Jankovich, “‘Biosphere 3’: Art, Science, Fiction,” Art Press no. 296 (2003): 29.
5 Kurt Maetzig, First Spaceship on Venus, DVD, 1960, Beverly Hills, CA: Crown International Pictures, 2000.
6 Éric Troncy “The Better You Look,” Sylvie Fleury, (Dijon: Les Presses du Réel/Janvier/RMN 2001):13.
7 Sylvie Fleury, Interview with Peter Halley, Index Magazine (April 2002).
8 Sylvie Fleury, Interview with Peter Halley, Index Magazine (April 2002).
9 R. Buckminster Fuller, “Quotation #440 from Michael Moncur's (Cynical) Quotations,” The Quotations Page.
10 Cherry Smyth, “Jane & Louise Wilson: Lisson Gallery London,” Art Mon no. 266 (2003): 32.
11 William Leith, “Interview: Jane and Louise Wilson – WE ARE A CAMERA,” The Independent, August 29, 1999.
12 Brian Dillon, “Jane and Louise Wilson,” Frieze Magazine, Issue 78 (October 2003).
13 Vincent Fournier, Biography.
14 Vincent Fournier, Biography.
15 Stanley Kubrick, 2001: A Space Odyssey, DVD, 1968, Burbank, CA: Warner Home Video, 2001.
16 John Schwartz, “One Way Up: U.S. Space Plan Relies on Russia,” The New York Times, October 5, 2008.
17 Jonathan King, "Everyone’s Gone to the Moon," The Many Faces of Jonathan King, Music Club, 1993.
18 Bob Dylan, “License to Kill,” Infidels, Sony, 1983.
19 L. Horton, “Space Travel,” E-mail message, June 6, 2006.
20 Aleksandra Mir, “Garden of Rockets,” Aleksandra Mir.
21 Aleksandra Mir, Interview by Jes Fernie, Blueprint Magazine (July 2006).
22 Aleksandra Mir, Interview by Jes Fernie, Blueprint Magazine (July 2006).
23 Jerry L. Larson, “GoFast Rocket Maximum Altitude Verification,” The Civilian Space eXploration Team, March 8, 2005.
24 Telegraph (London), “Teens capture images of space with £56 camera and balloon,” March 18, 2009.
25 Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, “NASA Art | 50 Years of Exploration.”
26 Aleksandra Mir, Interview by Jes Fernie, Blueprint Magazine (July 2006).
27 Sean Topham, Where’s My Space Age? (New York: Prestel, 2003), 157.
28 Yves Klein, “The Chelsea Hotel Manifesto,” Yves Klein Archives.
29 John F. Kennedy, Presidential address at Rice University on the Nation’s Space Effort, Houston, TX, September 12, 1962, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.