The Pionneer Plaque couple is a famous image created by artist Linda Salzman sagan, wife of Carl Sagan, for inclusion in a larger pictogram that was etched into two gold-anodized aluminium plaques and attached to the 1972 Pioneer 10 and 1973 Pioneer 11 spacecrafts, two early probes which have long left our solar system and could be considered the image furthest away from its manmade (womanmade?) source of creation.
Despite the artist's most humble and generalist intentions, representing humanity with two single figures proved controversial and debates have surrounded their ethnic and sexual bias from the start.
In 2015-17 as we worked on the Space Tapestry, I ran a workshop on the Pioneer Plaque with my student assistants. I photocopied the original line drawings and I gave the group pens, scissors, cutting boards, paper and glue sticks. I told them about the plaque: If you were asked to re-design a presentation of the two figures and you had this as a reference that you thought you could improve on or update to best represent humanity today, what would you do?
The way I work with young people is that I ask them to respond to my simple problems in a very personal way. It is a very casual give and take between us. They get paid work experience with a senior artist and insight into how studios and institutions work, while I need help and am interested in diversifying my own hand and thought process. Ten people are always going have a more diverse response than one.
I have been told by experts that this is an extremely limiting way of analysing the original plaque. That the figures exist as part of the bigger design and that there is so much more to say about it. But for my purposes, the figure is central to human self-representation and it is central to art history. So we looked purely at the bodies and played around with lots of ideas, hundreds. You can re-create this exercise with anyone and anywhere.
Artists have been reworking those figures since they first came out; my favorite is Jack Kirby’s superhero version. He was commissioned by the LA Times that did a whole artists special on them in 1972. Of course fantasy artists can do whatever they want. But I wanted my group of students to rework the originals, to stay close to the source.
Most artists today, myself included — I studied at the School of Visual Arts in NYC the ‘90s and the young people who come through my studio are University Arts London graduates — are the product of what is pejoratively referred to as a de-skilled art education. Most western art academies have done away with the classical anatomical study of the human body by now. So there is already a generational divide between Linda Salzman Sagan who drew the Pioneer couple and my crew. Never mind the controversies around genitals or ethnocentric facial features, we wouldn’t even know how to draw an anatomically correct leg today. Not that there is much of a reason to do that either. We can use photography to convey the naturalism and when it comes to the ideal body, well, everything is up for grabs.
London art students come from all over the world. I will occasionally have a student from Romania or Spain where they are still rigorously trained in the classic tradition, but if they show up here in my studio, they are at a stage in their life where they want to abandon all that and do graffiti or conceptual text work instead. So even if they could draw that way, they no longer want to because they don’t think it is relevant or cool enough!
We use commonplace artistic strategies like collage or appropriation, the idea being that it is OK to rework images that already exist in abundance in the public domain, to comment on them, dissect previous ideals and give them new meaning. So we are quoting, cutting and pasting and moving Linda’s work around until it suits our contemporary purpose. We give homage and scrutinise in one go.
I am the author of the exercise, I fundraise and manage all the logistics to create the most conducive environment for experimentation, and I edit what I find most revealing and interesting at the end. Anyone can do this at home but given the diversity here, the variation between people’s backgrounds and motivations and the variation of energies over the course of the day, I think my workshop creates a playful conversation rather than more dogma, right?
None of these ideas are an absolute or the absolute best. They are just versions of events, the results of the circumstances of that day and possibly a reflection of what young people might think is relevant right now. And I have now way of knowing if they respond to my question sincerely or ironically.