For me, the highlight of this past week’s science news was the images beamed back from the Curiosity rover, providing conclusive geologic evidence that water flowed on Mars. Of course, this wasn’t exactly a surprise; for decades, planetary scientists have suggested the dendritic channel networks visible in spacecraft imagery couldn’t have been made by anything else. The evidence has been mounting as well, as various clay minerals and iron oxides have been identified through hyperspectral imagery. Nonetheless, I suspect that the image of definitely water-lain sediments made the heart of more than one geologist skip a beat. Ground truth.
You could argue that the scientific exploration of the extra-terrestrial is, at least in a part, a search for meaning: to position us within a larger cosmology. But our fascination with, and connection to, what we see in the night sky comes not just through science, but also through art. So it should come as no surprise that scientific images of planetary surfaces have provided inspiration to a range of artists from Galileo – whose first sketches of the moon through a telescope are truly beautiful – to Barbara Hepworth – whose interpretations of the lunar surface are far less literal.
Here are a few artists who have touched on them in their practices for various different ways….
Kiki Smith explores the physical relationship between humans and the moon in a beautiful fold-out series of prints, of the lunar surface. With 13 prints of the moon, taken through the Columbia University telescope by the artist, “Tidal” (1998) reflects on effect of the moon’s tides on the female body as well as the surface of the earth.
A far more remote vision of the Moon is presented by Vija Celmins, who beautifully captures the mystery of the lunar surface in her graphite works on paper. Working from photographs, often cut from magazines, Celmins blurs the line between photography and drawing by creating beautifully layered and assembled images. A less innovative artist might feel sheepish working from photographs, but Celmins does not shy away from her source material. By openly acknowledging that her near-photorealistic work could only be based upon remotely-taken photos of the moon, she actually distances us from the source material – only a select few of us will ever directly experience another world in this way. In this image from the MOMA collection, we seem to hover above the surface of the moon at a slightly oblique angle, snapping photos in order to piece together a very foreign place in our minds.
Removing us even further from reality is Nancy Graves, who tackled notions of mapmaking and abstraction in a series of lithographs based upon geologic maps of the moon. Containing none of the features that we expect of maps (i.e. a legend for one!), these images comprise amorphous regions of brightly coloured specks. Without prior knowledge of their content, they are abstract. Trained as a geologist myself (and one who has indeed spent time fascinated by maps of lunar geology), my mind instantly interprets the visual cues, identifying craters and fault lines. However, without that context, what remains? Geologic maps made from space have a weirdly abstract quality—they are our best guess at the rock units at the surface, based on features visible in spacecraft imagery. Very reasonable guesses, but lacking the ground truth of astronauts or rovers, such as Curiosity, that can say ‘these are water-lain sediments.’
Returning to Mars, I thought that no post on planetary artistry could be complete without a nod to Percival Lowell, who was not an artist (technically speaking), but a scientist with a very vivid imagination. Looking through an early Twentieth Century telescope at the (now named) Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, he drew what he thought he saw. To him, these were scientific observations. However, his hypothesis that the dark lines he saw across the surface of Mars were canals representing the desperate efforts of an advanced (and thirsty) civilisation to tap the polar ice caps ultimately proved a greater contribution to science fiction writers than to science. Nonetheless, today Lowell’s work has a cultural resonance that is hard to ignore, particularly as we are grappling with the implications of climate change for our own world… In moving between science and art, Lowell’s drawings highlight the ways in which both our art and our science are reflections of ourselves more than anything else.