The moon is a place both for science and the imagination. While the American moon landings of the 20th century were, arguably, feats primarily of science, technology and politics, they also required a good bit of imagination and were the manifestation of our collective fascination with that silvery orb. And even if, today, the moon seems to principally be the realm of scientists and of global power games, the first people there were undoubtedly artists, writers and dreamers. In a fascinating new exhibition curated by art/science provocateurs The Arts Catalyst, a group of artists declare a Republic of the Moon.
I see the moon, the moon sees me….
Despite being available to all humanity to see, the moon is also oddly individual. Coming home from a long day, I am often stopped in my tracks by a large golden moon low on the horizon. This experience is intensely personal, difficult to share even when with our closest friends (even when a shared experience). Russian artist Leonid Tishkov has created a Private Moon that he has taken around the world to a variety of settings and documented with photographs. Playing on our sense of personal communion, he tells the story of a man who fell in love with the moon and decided to stay with her forever. Travelling the world — from Taiwan to an aquarium in Maryland to the Oxo Tower in London for this exhibition — with his moon,Tishkov brings us along for the ride, creating a personal utopia, bathed in moonlight.
Liliane Lijn’s piece, Moonmeme, pays homage to the influence of the moon upon natural rhythms and the feminine principle of transformation and renewal. Lijn, who is no stranger to collaborations with astronomers and physicists, initially hoped to project the word “She” onto the real moon with lasers from Earth. However, realising that she was starting to stray into ‘Star Wars’ territory, Lijn decided to develop a real-time animation that evolves in real time with the phases of the moon. As the moon waxes and wanes, ‘SHE’ emerges from the darkened lunar suurface and disappears again. Viewable online, her animation tells me at the time of writing, the moon is but a crescent. It is interesting to think what would be possible if we were actually able to project images on to the lunar surface, though the inevitable commercial outcome of such a technology is just as frightening to envision.
Beethoven’s Moonlight sonata echoes out of a small, otherwise empty room containing a self-playing grand piano… and then it starts… and stops… and starts again, with a few glitches here and there. For Earth-Moon-Earth, artist Katie Paterson used a form of radio transmission to send The Moonlight Sonata (in Morse code) to the moon and back again. Bouncing off the rough surface of the moon, the radio waves scattered, creating the intermittent glitches in the music. Quite aside from Beethoven’s virtuosity, it is lovely to ‘hear’ the moon: a score on the wall illustrates the moments of interference created by the deflections and loss of the initial signal.
In Second Moon, Paterson creates a new moon (of sorts) from a very, very small fragment of the real one. She has sent a small lunar sample on a journey around the world, travelling by air-freight around the Earth anticlockwise, at roughly twice the speed of the real moon (meaning over the year it is in orbit, it should go around about 30 times). While I admire Paterson tremendously as an artist (her necklace in the Wellcome Collection exhibition Foreign Bodies, Common Ground is fantastic) and I stood transfixed by Earth-Moon-Earth, Second Moon fell a bit flat for me. Whilst the former piece takes the very best of us to the stars and back again, Second Moon seems like a very human attempt (couriers) to take the moon into a new orbit (err, sort of). Maybe that’s part of the point; we are very small and these grand gestures befitting of the moon are actually beyond our capabilities.
Moon stories and moon geese
One of the earliest science fiction stories, The Man in the Moone by Bishop Francis Godwin (1638) tells the story of a man who flies to the moon in a chariot powered by geese. Inspired by this story and the ways in which the moon has inspired terrestrial imaginations, Agnes Meyer Brandis set to create Moon Goose Analogue: Lunar Migration Bird Facility, a remarkable piece in which she attempts to recreate the setting for the story.
Raising 12 ‘moon geese’ from birth, and giving them the names of astronauts (Neil, Svetlana, Gonzales, Valentina, Friede, Juri, Buzz, Kaguya-Anousheh, Irena, Rakesh, Konstantin-Hermann), Meyer Brandis has trained the geese to fly on expeditions and created a ‘lunar habitat’ for them. It is brilliantly bizarre, and we – as observers — monitor them from a control room set up in the exhibition space. Vital signs and location on the lunar landscape; all is being monitored as at the geese search the lunar habitat for food. This video gives a good impression of the set-up and helpfully notes that ‘dandelion is the geese’s favourite food, making their growth on the moon a necessity.’ Meyer Brandis shows, with a great sense of humour, that in spite of our technological advances, we are every bit as out of place on the moon as geese. In our conquest of space, animals have suffered some unfortunate ends; in this experiment, she gives them a more hopeful future.
…. A Quarry, or a Theme Park?
What is the future of the moon? Justifications for future manned exploration of the moon include mining (though we don’t really know if there are the right sorts of minerals), using the moon as a base for Mars exploration, and tourism. The recent wake-up of the Rosetta spacecraft spawned numerous articles about the possibility of mining asteroids, which in turn has prompted further discussion around the rights and ownership of outer space. In many eyes, this also applies to the Chinese interests in the moon. An Outer Space Treaty was ratified internationally in 1967, but it hardly seems fit for purpose in the 21st century. So where to now?
Republic of the Moon shows us that the science and politics of outer space will need the artists – to keep us mindfully grounded, whether on Earth or the Moon. At the Kosmica evening, my writer companion and I mused that any permanent-ish base on the moon should have an artist in residence. An Arthur C. Clarke ‘Writer in Residence’ on Tranquility Base would be appropriate, surely?
Republic of the Moon is presented by The Arts Catalyst, and is on display at the Bargehouse at the Oxo Tower, London. The exhibition ends on February 2nd (hurry!)