Thanks to the popularity of Star Trek, it’s trite to describe space as the final frontier. It isn’t (a frontier, that is. The cliche is certain). To characterize it as such is to reduce it to something as reachable and knowable as the forest on the far side of a river. It is to maintain that space is at our gate, waiting there for us to exercise our claim on it.
Space is far more inaccessible than that. Despite all the heroics of the space-age, we haven’t made it any further than the first step on the path. To invoke another cliche (two in fact), yes, the moon-landings were a giant leap for (hu)mankind, but in cosmological terms we merely hopped from one speck of sand to another on a very very big beach.
Of course, it won’t be long before we make it to Mars. Step two. Our robots have surveyed the surface and our scientists have crunched the numbers. People of means are indeed rubbing their glittering mitts together at the prospect of colonization.
But the enthusiasm of the uber-rich is more than likely misplaced. If our priority was to escape Earth, choosing to go to Mars would be like exchanging the Mississippi Valley for the Sahara, but with greater extremes of heat and cold and less water. It ain’t exactly the Garden of Eden up there.
The simple fact is that contemporary technology isn’t up to inter-stellar emigration. Traveling at the fastest achievable speeds, it took thirty-five years for the first man-made object to make it beyond Pluto. Voyager 1 passed into the void on August 25, 2012, and it’ll continue on until 2025 when its power-pack will die. After that, its carcass will glide on in silence until it collides with something.
Which might take tens of thousands of years. The nearest star system to ours is Alpha Centauri, 4.3 light-years away, and that is but our closest neighbor among billions of trillions. To invoke the mother of all cliches, there are more stars in the sky than grains of sand on all the beaches in all the world. It is true, but even that metaphor barely covers it. It’s entirely possible that Voyager 1 will never collide with anything.
Perhaps the fact that we are obliged to speak of space in cliches is an indication of just how foreign and inaccessible it is to us. Nothing in human experience compares. Outside of mathematics, we simply don’t have the language to describe it.
And that’s where art comes in. If it’s understanding of space you want, then art is not limited by language and doesn’t require knowledge of mathematics. If it’s a connection to the cosmos you crave—the preposterous scale, the alien nature, the potential—then images may foster a relationship better than facts or crazy figures.
Some well-known photographic examples support the idea. Taken on the way to the moon in 1972 by the crew of Apollo 17, The Blue Marble contrasts the black void of space with the jagged greens and browns of Africa, the buoyant navy of the oceans and the matrimonial-white of clouds and the Antarctic ice-blanket. It is the color and variety of life set against the stark nothingness.
Of similar substance, but perhaps articulating its point even more emphatically, EarthRise, taken during the Apollo 8 mission in 1968, foregrounds the dead moon-surface against the void as our fertile Earth ascends on the horizon, appearing as it would to a moon-man the way the moon appears to us.
As a pair, these images mark a paradigm change in our understanding of our place in the universe. In their wake, there could be no doubt that we cling to a bright blue speck gifted with life as it spins through an immense barren blackness. Our Planet-hood is undeniable.
Perhaps even more influential has been Buzz Aldrin on the Moon, the photo of the curiously named astronaut with his better known partner, Neil Armstrong, reflected in his visor. One of the most famous images of all time, it has so entered the collective consciousness that ever since countless artists have rendered people in space with bent left arms.
That the Moon is shown to be an ashen desert only reinforces the lesson of EarthRise. Yes, we have the technology to get to the Moon (and back) but, no, we can never prosper there. It is an iconic moment in human history captured, the day that Earth became Home.
But while these three images connect us to space, they are not really of space. Their power to move us derives from their capacity to illustrate our relationship with space, crystallizing perspective on our existence. They include space, but they convey very little of the nature of space itself. In a word, they remain anthropocentric—centered upon humans.
It’s only as images focus on subjects further into the cosmos that we begin to sense the nature of space dissociated from humanity. As we move away from the familiar Earth, the anthropocentric loosens its hold and we realize that our connection to true space—real space, outer space—manifests on a very different plane of understanding.
An image which illustrates the point is that of Jupiter’s Great Red Spot, taken in 1979. Depicting in mandelbrotian detail a storm on the surface of Jupiter, we cling to the familiar when we describe it as “big enough to swallow the Earth three times over,” as is so often said.
Yet while it keeps that toe in the anthropocentric, it takes a giant leap away from it (to invoke the cliche once again). The image is unambiguous: Jupiter is not like Earth. Who would disagree that the swirling ripples and bands of color invoke the Abstract?
And the further from Earth we go, starker the discrepancy between the known and the impressionistic becomes. Images of outer space transcend the anthropocentric entirely, defying those planes of understanding by which we make sense of ourselves and our world. Galaxies and Nebulae exist on scales so far outside human experience that human perspectives are pointless. We can engage with them only in the abstract.
And there, in the abstract realm, is where art comes into its own. The Pillars of Creation is the perfect example. This recently re-released update of the 1995 original shows a portion of the Eagle Nebula, a cosmic formation probably most usefully described (in anthropocentric terms) as a womb for stars. The misty woven wisps of gases, the flaring pinpoints of light and the amniotic stirrings of plasmas are breathtaking. It is chaos, and yet it is order. It is both.
Reduced to the scale of our screens, the vastness is lost, and yet somehow in the interwhirling colors and flares and harmonic hues it remains. Our response is primal, instinctive. We feel our connection in our gut and in our bones. We feel it just as we feel the work of abstract artists.
And that’s because it is abstract art. Images of this kind come courtesy of the Hubble telescope. The space-based device has brought us unprecedented clarity of the cosmos, and its images are tantalizing. But some might be surprised to learn that the Hubble cameras capture only greyscale images, black and white.
The detail comes courtesy of computer manipulation at the hands of a skilled operator. It is the result of matching colors and processes to numbers, chosen to conform to human schema. Even if you could gaze upon the Eagle Nebula with the naked eye, you would see nothing like this. Images such as The Pillars of Creation are as manipulated as any advertisement. They are not images of scientific space. They are the work of artists.
It is the job of artists to challenge, probe and test, to access the inaccessible and render comprehensible the incomprehensible. Abstract images such as The Pillars of Creation render in human terms something which transcends the terrestrial realm.
From just this condition spring the works of Intergalactic Discourses, the space-inspired artistic fruits of Ioannis Galanopoulos-Papavasileiou, Toomas Altnurme and Ricardo Bragança—three very different artists from very different disciplines who find common ground in contemplation of the cosmos.