21 July – 31 August 2009
Southbank Centre, London
From Galileo's conspiracy theories to Paul Van Hoeydonck's secret sculpture installed on the moon, Skye Sherwin looks at how the relationship between art and lunar exploration has endured.
To date, only 12 men have actually walked on the surface of the moon. Soon after Richard Nixon described the days since Apollo 11 touched down, 40 years ago yesterday, as "the greatest week since Creation" – the Japanese artist Horikawa sent him a present of stones with a cautionary note. "Nothing changes in the universe if humanity stood on the moon and brought back the stones," it read. "What does change is humanity and his thinking." Yet, perhaps Horikawa needn't have worried. The lunar orb has long been a destination for flights of fancy; literally landing on its dusty surface hasn't quashed moon-related artistic exploration.
Take two shows opening in London this week. At the BFI, Simon Faithfull explores the human urge to defy gravity by attaching video cameras to unmanned weather balloons and rockets as they travel to the inhospitable edge of the atmosphere: those of us far below are condemned to watch the footage secondhand.
Further down the South Bank, at the Hayward's Project Space, the group show Deceitful Moon riffs on moon-related conspiracy theories. Included here is a rather curious film by Karen Russo featuring interviews with real-life psychics trained by the CIA. They travel telepathically to the lunar desert, where they discover an array of strange temples and icons. Matthew Day Jackson's cast of a footprint made by Buzz Aldrin is crafted from radioactive Trinitite, a substance found in the New Mexico desert following US nuclear testing in the 1940s. Jackson evokes the moon-boot imprint, not as evidence of the landing, but as a totem of American myth-making and propaganda.
But there's nothing new in lunar conspiracy theories. The possibility that what we're told about the moon isn't all there is to know has troubled us since at least the time of Galileo. And what artists have brought back from their imaginative voyages has been as contrary as the shape-shifting astral body itself: split between a site of subversive scientific breakthrough or, more typically, as a symbol of the irrational.
Until the Renaissance, the church deemed the moon to be as pure and smooth as a crystal ball. Thought of as the Virgin Mary's footstool, it made suitably blemish-free transport for the Mother of God, who was depicted perched upon it in countless images of her ascent into heaven, by such artists as Rubens, El Greco and Velázquez. Then, in 1610, Galileo published his ground-breaking treatise on observation through a telescope, Sidereus Nuncius, which destroyed this image of the moon for good.
Through his investigation exploring how light operates, Galileo realised that the moon, so pale and interesting, was illuminated by light from the sun, bounced off the earth. It marked the first step towards his conception of a heliocentric universe. And it didn't take long for the heavenly body to become a battleground for traditional beliefs and radical scientific ideas. In Immacolata by his good friend Cigoli, painted inside the dome of the papal chapel in Maggiore, Rome, controversially depicted the Virgin on a realistically craggy moon. It was inspired directly by Galileo's notebooks, where he made the most accurate scientific drawings of the moon to date, aided by his telescope.
Another artist of a strong scientific bent, with an interest in the oon was the 18th-century painter, Joseph Wright of Derby. Wright was a member of the Lunar Men, a philosophical private club composed of friends from the Midlands, including Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of Charles, and pottery pioneer Josiah Wedgwood. They met by the light of the full moon, but their reasons were more pragmatic than occult: it allowed them to see their way back home afterwards. Though they jokingly referred to themselves as Lunarticks, punning on the age-old association between the moon and madness, industrial revolution was what they preached.
One of Wright's best-known works, An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump of 1768, which sits in the National Gallery in London, shows a natural philosopher demonstrating how a vacuum is created in a glass jar, leaving the cockatoo inside fighting for breath. Set at night, and realised with a terrifically theatrical flair for light and shadow, it's a scene to set your pulse racing. Two young onlookers gasp and clutch at one another, as more stoic rationalists are shown in calm contemplation. A boy in a corner of the theatrically dark room opens a curtain to reveal the full moon through a window.
While men like these went about improving society with cool, fact-based know-how, the Romantics embraced the natural world's mystery. Take German painter Caspar David Friedrich, for instance . In works from the early 1800s like Couple Gazing At The Moon or Two Men By the Sea at Moonrise, figures are shown rapturously gazing at said moon as it shines through trees or hangs over dark waves. For Friedrich it remains the great unknowable, not to mention unreachable. We can only stare and wonder.
William Blake had another take. His 1793 engraving I Want! I Want! depicts a bold little man about to ascend a very long ladder, rising all the way to a crescent in the sky. One of 18 small engravings chronicling the different phases of life, published as For Children: The Gates of Paradise, what Blake gets at, particularly with that bratty outcry of a title, is the tendency for desire to outpace possibility.
Victorian artists were equally interested by the moon as a symbol of desire and its impossibility. Fallen women gazing at the moon were a subject favoured by the moralist painter Augustus Leopold Egg, a friend of the Pre-Raphaelites. His best-known, finger-wagging series Past and Present (1859) explores the dreaded consequences of female adultery. The Abandoned Daughters, the second painting in the series, shows two young women at a window at night: one hangs her head in despair, the other stares wistfully at the moon, both an emblem of their endangered virginity and their mother's inconstancy. Prostitution surely beckons, you can hear the audience tutting.
Far more open-minded, albeit somewhat eccentric – the artist later ended up in Bedlam – is a work by a friend of Egg's, Richard Dadd. His piece Come Unto These Yellow Sands was created in 1842. Taking its cue from lines spoken by Shakespeare's Ariel, Dadd depicts a throng of human-sized fairies falling from the sky (and, conveniently, out of their clothes) to frolic on a beach drenched in moonlight, though the moon itself is discretely hidden behind a rocky outcrop.
Contrast that with Edvard Munch, an artist perennially obsessed with sex, death and mental torment. In Moonlight of 1895 and The Dance of Life, from 1899–1900, the round moon, joined to its shaft-like reflection over the sea, looks suspiciously like a giant phallus. Its presence menaces the scene in the foreground of the latter work, where the artist has painted himself with three of his lovers, one in virgin white, one in hot red and another in mournful black.
Similarly, in the20th century, the Surrealists' love of dreams and archetypes meant that the moon was always going to figure highly. For Magritte it popped up in unexpected places, as a crescent balancing on the heads of his famous bowler-hat-wearing men in Chef-D'Oeuvre Ou Les Mysteres, or hovering in front of a tree at dusk in Le Seize Septembre. Another Belgian, Paul Delvaux, created eerie dream panoramas, including the Great Sirens (1947), where goddess-women sleepwalk under the full moon. Here, their blank expressions suggest thoughts turned inwards, while, characteristically, Delvaux's landscape is crafted from imaginary classical temples, adding to the scene's spooky ambience.
Obviously enough, such visions remain imaginary. But one artist has in fact reached the lunar surface for real: Paul Van Hoeydonck, who was secretly commissioned by Apollo 15 crew member, David Scott to commemorate those who died during the lunar program. Scott had met Van Hoeydonck by chance when they were seated next to one another at a dinner party and the specifics of the commission were more practical than aesthetic.
At 8.5cm, the aluminium sculpture of an astronaut is far smaller than the famous "small step" and it needed to be petite enough to be smuggled in a space suit. Scott and the rest of the crew conducted a secret ceremony and placed the figure on the moon, along with a plaque inscribed with the names of eight astronauts and six cosmonauts, without NASA knowing anything about it. They announced what they had done during a press conference that followed the mission, and today a replica of the statue resides in the National Air and Space Museum in America.
Man has not returned to the moon in almost forty years since the placement of this little figure. Though the physical journeys have stopped – at least for the time being – the imaginative journeys only escalate. As the mystery and desire touched upon in contemporary artworks like those of Faithfull or Russo suggest, is it almost as if we had never actually been. The distant grey sphere remains an object of strange fascination.
Simon Faithfull: Gravity Sucks, BFI London, until 20 September 2009.