Space Art

Texto / Text: Ronaldo Rogério de Freitas Mourão

The word æsthetics (from the Greek aisthetikos, meaning subject to perception by the senses) was used for the first time by the German philosopher Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten (1714-1762), in his study Aesthetica (1750-1758). Its great merit was to have been the first to separate, in the name of æsthetics, a name Baumgarten invented, the understanding of beauty from other areas of philosophy.

In fact for Baumgarten, the theory of knowledge was divided into the inferior -- referring to sensory knowledge -- and the superior, referring to intellectual knowledge. The former included æsthetics, defined as "the science of beautiful or correct thought" (scientia pulchre cogitandi), whose motivation was intimately associated with "the perfection of sensory knowledge" (perfectio cognitionis sensitivæ).

In its sense as the science of artistic creativity, the science of beauty or of the correct, æthetics is the philosophy of art. It studies beauty, and the sentiment that beauty inspires in individuals, from a rational point of view. Associated with the notion of beauty, aesthetics would come to occupy a privileged position in relation to art whose primordial function is to express the beautiful in sensory form, as an object that touches sentiment and perception. As a result, æsthetics as a philosophical discipline is forever focussed on theories of artistic creation and perception.

The concept of beauty varies in accordance with its context in time: all periods of history and all cultures developed their own standards. This variety depends on the many factors -- political, social, economic, scientific and technological -- that dominate each age or culture. In these pages, we will discuss the influence of the conquest of space on artistic production in the 20th-century.

In the middle-ages, goodwill was dedicated to the building of cathedrals, huge and prestigious works for giving value to the community. Today, our cathedrals are called the Apollo Program, the Ariane rocket, the Space-Shuttle, Spacelab and Columbus... and it's within this analysis that we include Space Art, a unique experience born out of two universes: plasticity and space technology.

Space images

Two kinds of images obtained during the 20th-century have registered the greatest impact and influence on the human mind. The first were the photographs of our planet Earth seen from outer space, especially the series taken by the Apollo astronauts, which show the terrestrial globe in its various phases -- full, waxing and waning -- with the lunar surface on the horizon. The second were the images of astronauts walking on the surface of the moon itself.

Unforgettable too are the images of the first space-walk by a man with no connection to his mother-ship: although these were less-widely seen than the other two sets of images, they had an enormous influence on those interested in space-studies -- for the first time, man literally embodied his minuteness within cosmic space.

More recently, in 1995, images of a huge diversity of celestial bodies, captured clearly and cleanly by the Hubble space telescope, have also made a profound impact upon our society -- in particular those showing the 'birth' of stars, in the nebula of the constellation of Orion.

The cultural, political, social and psychological impact of these images is still incalculable. In addition to the force of their influence on artists working in all areas of artistic expression, manifestations in the media have been focussed on their immediate impact, in general more emotional than rational. We do not yet have the temporal distance from which we can fully evaluate the extent of this influence; sufficient time has not yet passed for the effect of these images on our society to settle completely, for them to produce a permanent impression on our collective human subconscioussness and on the generations that succeed their initial impact.

One of the first observations to make refers to the use of photography and/or the photographer, in place of the drawing, painting and/or artist of the voyages of discovery or scientific expeditions that preceded the advent of photography. There can be no doubt that photographs and film are greatly superior to paintings and drawings, although the latter may possess an inexpressable beauty like those bequeathed to us by the artists of the 19th-century.

It's worth noting that the history of art in the 20th-century is characterized by a redefinition and extension of art with new electronic and informatic means of communication and storage: from photography to film, video, CD-ROM and, most recently, all modern processes of image-processing -- and even digital modification of already-existing images (graphics, classical works of art etc.).

In reality, long before the first Sputnik was launched in 1957, or prior to the first trip in a hot-air balloon, by the Montgolfier brothers in 1783, many artists had already sought inspiration in the astronomical observations and discoveries of their age. In fact ever since the first astronomical studies by Galileo, representations of the moon and planets as seen through the telescope-lens were introduced into their paintings by Italian artists of the 17th-century.

It was only in the 19th-century, together with the development of science-fiction, that the first astronomist-artists emerged who were capable of producing spectacular scenes, as realistic as possible within the scientific knowledge of the time, showing vistas far distant from Earth and never visited by human-beings. From their understanding of the latest scientific discoveries, they took up the challenge of projecting imagined scenarios which might exist but had never been thought of. Impassioned by space, these modern creators sought inspiration in the intellectual adventure of exploring cosmic space. They painted land-scapes of other planets, of satellites, asteroids, comets and solar-systems, just as they established subjective visions of the past, present and future of the universe, based on cosmological theories like the Big Bang.

These works of art -- even the most abstract and non-figurative -- display a powerful, almost photographic, realism, founded on astronomical fact. In the absence of any better expression, they were called space art, a paradoxical designation since all forms of art are spacial in the most simple sense of the word. It's worth noting that the word space, here, refers specifically to the space of cosmic exploration.

The dichotomy between science and art

As the English scientist and author C. P. Snow clearly demonstrated, there exists a dichotomy between the "two cultures" -- science on one side, art and the humanities on the other -- which makes comprehension and communication between the two practically impossible. In space art, the contrary is true: the scientist, like the space-artist, are both naturalists, even though each asks different questions.

Scientists are analysts. They subdivide actions and events until they are able to select, or better, isolate areas in which they can realise their quantitative measurements. Space-artists, on the contrary, are synthesizers. They combine all knowledge accumulated by astronomers and astronauts in such a way as to create a physical sensation of an unknown world.

In opposition to the majority of scientists, space-artists seek to associate the two hemispheres of the brain in order to simultaneously use the analytic functions of the left hemisphere together with the synthetizing functions of the right hemisphere. In fact, it's this dis-association that makes scientists in general fail to perceive the importance of the impact of their discoveries on society, in the same way as they cut off from the human side of their actions.

"Once", recounted William K. Hartmann, "for example, I was at a scientific meeting when a researcher described a newly-discovered sodium-vapour cloud surrounding Lo, Jupiter's volcanic moon. He expressed the measurement of yellow gas emanating from the cloud in kilorayleighs, a unit of brilliance that is precise, if dark. When I perceived the artistic potential of a representation of fulgent yellow auroræ on the vulcan plains of Io, I asked if that light would be perceptible to the human eye. He had not thought of that possibility and didn't know the answer. Later, we met another researcher who remembered how mant kilorayleighs correspond to auroræ visible on Earth, which enabled us to conclude that the yellow glow of Io would, probably, be strong enough to be at times visible to a human observer. It seemed to me extraordinary that a scientist could spend months measuring the intensity of something without having any idea of what that intensity means for the human senses".

On the other hand, artists generally distance themselves from the realities revealed by scientific method. Although this divorce is real enough now, it did not always exist. After all, the 19th-century impressionists were well aware of the latest discoveries and theories about light, and they themselves studied the perception of light with great care.

It was only after they had mastered the power of the brightest pigments that the dominant movements in 20th-century art stopped basing themselves on nature and turned to the artist's own sentiment. Colours and pigments came to take on their own values as artists began to project their intimate feelings without the restrictions imposed by external reality. This factor certainly contributed to the separation between the two cultures that Snow alluded to.

Space Art

Space Art is Contemporary Art which is founded, for implementation, on the activities and technologies of space. Space art is an extension of the environmental art and land art movements, which utilize large areas of physical land as raw material for the production of works of art.

In addition to the fundamental rôle it plays within modernism, this kind of art creates indelible marks of human presence. These objectives have always posed challenges to artists in creating more powerful and symbolic artforms, surging from the most courageous and audacious of civilization's achievements and prowess. What should be the rôle of the artist in space exploration? What kind of art is beginning to emerge in the space-age?

Spurred on by the north-American land art movement, vanguard artists studying the advances of space conquest developed another artistic movement within the dominion of space, called space art -- in reality, an appropriation of cosmic space in the name of art. This determination emerged from the following observation made in the 1980 manifesto of space art: "Man, who first began to escape his terrestrial horizon in 1783, on board the Montgolfière balloons, is now able to leave behind the planet itself and evolve in cosmic space. For the first time in the long common history shared by art, civilization and technological progress, art is not present in this new evolution of humanity."

The philosophy of this new movement can be summarized in two principal aims: i) To introduce the concept of art into the process of space-conquest; and ii) To intervene directly in space activity via technologically-viable propositions that enable actions of æsthetic, theatrical or cultural vocation or concern to be made concrete.

According to the north-American astronomer Roger F. Malina, of the University of California's Center for Astrophysics and Extreme Ultra-Violet, space art can be subdivided into seven categories. In our opinion, the first two and the last two merge into a single category, so that in this way there remain five:

1. Pure art that explores the sensory experiences generated by the advent of space exploration, making new land-scapes accessible via the photographs and films produced by satellites and space-probes.

This art also expresses new psychological and philosophical concepts developed as a consequence of space exploration. Several notable illustrators, such as the French painter, writer and amateur-astronomer Lucien Rudaux (1874-1947) and the north-American artist Chesley Bonestell (1888-1986), foreshadowed the space-scapes that would be revealed by the launch of the first satellite in 1957. The former, Rudaux, who died before the beginning of the space-age, utilized his own astronomical observations to imagine the landscapes of other worlds. Bonestell also began by using astronomical observations and later, once space exploration had got underway, utilized photographic and cinematographic records obtained by astronauts or robot-probes to elaborate his illustrations.

2. Art observed in space, to be seen from Earth. The Echo-balloon was one of the first objects placed in Earth's orbit. These luminous signs made an enormous cultural impact on populations in rural areas where the satellites could be seen more easily at night, far from the light-pollution of metropolitan urban centers. Immediately, artists began to visualize works of art placed in space and visible from the Earth. In 1971, Alberto Notarboro proposed that space-structures should be designed to include artistic as well as technological objectives, so that by reflecting sunlight they would be visible from Earth as works of art.

In 1982, Joe Davis of the Center for Advanced Visual Studies at the Massachussets Institute of Technology -MIT developed the Ruby Falls Project, which proposed to create artificial auroras visible from Earth using a cannon or pistol to fire impulses of electrons. This work lasted one week, during one of the space-launcher flights. In addition to the artistic effect, scientific studies were made on the atmosphere surrounding the ship.

Other experiences of this kind followed, such as those made by the Japanese during the Spacelab I mission, when artificial auroras were created for strictly scientific purposes. One notable project is the Ring of Light (L'anneau de lumière) by Alain Coquet, Jerome Gerber and Jean Pierre Pommereau, which proposes to launch a ring of 100 6-meter balloons, spaced 240-meters apart around a tubular-steel circle 24-kilometers round. Other projects worthy of mention are Pierre Compte and Christian Marchal's Arsat, Dieter Kassing's Space Disk, L' Etoile Eiffel by Reiner Klett and Guinter Rochelt, L'Arche de Lumière by J. Rougerie and J. Hirou, Joelle Chipaux' Le Grande Aiguille, La Tour Eiffel de l' Espace by N. J. Stewart and L' Arc en Espace by Peter von Ball Moons.

In almost all cases, these space-sculptures associate artistic intentions together with the technical-scientific objectives that guide them. One of the most outstanding projects is Arthur C. Clarke's proposal to implement Albert Robida's original idea of using the moon as an enormous screen for the projection of laser-rays.

3. Art on Earth, to be seen from space. The aim is to elaborate objects and works of art constructed on the terrestrial surface, to be contemplated from outer-space. In 1981, Tom Van Sant built an enormous reflective eye on the desert sands of the Dark Mountains in California, which was photographed by the Landsat satellite. A second project of the same type, called Desert Sun, was carried out in 1986 by Van Sant: 48 two-foot-square mirrors reflected the light of the sun to the Goes 6 satellite in stationary orbit. Images of the Earth's surface showing the light reflected by these mirrors were recorded via the National Optical Astronomy Observatories in Los Altos, California.

4. Art in space, to be seen from space.

In this spirit, signs with records of our civilization have been placed on the surface of the moon, and a laser-disc, with phonographic recordings, was carried in Pioneer. Later, a record of the cultural achievements of human kind was placed in Voyager to communicate the existence of our civilization to any beings who might encounter the space-probe. Should space become colonized, a space art will be developed to be appreciated by future space-travellers.

5. The applied arts, such as interior designers and architects inspired by space. Included in this category are the pure arts which utilize new technologies and materials created through the process of space activity.

The most important of these use satellite systems to create simultaneous global works of art.

Since architects are always concerned with the development of projects of habitation, whether in outer-space or in orbit, space architecture is the field that is most developed. As a consequence, a Center for Space Architecture was established in 1988 in Houston, USA, to prepare plans and analyze the new problems posed for architecture by the building of structures in space. The country most advanced in this sector is Japan, where a minutely-detailed project for a lunar base has been developed in recent years.

Astronomical art, to employ its original designation, emerged with the discovery of the spyglass in the 16th-century and took on its modern designation of space art together with the development of astronautics, whose first satellite explorations and space-probes began to reveal a cosmos only predicted by the privileged minds of science-fiction writers, artists and poets -- the true sculptors of words.

Despite their common origens, a huge difference exists between the science-fiction artist and the space-artist. While the former creates a work associated with the vision, especially in the case of science-fantasy, of the writer it illustrates, space art is a product founded on solid scientific understanding. Amongst the pre-requisites of the realist school of space-artists are knowledge of astronomy, astrophysics, astronautics, cybernetics and robotics, associated with space technologies. The more abstract and surrealist the work, the greater the need for this techno-scientific infrastructure.

It is not merely pictorial or purely photographic in inspiration; what sets it apart is the style and inventiveness of the techniques used in its elaboration.

Despite the restricted vision of some, according to which space art is simply an activity in the field of painting, its forms of expression are much wider: the spectrum ranges from painting to literature, music, poetry, video-art and even sculpture.

In Brazil, we can point to: in music -- the Cartas Celestes (Celestial Letters) of José Antônio de Almeida Prado, and Os Anéis de Urano (The Rings of Uranus) by Maria Emília Mendonça; in poetry -- Fernando Py, with his long cosmic poem Antiuniverso, and Denise Emmer with several poems from her book Equação da Noite (Equation of Night); in video-art -- José Wagner Garcia with Sky and Life, Body, Mind; and in sculpture and painting -- Hugo Pagani.

In the same way as science and the organization of human experience is based on reason, art is the intuitive understanding of the universe via sentiment and imagination. The artist perceives the universe through the mediation of the selective and interpretive power of his senses.

By intuiting the organizational form of phenomena, objects and space-scapes, the artist seeks to feel rather than explain them, which is the scientist's principal concern. Based on this intuition, the artist creates copies of nature, symbols of this same universe, which are not abstract entities nor beings of reason. The artist attributes meaning to the cosmos via interpretation in the form of intuition and not concept, in terms of sensorial forms instead of abstract signs. In space art, what is important is not the theme per se, but the treatment it is given.

In this way it is possible to transform the values of any given age into symbols. In the case of astronomical art and space art, these values are, respectively, the result of astronomical observations and of images obtained from probes or astronauts in space itself.

Art seeks in the sciences of space a gradually intense naturalism, as it binds its relationship with discoveries and its products seek to achieve a perfect visual illusion. With this objective, all the latest technological advances, especially in the field of informatics, which were once associated with astronomical discoveries, end up incorporated into the space arts.

The criteria for evaluation of a work of space art are: correctness (to verify if representation is correct, in view of the objective for which the work was projected); integrity (to judge if the matter was represented integrally); and vigour (to decide whether the representation, in addition to being faithful, possesses the power of persuasion, especially in the case of imaginary situations). This latter criteria is one of the most important in the case of predictive works, like illustrations and animations to announce future space-launches, in the same way as happened in the moon-landing, space-station and science-fiction films in which the images projected appear so authentic in their simulation that it is easy to confuse them with real filming.

Space colonization will not occur, in its widest cultural and social senses, without the intervention of each of these seven types of space art. Just as artists were present together with the great explorers of the age of navigational discovery, so the space-artists who began by participating as illustrators of a world yet to be explored must involve themselves ever more intensely in the space activities of the coming centuries.

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