First of all, let’s stipulate the sky begins underfoot. Wherever our planet’s rock and water surface ends, is where sky begins. With soles firmly anchored on terra firma, the cranium of a standing human is already in the sky, if not the clouds. We walk around like deep divers on the bottom floor of an airy sea.
Standing on Earth and gazing skyward, every day is actually a night bullied out of darkness by the glare of our nearest star, its fresh photons arriving after a mere eight light-minute journey. Entering an envelope of gases, the starlight’s shorter waves scatter and turn half the dome blue, obscuring the planet’s other half in a shadow that announces the glitter of space-time to anyone looking up. Other than from the screaming bright sun and a few fainter fellow-orbiting planetary neighbors, skylight captured by the naked eye of any earth organism may have begun its sojourn as long as 16,000 years ago—or 5 billion years ago for eyes aided by a big telescope’s glimpse into the deep past. The aphorism as opposite as night and day vaporizes in the realization that those two skies are distinct only by earthlings’ sight-lines to a single star.
We’re pretty good at appeasing the day/night meme, so good in fact we lose touch with the clockwork and are lulled into the monotony of its circadian deception. The sun rises and sets (which it doesn’t), the moon sets and rises (which it doesn’t) and the stars swirl around us (which they don’t). The planet lumbers along at a gait too smooth to register, circumvolving its hidden axis and unacknowledged by the illusions we substitute. What really happens in the sky versus how we perceive it to happen are daily reminders of our minds’ susceptibility to the phantoms of repetitive normality.
Into our sky, gravity shepherds flocks of space dust and debris—alien detritus from far, far away that also circle our big sky-star, skim too close to Earth’s gassy top, and end up wowing the dark half’s onlookers with a show of celestial fireworks. Without gravity, there’d be no trapped gas, no fireworks, no blue, no us, no planet, and no top 10 most popular weight loss programs. We’re captive to both the banalities and marvels of gravity’s bear hug. Its mysteries keep Earth’s mighty oceans from leaving the planet, washing into the sky and escaping to the great beyond. Its force is powerful enough to squash vast seas flat against the rock-hard terrain, yet so tender as not to harass a spider in its inverted trek across a kitchen’s ceiling.
Many up/down myths live in the sky. It’s the up there to which prayer is understood to ascend, like a helium balloon, into heaven’s heights and to an eternity from which the deceased are said to be peering down at us. It’s where many of history’s deities are said to have kept house and played out their Wagnerian dramas and unwitting neglect of physics, where they perched to keep tabs on their subjects stuck by gravity to the surface below, and it’s the yonder into which past gods evaporated and were replaced over eons by successive version upgrades. The residue of those heroic tales persists still in the up-nod of one’s head, the acknowledging up-glance of the eyes, and the ascending signal of thankful appreciation for having avoided some near disaster, played the right card or scored a fourth quarter touchdown. From the mists of up there, fate and fortune are apportioned. The sky’s the limit romances a yearning that anything shall be possible and a stockpile of helpful assistance from divinity, luck or destiny is stored far and away in the cloud, above the horizon.
When we stand up straight on flat earth we cantilever into the sky at 90 degrees, buoyed by gravity, the mirror image of anyone standing half a planet away. We’re like tiny pins in a giant spherical cushion standing at someone else’s horizon no matter where we are, all of us conspirators in the deception that up is always the same up and down forever the same down. We spurn a flat Earth intellectually, and knowledgeably repudiate our ancient claim as center of the universe, but in a treaty with conceit we mostly behave as if both were still the case.
The mindset reinforced by what exists above and below the planet’s horizon line exemplifies a provincial weltanschauung, a conception of reality based on invariant dualities and sacrosanct polarities that are ostensibly self-evident: above/below, good/evil, us/other. The further parsing of these supposedly eternal binaries may raise fears of slippery slopes, or that once apparently settled simplicities will gain further nuance, evolve new subtleties and develop complexities that undermine ostensibly stalwart absolutes. But along with other human and social entanglements, the provincial sky of the past and its up/down, night/day bifurcation—the womb within which we were formed and through which we move and of which we breathe—is not the full world of the present where we continue to exist and imagine and compile meaning. Yesterday’s sky is being replaced by a blossoming sky now unfolding and revealing itself in time and knowledge. Today’s sky is multifaceted, more disheveled, more intricately difficult and wonderful. And, as recently discovered, today’s sky is much, much larger.
* * * *
In 1977, a gallon of gas cost 65 cents, the Apple II debuted with four kilobytes of RAM, and two rockets took off from Cape Canaveral with a mission to explore the outer solar system’s planets. Those two spacecraft, NASA’s Voyager 1 and 2, have since continued far beyond our neighboring giants, and in 2017 were approaching interstellar space—13 billion miles from us and at a speed of about 35,000 miles per hour. After traveling for decades, they continue their odyssey. In another 4,000 decades (40,000 years) from now they will have traveled 12,264,000,000,000 (about 12 trillion) miles further from home. Assuming a human lifespan of 75 years, the two Voyagers will have traveled the equivalent of 3 million lifetimes, stretched out birth-to-death, back-to-back. After all those eons and that unfathomable succession of human lives, they will have reached a point in the far reaches of interstellar space, at which the very nearest star to them will be . . . our sun. Still. Not until further journeying for another full 40,000 years, will the spacecraft have reached the star nearest to our sun in the Milky Way Galaxy, our closest very far away next-door neighbor Proxima Centauri.
And that doesn’t convey, not even barely, the enormity of the endless sky.
Stars, gas, rocky chunks and dust have gathered in the space-time sky far beyond our provincial halo of blue, collecting into massive galactic colonies spiraling around black hole eddies of gravity. From a distance, we can observe clusters of those other universes in the gaps between our own galaxy’s stars, their whirlpool arms and bodies each defined by billions of suns and clouds of star-making dust assembled into arcing gestures of light. These mysterious worlds—years or centuries away—beckon to us. Up close, however, those suns are agonizingly far apart. The nearer it approaches, the more diffused and less articulated a galaxy would appear to human space travellers. Stars, lest the fate of Icarus, would be skirted around by their spacecraft, adding years to their journey. The swirling shining spectacle they beheld earlier from a distance would have dematerialized into open seas of black space once inside the galaxy, space appearing to have expanded into remote outposts of illuminated rock or gas and a twinkling spray of faraway pinpoints of light. A spaceship in another galaxy or in our own is virtually subatomic by comparison and swallowed in nearly endless horizons. Galaxies are unimaginably huge. Only as seen by our eyes from great distances do such amorphous landscapes coalesce into their spiral splendor and pageantry. Such is the sky that begins under our feet—sky hoarding its secrets and science, its puzzles and knowledge.
In artful depictions from humans’ deepest history to the present, sky is betrothed to land as its secondary counterpart. The sky is that heavenly space rising above the crusty shell of our primary abode where gravity assures our lives and dramas will play out. We’ve been distracted by the sky’s above/below illusions and fabrications throughout our long and inquisitive past, by mythologies and dichotomies invented from whole cloth and often lodged in the pictorial spaces of art. Art over time enshrines our habits of understanding the world—habits that carve out beliefs, guard their cultural authority, and become difficult to reshape. Among those, the provincial dualistic sky’s familiarity and dependable rhythm lulls like a rocking cradle, a drifting complacency, fortifying in us an expectation that what is routine is also immutable. But as science informs a deeper comprehension of how the world works and what the sky harbors, introducing uncertainties and weakening seemingly axiomatic conventions of thought, new art is also required to shatter and replace the past’s ossifying gaze.
Earth is not the floor of the universe, and no petty gods live in its sky. Nothing ordained swarms there, but its magnificence and mysteries summon emotions of transcendence nonetheless. It pulses with our intuitive and intellectual grasp of the intangible, an emergent sensation permitted not by whims of the divine but by the wonders of evolved biology. Most profoundly, we continue to consume sky. Desperately and fondly we return to the sky and draw it towards us, into our soulful sensations as well as our lungs, our veins and arteries. We bathe our cells in sky, and then give it back to plein air. Sky journeys through us, and connects us to what is boundless.
ArtCenter Exhibitions presents SKY
An immersive look at how humans conceptualize the sky on view at the Alyce de Roulet Williamson Gallery
Exhibition dates: February 21 through August 23, 2020
SKY is currently closed due to Covid-19. If the pandemic conditions permit, its dates will be extended to re-open in the fall.
SKY Ensemble: Artists, Scientists, and Contributors
Albert Bierstadt (1830–1902)
Georg Braun (1541–1622), Franz Hogenberg (1535–1590)
John Byrne (ca. 1850 – 1915)
Caltech Archives and Special Collections
Albert Thomas De Rome (1885–1959)
Nicolaus Copernicus (1473–1543)
Angel Espoy (1879–1963)
Gaia Spacecraft, European Space Agency
Jonathan Art Foundation, Los Angeles
George Ellery Hale (1868 – 1938)
Luis De Jesus Los Angeles
Eleanor Lutz, TabletopWhale.com
Stephen Nowlin, curator
Santa Barbara Museum of Art
Scape Gallery, Corona Del Mar
Magnus von Wright (1805–1868)
SKY is accompanied by a 20-page illustrated catalog available to visitors without cost, that includes the curator’s essay and a checklist of artworks and artifacts in the exhibition.
Art, Artifacts, and the Ensemble of Artists and Scientists
Albert Bierstadt (1830–1902): Mirror Lake, Yosemite Valley, 1864, Oil on canvas, 30 1/4 x 38 5/8 x 4 in., framed
Courtesy of Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Gift of Mrs. Sterling Morton for the Preston Morton Collection
Bierstadt, a member of the 19th century’s Hudson River School, is known for paintings that romanticized the American West and celebrated the majesty of mountain landscapes. In retrospect, his work can be seen as the canonization of a provincial land/sky duality.
Georg Braun (1541–1622) and Franz Hogenberg (1535–90): Civitates orbis terrarum, 1572. Rare book, 16.25 x 23 in.
Courtesy of Caltech Archives and Special Collections
Georg Braun and Franz Hogenberg were mapmakers, artists and engravers who published a six-volume atlas containing maps and bird’s-eye views of 16th and 17th-century world cities. The view of Granada, Spain in the 1572 edition of Civitates orbis terrarum populates the sky with history and iconography, migrating birds and dramatic cloud formations, presenting a sky teeming with complexity and grandeur equal to the civilization below.
John Byrne (ca. 1850–1915): Telescope belonging to George Ellery Hale, 1885. Brass, 10 x 45 x 6 in.
Courtesy of Caltech Archives and Special Collections
George Ellery Hale was a solar astronomer and the force behind the construction of successively larger telescopes in the early 20th century, including the Hale reflecting 60-inch telescope; the 100-inch Hooker reflecting telescopes at the Mount Wilson Observatory above Pasadena, California; and the 200-inch Hale reflecting telescope at the Palomar Observatory. His personal telescope symbolizes the human impulse to question and explore the sky to discover truths of human existence.
Nicolaus Copernicus (1473–1543): De revolutionibus orbium coelestium, 1543. Rare book, 11 x 14.5 in.
Courtesy of Caltech Archives and Special Collections
Nicolaus Copernicus was a Renaissance-era polymath whose posthumously published De revolutionibus broke from the geocentric (Earth-centered) universe of Ptolemy and religious doctrine, establishing the heliocentric (sun-centered) system from observational evidence. His discovery and information-gathering process is credited with beginning the Scientific Revolution and an era of extricating ontological truth from the grip of mythological fiction.
Albert Thomas DeRome (1885–1959): Asilomar Dunes, c. 1940. Oil on Masonite, 17 x 24 in.
Courtesy of Jonathan Art Foundation
Albert Thomas DeRome was a California painter of land, sea and skyscapes around Carmel and Monterey as well as Nevada and Arizona. Among many other artists throughout history, his representations of a land/sky dualism symbolizing all of nature reinforce the notion of provincial reality as an Earth-centered concept tailored to human concerns and desires.
Angel Espoy (1879–1963): Monterey Coast, c. 1930. Oil on canvas, 30 x 40 in.
Courtesy of Jonathan Art Foundation
After studying art in Barcelona and traveling to the Philippines and Cuba, Spanish-born Angel Espoy emigrated to Northern and Southern California and made paintings in the period style of California Impressionism and en plein air (out of doors), exalting the beauties, colors and textures of nature. This popular land/sky frame of reference is ubiquitous in art history, and as such has helped to define the provincial dimensions of human ontology.
Gaia Spacecraft: Two Million Stars on the Move, 2017
Milky Way Galaxy data-based projection of five million years of star movement. Looping video, 3:55, 17 x 7 ft.
Courtesy of European Space Agency
Gaia (Global Astrometric Interferometer for Astrophysics) is a space observatory launched in 2013 to catalog stars, planets, comets, and asteroids in the Milky Way Galaxy; record their positions and motions; and calculate their trajectories over time. The video shows the motion of paths of stars over five million years. Gaia is measuring and mapping the size of a sky from our feet on Earth to 30,000 light years away.
Eleanor Lutz: Orbit Map of the Solar System, 2019. Wall projection, 96 x 96 in.
Courtesy of the artist and TabletopWhale.com
Eleanor Lutz is a data visualization enthusiast and PhD candidate in the University of Washington’s Biology Department. Her map showing the orbits of more than 18,000 asteroids in the solar system includes everything over 10 km in diameter—about 10,000 asteroids—as well as 8,000 randomized objects of unknown size. It shows each asteroid at its exact position on New Years’ Eve 1999. It is the Copernican sky graph, 456 years later.
Rebeca Méndez: Any-Instant-Whatever, 2020. 2-channel looping video, captured in Los Angeles in winter 2019–2020. 15 x 36 feet, dimensions variable
Courtesy of the artist
Rebeca Méndez is an artist and national award-winning designer, and professor in the Design Media Arts Department at UCLA. Any-Instant-Whatever portrays the daytime sky in its textures and physics of blueness, its range of water formations sculpted by wind and pressures born of our nearest star—forces which, when synaptically processed, transform into emergent sensations of sublime beauty. This is the sky of our closest reach, the sky that most connects us in time to our deep evolutionary past through which we peered into the night’s other and its—until very recently—unreachable horizons.
Laura Parker: Cool, 2015. Archival pigment print, 15 1/8 x 64 3/4 in., framed
Moon, 2015. Archival pigment print, 16 x 60 1/4 in., framed
Star Writings. Archival pigment prints, grid of 10 framed, 14 x 11 in. each
Courtesy of the artist
Laura Parker is a Southern California artist whose series Star Writings uses the inherent unsteadiness of a human body teetering against gravity while aiming a hand-held, opened-shutter camera at targeted celestial bodies and “writing” letters. The result is an epiphenomenon, a sky versus artist dance, a byproduct of bombarding photons of ancient light, and the erratic jitter that results from reconciling artistic desire with gravitational mischief. The skirmish succeeds when the letters, lines and shapes choreograph human meaning from the raw elements of nature’s forces.
Lia Halloran: The Great Comet, 2019. Cyanotype on paper, from painted negative, 84 x 215 in.
Courtesy of the artist and Luis De Jesus Los Angeles
Lia Halloran’s ambitious cyanotype The Great Comet evokes the ancient mysteries of the sky, the nebulous smears, theatrics of light, and inconsiderate appearances of phenomena that befuddled and frightened the ancients while igniting their better curiosities. Her larger body of work, which traces the contributions of women and individual astronomers, extricates closeted triumphs and injustices from history, while ennobling humanity’s endless search for understanding the complexities of the sky.
Christopher Richmond: Viewing Stone, 2018. Looping HD video, sound, 30:08
Directed and conceived by Christopher Richmond; Cinematography: Colin Trenbeath; Editor: Christopher Richmond; Music: Aileen Bryant; Asteroid: Evan Walker
Courtesy of the artist
Christopher Richmond is a Los Angeles artist working in film/video, photography and drawing. He presents the image of a simulated asteroid gently pirouetting and toppling in blackness as spotlit by the sun. Seemingly a symbol for the desolate materialism of soulless space, alone and remote, without meaning, the celestial body is also like a single available volunteer to join the countless asteroidal building blocks of planets, moons and their landscapes. From these building blocks, and a star in the right place, come luscious flourishing flora and living offspring, among them inquisitive watchers of the sky and assemblers of meaning.
Carol Saindon: Outside of Inside, 2019. Floor/wall installation. Charcoal drawings, shattered glass, tar paper, 10 x 12 x 22 ft. (Photo: Gene Ogami)
Courtesy of Scape Gallery
In Carol Saindon’s floor installation Outside of Inside, a representation of two entangled galaxies solicits the utterly inexpressible power of forces that work the universe. Words and images fail to describe the impossible scale of what happens in the sky. But what settles out of Saindon’s installation are the poetic rhymes of stunned appreciation—an invocation to sense, intuit or shudder in the knowledge that such things as galaxies exist, much less collide; and to quiver in the realization that we go about our terrestrial lives at an obscure coordinate and tiny remote outpost somewhere in the spiral arm of just such a glittering, floating behemoth.
Magnus von Wright (1805–68): Sterna Paradisaea (Arctic tern), 1828. Original chromolithograph on wove (vellum) paper, from Svenska Foglar Efter Naturen Och Pa Stenritade, first published 1828, 15 x 11 in. (from the 1917–29 edition)
Finding two summers per year through their migratory circumnavigations of the globe, Arctic terns experience more daylight sky than any other creature on Earth. In its average 30-year lifespan, the bird travels enough sky to have flown three round trips to the Moon. An Arctic tern’s virtual orbit of the planet is in poetic synchronicity with the cyclic forces of an interconnected sky universe.
For further information on the exhibition SKY click here
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