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posted on 05.19.09

Contemporary Art and Astronomy - 
a New Perspective

Bettina Forget discusses unlikely bedfellows: 
art and astronomy.

Astronomy is a domain for scientists: mathematical equations, the physics of wave functions and gravity, the chemistry of stellar evolution - all these disciplines demand the kind of precise 'left brain' thinking that is typical of serious men and women in clean, white labcoats. Or is it? In the last few decades, contemporary artists have snuck onto the field of astronomy, tackling the same questions that scientists are trying to answer. These artists deal with concepts of order and chaos, cause and effect, knowledge and ignorance. This short essay is a 'whistle-stop tour' of the works of four well-known contemporary artists who produced artwork on the subject of  astronomy.

Let's start at the beginning - with the sketchbook. One of this century's most famous artists and the father of modern art is Pablo Picasso. He was famous for 'pushing the envelope' when it came to visualising new concepts. His sketchbooks alone speak volumes. Above is a reproduction of two pages from a sketchbook which he kept in 1924. These are the simplest forms of drawing: black ink on white paper, just dots and lines. However, the genius of Picasso's talent turns these random dots into works of art. There is a captivating variety of compositions, a tension between symmetry and asymmetry, between chaos and order. By connecting the dots Picasso creates patterns. Pattern-making is a way for humans to make sense of random objects and events, the same way we've tried to make sense of the myriad of stars in the night sky by connecting them into constellations (patterns) and assigning them names and stories. By creating his own 'constellations', Picasso questions our need to bring order to chaos - and creates wonderful drawings at the same time.

A contemporary of Picasso's, Alexander Calder, also produced some captivating artwork on the theme of constellations. Calder is famous for his mobiles, and the piece "Untitled  (the Constellation Mobile)" from 1941 is typical of his work. He tackles the same subject in a very different manner - his composition in many ways captures the spirit of Picasso's sketchbook drawings, but Calder takes his work into the third dimension (and even the fourth dimension, if you count time as a dimension). In a way, this is a '3-D drawing'. Again, the composition is deceptively simple: a variety of simple shapes in primary colours are suspended on gracefully curved steel wires. Harmony and, above all, balance are inherent in this work - being a mobile it would be non-fuctional otherwise. On second glance however,  we notice how the simple shapes of the suspended objects resemble a fish, a woman, a bird... could these symbolise Delphinus, Cassiopeia, and Corvus? Then we notice the slow movement of the mobile, just like the slow apparent movement of the stars across the night sky. The movement of one 'constellation' causes the movement of another, each moving in its own orbit. I interpret this artwork as a poigniant illustration of cause and effect, though one may also reflect on the simpler concepts of movement, connections and colour.

The beauty of the works of contemporary artists, like the one's of Picasso and Calder for example, is that many interpretations are possible. The artist doesn't impose one narrative, but lets you ponder and use your own imagination. It's what makes modern art so enigmatic. It's art for smart people. Sometimes it is more obvious what an artwork is 'about', sometimes less. Contemporary artists challenge you to figure out part of the answer yourself, they 'engage the viewer'.

Contemporary art also has a knack of turning something deceptively simple into something that has a deeper meaning. Take our next example, the work "Physiognomoniae Coelestis, For Adalgisa" from 1975, by Claudio Parmiggiani. This Italian artist has produced a large number of art pieces that deal with astronomy. Parmiggiani works mostly with photographic prints and collage, juxtaposing unconnected images, modifying them slightly and thereby creating new meaning. The work shown above is a good example of his style. It is a simple diptych: two photographs, quite traditional and unexceptional at first glance. But get closer - there is a twist! The beauty spots on woman's back are at the exact locations as the stars on the picture of the night sky next to it. Coincidence? Not when you're dealing with contemporary art! Parmiggiani subtely hints at something bigger: the uniqueness that the human body shares the with the universe, how we are connected to it. To quote Carl Sagan, "We are all made of star stuff". What I especially enjoy about this particular piece is that is gives you so many things to ponder. You could contemplate the element of chance. What are the chances of the woman having the exact same configuration of beauty spots as the stars in the night sky? You may want to look at your own shoulder and see if you're sporting the Big Dipper or Orion... There's also the gracefulness of the woman's pose, like a painting of the old masters. "Physiognomoniae Coelestis" also reminds me of the many stories about how the constellations came to be - young maidens banned to the heavens as a punishment, or lovers eternally transfixed in the night sky for all eternity. Parmiggiani doesn't tell you just one story, but lets your imagination roam free. He lets you reflect on this artwork, like you would reflect on the evening sky on a clear night.

The famous German artist Anselm Kiefer also created a - rather big - work that allows you to gaze into the night sky. His installation piece "Starfall" from 1998 is a wall-sized painting of wild dots and nebulae, exectued with dynamic brushstrokes and textures. Superimposed on these are some recognisable constellations, most notably Draco, Cepheus and Ursa Major. What makes this piece intriguing is the myriad of labels. Most are placed in an orderly fashion next to each star, but many appear to be placed at random. However, the majority of the labels are in a heap on the floor beneath the painting. "Starfall" is a beautiful piece on a purely aesthetic level, but its real strenght lies in its cryptic use of the labels. The labels on the floor may represent all that which we haven't yet discovered, so many stars and galaxies left to be located and named. The labels may also symbolise all that which we can never discover or name, knowledge beyond our reach.

Whether you are stumped or inspired by contemporary art, a cerebral 'left-brainer' or a free-spirited artsy type, contemporary art has a lot to offer to the avid astronomer. Art is not all about landscapes and reclining nudes - there's a lot of stimulating art out there that deals with astronomy. Picasso, Calder, Parmiggiani and Kiefer are just a few artists who have worked with this theme. It's worth browsing through gallery catalogues and surf the internet; you will find some real treasures.

(This article originally appeared in Skyward issue spring 2006, published by the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Montreal Centre.)

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Alexander Calder
Anselm Kiefer
Pablo Picasso


Installation Art