Article: response to questions – Felicity Spear

Stephen McLaughlan Gallery
until 27 Feb 2010

1 Why did you curate the show?

Sky Lab was the final of three exhibitions I have been involved with in 2009. It was my individual response, developed last year to coincide with the International Year of Astronomy and some other milestones in science, and   resulted from ideas that I had been looking at earlier, in my doctoral research. The International Year of Astronomy 2009, focused the eyes of the world on astronomy by celebrating the 400th anniversary of the Italian scholar Galileo’s findings using his newly invented telescope. This enabled him to see the night sky beyond the naked eye, and changed forever the way in which we see and understand the cosmos. 2009 also marked 40 years since the Apollo 11 moon landing and our first steps beyond our own planet, and the 150th anniversary of publishing of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of the Species.

Increasingly I have been making work about perception beyond visibility, beyond first-hand experience. For me this has involved looking at observational and spatial ideas and practices in art and science, the emanation of light and other radiations, and the speculative and experimental processes involved with mapping, photography and digitally manipulated images. These reflect ideas and experiences of the natural world, and the indeterminate reality of complex systems in the cosmos that are inextricably filtered through technologies and cultural practices. They challenge or extend our ideas and experiences of reality.

In 2007-8, on completion of my doctorate, and to coincide in 2009 with IYA, I curated the exhibition Beyond visibility: light and dust with the astronomer-photographer David Malin, and the Indigenous artist Gulumbu Yunupingu. This project was developed to raise awareness of the diverse ways that the cosmos can be understood and interpreted through imaginative links between art and science, nature and culture, and took place at Monash Gallery of Art in Melbourne and UTS in Sydney.
Also coinciding with IYA 2009 was Shared Sky, an exhibition at the NGV’s Ian Potter Centre curated by Allison Holland and Stephen Gilchrist. I was invited to participate and I exhibited a digital print titled South – Crux, and a sound work made from radio-astronomy data titled Out There – in light of remote possibilities.

Becoming involved in these projects motivated me to curate Sky Lab. I see it as a pilot project that may have the potential to extend into future research and activity with others interested in this field.

2 Where does your interest in the sky and space come from?

Living in the country for most of my life has meant that the night sky has always been in my purview. Ultimately we all come from the stars. As a child my father and I would often take time to admire them together. I stood on my uncle’s garage roof and watched the first satellite cross the night sky. I was in India in 1969 when Apollo 11 landed on the moon. I took my children to all the Star Wars movies. My life has been punctuated with such encounters with the sky and space. As an adult I have sailed in the ocean at night and walked in the Himalaya where the night skies are particularly clear. I remain in the country and for many years now I have walked at night and observed the sky without the effects of light pollution marring the view. It is an intense engagement with the senses, but we can only see beyond the visible stars into deeper space with the help of remote sensing. What we find there is truly amazing. Finally my interest in these things entered my work and emerged in so many ways that seem to build upon my interests in pin-hole photography and techniques of the observer, the manipulation of light, spatial practice in installation as well as abstraction. It all came together in a PhD titled ‘Extending vision: mapping space in light and time.’

3 What do you expect viewers to take from the show?

Increasingly we are looking beyond our planet to speculate about our place in the Universe. In the current social climate art seems to be valued predominantly for some wider social benefit. However, art is always a process of invention with the potential to play an educative and imaginative role in de-mystifying science in more poetic ways. This small show is a pilot program, testing the water, exploring some poetic connections between art and science in the context of ideas about astronomy, the sky and our relationship to it. I hope that it will generate curiosity, and that some viewers will do their own research or dream new dreams, generated by the images in Sky Lab

4 What was behind your decision to select or invite the participating artists?

There are tendencies and patterns found in the practice of observation, speculation and visualization, practices common to art, science and history. I selected the artists with a view to emphasizing the diversity of expression within such tendencies and patterns. I wanted to highlight the eclectic nature of visual responses to the understanding of cosmic space through ideas surrounding both art and science. At the moment there don’t seem to be a large number of artists working in this area but that seems to be changing. I was short-listed on the World Year of Physics Art Prize at Macquarie University in 2006 which attracted some interesting science-oriented work. However, the mention of science-oriented ideas seems to frighten some away, or conjure up some dry and brittle discipline to which most us have little access. This is why I’m keen to find those who are willing to work in this stimulating territory and attempt to de-mystify such pre-conceived ideas.

The interaction of ideas expressed by the artists in Sky Lab is multi-faceted and complex. They are to do with perceptions of space through the process of observation using the naked eye and the telescope, thinking about astronomy through light and geometry in the shared ground of maths and science, our awareness or otherwise of the unceasing movement of celestial bodies in the cosmos mostly beyond our visibility, technology as an extension of human consciousness, remote sensing and the process of mapping as a revelation of the invisible, and finally, the heavenly firmament as a reflection of our dreams.
Daniel Armstrong’s blurred photographs (reproduced as digital prints), taken with toy cameras during his recent residency at the Lowell Observatory in Arizona, seem to relive the challenges that the early naked-eye astronomers experienced before the space of the night sky was gradually extended by the use of the telescope. Today astronomers continue to be challenged as the boundaries of deep space are pushed to the limits of the available technologies.

Magda Cebokli’s painting is an exploration of the emanation of light during the process of seeing, and the relationship between the circle and the square, fundamental to early astronomers working with Euclidean geometry. Her approach to her practice shares the disciplines of abstraction, mathematics and science with that of astronomy, reflecting a type of thinking more in common with the empirical sciences.

Lesley Duxbury’s digital prints of the day and night sky document the rise and set of celestial bodies as we see them from Earth in their unceasing movement. Very few in fact are visible to the naked-eye, and most of us fail to appreciate them with our Earth focused and steadily more light-polluted view.

Sam Leach’s painting of primates balancing on an extended robotic arm, like a prosthetic limb, invites us to think about technology as an extension of life and human consciousness, just as the paint brush is an extension of the hand. The potential of space exploration may be to extend the viability of life, not just human life, beyond planetary timescales.

Harry Nankin’s  boat-like wooden vessel, marked with cryptic inscriptions from different cultures  and  penetrated with holes which reflect scatterings of light on the mirror below, reference migration and the challenges of discontinuous cultural identity which this presents. However, when we look towards the heavens we are reminded that what we all share as humans, no matter what colour or creed, is the night sky.

Felicity Spear’s painting, like a speculative map of matter and light in deep space, invites us to imagine a form of visible reality from an invisible reality, ‘out there’ beyond the visible, as far as we can see. Her work references remote sensing and observation and imaging technologies used in astrophysics, enabling us to continually extend our vision through the interaction of nature and science.

Curating this show has  been a stimulating process  and I appreciate the confidence that the participating artists have had in my judgement.

By Sam Leach

Sam Leach

Leach is an artist living and working in Melbourne. He was born in Adelaide in 1973 and moved to Melbourne in the early 90s. Leach completed his honours degree in painting at RMIT in 2004 and is currently doing his masters. In 2006 Leach won the Metro5 prize and the Geelong contemporary art prize. This year he was a finalist in the Archibald. Leach shows at Nellie Castan gallery in Melbourne (show coming up in June) and Sullivan and Strumpf gallery in Sydney