Danni Shen, Curatorial Fellow in Visual Arts, organizes and interprets exhibitions at Wave Hill.
“We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.” – Carl Sagan
The celestial bodies and expanding cosmos have been a source of constant awe since the beginning of civilization around the world. Humans looked up to the sky and sought to understand what was out there, and if perhaps there were other living beings beyond the local heavens. A few millennia later, despite developments in technology, observation and space travel, the wonder and skepticism surrounding the cosmos remain. In reinterpreting research in cosmological archives, artist Holly Veselka delves into an amalgam of records, documenting the human psychology behind the history of astronomical study. Her work is a further investigation of outer space as a realm of imaginative travel, as well as artistic creation. In a chat with Holly in her Lower East Side studio about her practice, the artist discussed the various visual, conceptual and scholarly inspirations that inform her immersive installation The Inanimate Vastness of Sidereal Space, which opens Saturday, July 25. Hear more about her work at her Artist Talk, at 1:30PM on Saturday, July 25.
Danni Shen: You have spoken of contemporary ideas about space exploration, about the origins of ideas and how they might reflect our psychology as human beings. The idea of colonizing space also developed from concepts about power and control over the unknown—mastering nature, in this case, the universe. Can you talk more about your research along that historical trajectory? What sources were you looking at?
Holly Veselka: In our contemporary world, there are two types of space exploration: private and public. The private sector is driven by profit; space becomes a place for tourism, entertainment. The public sector uses space to either demonstrate state power or to conduct research with the ultimate goal of ensuring the long-term survival of the human race. My project, The Inanimate Vastness of Sidereal Space, looks at how space was used and viewed in the 19th century. At that time, space was not about profit, world power or survival. Instead, the universe was a playground for the imagination. Technological advancements in optics, rocketry, balloon technology and the theory of evolution opened the universe (at least in our imaginations) to the reach of humanity. It was individuals, not corporations or governments, who were described as being the first space explorers by writers such as Jules Verne or Edgar Allen Poe. I have the romantic idea that these early concepts of space exploration were more about discovering nature than controlling it. It wasn’t until the Cold War that space became about domination and was used as a tool for statecraft. For more on this thought trajectory, there is a wonderful 2012 Creative Time Report by Lisi Raskin and Wolfgang Hauptman, Redacted Histories of the Space Race, that follows links between nationalism, militarism, and the Space Race.
DS: You mentioned ideas that go back maybe a hundred years. Have you also been considering ideas which go back thousands of years, or perhaps even the first astronomical observations or charts?
HV: I’m interested in the culture of cosmology throughout history. An interesting resource on this is chapter two of Robert A. Freitas Jr.’s Xenology: An Introduction to the Scientific Study of Extraterrestrial Life, Intelligence, and Civilization. Here he explores the history behind the idea of extraterrestrial life. From The Hindu Brahma Vaivarta Purana, Freitas quotes “But consider the myriads of universes that coexist side by side, each with its Indra and Brahma, and each with its evolving and dissolving worlds…. Can you presume to know them, count them, or fathom the reaches of all those universes with their multitude of worlds, each with its legions of transmigrating inhabitants?” A similar thought exists in contemporary theoretical physics. Known as the multiverse, it is defined by Google as “an infinite realm of being or potential being of which the universe is regarded as a part or instance.” In 2014, I worked on a project titled WORLDS that examined the idea of the multiverse in popular culture, sourcing Carl Sagan’s Cosmos and Alan Lightman’s The Accidental Universe.
DS: There’s a quote by C.S. Lewis come to mind: ‘…let’s pray that the human race never escapes Earth to spread its iniquity elsewhere.’ What do you think?
HV: The title of my exhibition, The Inanimate Vastness of Sidereal Space, comes from H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds. At the end of the novel, the Martians have been killed by Earth’s biodiversity, and the narrator says: “Dim and wonderful is the vision I have conjured up in my mind of life spreading slowly from this little seed bed of the solar system throughout the inanimate vastness of sidereal space.” This project became about imagining how this 19th-century vision could materialize.
Part of the fun in science fiction is to imagine the infinite number of social experiments that would come with space colonization. Space offers countless destinations for utopian projects. But the reality of colonization is most likely going to be horrifying. A private company, Mars One, wants to send colonists to Mars in 2025. The experiment will be broadcast as a reality TV show. Even if they survive the trip and build the colony, they will be living in tiny cells, unable to go outside, unable to return to Earth, but watched by Earth’s anonymous eyes. It’s a psychological recipe for disaster.
In defense of our escape from Earth, I have a favorite quote website, spacequotations.com. These are mostly astronaut quotes about the experience of looking at Earth from space. The common consensus is that viewing Earth from space erases borders, and Earth appears alive, beautiful and fragile in the emptiness surrounding it. This perspective could counter iniquities.
DS: You said your work was about being wishful in the search for life elsewhere. Is it critical of that?
HV: I’m very curious about the search for life. What would it mean if we found life elsewhere? Would anything change? In the 19th century (and centuries prior), many scientists believed that life existed throughout the solar system, even on the sun. The belief in life was so prevalent that in 1935 the New York Sun published a series of articles that were later dubbed The Great Moon Hoax. They attributed the discovery of a civilization on the moon to the world-renowned astronomer Sir John Herschel. The hoax was a marketing ploy, but the public believed it—but their reasoning wasn’t based on science. It was based on the belief that God wouldn’t create an empty universe. Now, with every new astrological body we encounter, we’re still searching for life. The ESA’s landing on the Rosetta Comet, for example, generated a lot of media—scientists hoping to find evidence of life on the comet. But, so far, nothing. I often wonder if this persistent hope isn’t just the residual past. Cultural beliefs are hard to let go of, even if their initial source is no longer evident.
DS: What fascinates you about the cosmos? Where do you go about finding your imagery?
HV: I’m interested in humanity’s perspective on the cosmos, how it changes over time, how our relationship to the cosmos defines us as a people. I research images by searching online databases and archives. For The Inanimate Vastness of Sidereal Space, I looked at astronomical charts and illustrations, literary illustrations and news articles. In the process, I discovered that many astronomers were also artists. Early photography was not a good tool to depict what was seen in telescopes, so the astronomers had to use their own visual and artistic abilities to describe celestial bodies. Sir John Herschel, President of the Royal Astronomical Society and the same astronomer whose reputation was abused in the New York Sun’s Great Moon Hoax, is a good example of this. He made models of the lunar surface that he would then document with an early photographic process. He included etchings in his books, and created watercolor illustrations as well. I also discovered some wonderful literary illustrators such as Gustave Doré, Leopoldo Galluzzo, Émile-Antoine Bayard and Alphonse-Marie de Neuville.
Holly Veselka’s installation The Inanimate Vastness of Sidereal Space is on view in Glyndor Gallery’s Sunroom Project Space until September 7.
Pictured above, in order are: (1) The Inanimate Vastness of Sidereal Space, 2015, 18 x 24 in. poster, hollyveselka.com. (2) Illustration by Émile-Antoine Bayard and Alphonse-Marie de Neuville from Jules Verne’s All Around the Moon, 1870. The University of Florida Digital Collection. (3) The planet Mars. Observed September 3, 1877, at 11h. 55m. P.M. (Plate VIII from The Trouvelot Astronomical Drawings 1881-1882) by Trouvelot, Étienne Léopold (1882). From the collection of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County. (4) Illustration by Leopoldo Galluzzo, Great Moon Hoax lithograph of “ruby amphitheater” for The Sun, August 28, 1835 (4th article of 6). (5) Photograph of the Moon. Calotype made by Sir John Herschel – 1842 one of the earliest photographs. Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program.