KNOWLEDGES at Mount Wilson Observatory
Marilyn Lowey, Cosmic Latte, RGB or CMYK? (2012). Installation view at Mount Wilson Observatory, Los Angeles, USA
Anyone who has visited the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles will be familiar with the letters received by scientists of the Mount Wilson Observatory in the San Gabriel Mountains. Sent between the World Wars by a broad spectrum of crackpots, loonies, zealots and visionaries, the letters reflect the public’s burgeoning interest in the fast-receding frontiers of outer space:
‘But what I would really like to know
is will Astronomy get a person anywhere
is there any use in a person studying it.
Will it put you in an unmentally condition.’
As part of ‘KNOWLEDGES at Mount Wilson Observatory’, a weekend-long programme of performances, film screenings, lectures and site-specific art works staged two weeks ago, the Museum of Jurassic Technology installed a 3D slide viewer in one corner of the observatory’s museum which framed choice excerpts from letters (such as the one above) over historical images of the institution. Wayward grammar, syntax and precise sense aside, the inquiry is a reasonable one; debates over its answer have led the US government to scale back its space programme from its height in the 1960s to its present sad state, the last space shuttle having been decommissioned in May of this year.
So too has the research at observatories like that at Mount Wilson become less pressing in the public mind. Instead, as Norman Klein and Tom Leeser agreed in their discussion in the museum’s auditorium, frontiers have moved in the 21st Century from ‘out there’ to ‘in here’; growth is no longer sustainable, new territories cannot be conquered ad infinitum, the linear has become non-linear, the utopic has become dystopic, and past, present and future have collapsed into a single flat-line eternity.
Where, then, does that leave curators hoping to gain ‘new insight into the relationship of art to science, of the past to the present, and of perception to knowledge’? Elleni Sclavenitis and Christina Ondrus, artists and co-curators of the context-specific art initiative KNOWLEDGES, corralled a range of art works that deliberately or inadvertently pointed not so much to the heavens but to other human beings pointing at the heavens.
Marilyn Lowey tethered a white weather balloon, perhaps some 20 feet in diameter, to trees adjacent to the huge white-domed 60-inch telescope. While an obvious response might be to read the sphere as a surrogate planet or moon (especially after dark when it glowed from within), in the final reckoning it looked like nothing more than a tethered weather balloon. The work’s poignancy came from its allusions to man’s pathetic attempts to reach out and touch, and ultimately replicate, the magnificence of the cosmos. Its title (as with all of the works, unpublished for the actual event) made this comically plain: Cosmic Latte, RGB or CMYK (2012).
Inside the dome of the telescope building, Katie Grinnan assembled ten musicians (herself included) to play specially made stringed instruments on round tables with half-domed bases (Astrology Orchestra, 2012). Each one corresponded to a different planet, and each performer to a different sign of the zodiac. Moving anti-clockwise around their instruments to decline scales of notes, they were apparently ‘playing all the planetary transits’, whatever that means. The ethereal sounds matched the frail arbitrariness of one subjectively interpreted system being transposed into another. With added scope for human error.
One problem with thematically convened projects such as this is that the context can threaten to overwhelm the work. How does one respond to such an evocative location? Wooded mountainsides fell away on one side of the crest, while the seemingly endless conurbation of the Los Angeles basin, glittering softly in the evening light, stretched away on the other. Works that contained figurative references to celestial subjects, such as Charles Gaines’ print or Russell Crotty’s drawings (also installed in the telescope building) came off as being obvious and illustrational. (Which, in fact, sold both artists’ work well short.)
Zoe Crosher, The Pool I Shot In Laurel Canyon, from LA-LIKE (2006). Installation view at Mount Wilson Observatory, Los Angeles, USA
A photograph by Zoe Crosher, however, which the artist had placed inside an open cupboard nearby, was a quiet triumph. Although its dark surface seemed to capture some corner of deep space, the picture was in fact made by pointing the camera at reflections in a Los Angeles swimming pool (The Pool I Shot In Laurel Canyon, from LA-LIKE, 2006). Claude Collins-Stracensky installed a similarly reflective tall glass box on a gnarled tree trunk. Inside, at the top, it held a bird’s nest underneath a layer of rippling water. Only this talismanic object’s title – The Birds Like the Stars (2012) – connected it explicitly with astronomy.
Mark Hagen has made sculptures with aluminium struts and polished obsidian before; an excellent example is currently on show at ‘Made in L.A.’ at the Hammer Museum. By placing one such sculpture – a black obsidian disc mounted on an aluminium column – on a grassy hillside, lurking amongst a mysterious gang of instruments marked as the Infrared Spatial Interferometer (ISI), the work came to mean more, not less, than it would in a more neutral setting.
Mark Hagen, To be titled (subtractive & additive sculpture #10), (2012).
Obsidian, aluminum & stainless steel. Installation view at Mount Wilson Observatory, Los Angeles, USA
Perhaps that is the ultimate test for site-specific projects such as KNOWLEDGES: if the context is an excuse for an art work to get made, then the work is unlikely to travel much beyond the specific conceptual associations determined by that time and place. If, however, the work falls slightly to the side of the context, complicating meaning rather than reinforcing expectations, then it might just attain some of the mystery and wonder that people sometimes look for through telescopes pointed at the sky. It might, if you’re lucky, even put you in an unmentally condition.