Review by Angela Darby
For the exhibition Secret Satellites curated by Karen Downey, the Belfast Exposed gallery has been divided into three distinct sections. The light filled foyer, a semi darkened space and a blacked out projection area. Across these three areas artworks by four artists reflect on the theme of space satellites. By definition, a satellite is any object that orbits another. Typically, the phrase space satellite is used to describe man-made satellites, artificial entities that orbit the earth. There are around 2,500 satellites in orbit around the Earth. They have been placed there at great expense to carry out a range of observational and communication activities. Some peer into the dark recesses of the universe as tools of astronomical research, some enable lightening speed contact between opposite sides of the globe whilst others may have both sinister and benign purposes. The GPS app on your phone owes its capability to the same set of satellites that deliver a cruise missile to its deadly destination.
In the foyer, two large framed photographs by the artist Trevor Paglen still the movements of satellites on their trajectory across the firmament. Two more photographs are hung behind these in the semi darkened area. In Four Geostationary Satellites Above the Sierra Nevada, deep blues instil snow-capped mountains with a muted quality whilst in Keyhole 12-3 (improved crystal) near Scorpio, high key oranges bleed across clouds presumably illuminated by sodium vapour lamps on city streets below. The images are formally beautiful, and immediately work on a purely aesthetic level. However the interpretative text accompanying the exhibition points out the sinister aspects of Paglen’s practice. His exploration concerns not just the darkness of space but also the hidden realms of US national security. The images are from an ongoing project The Other Night Sky which attempts to track photograph classified American satellites in Earth orbit. A total of 189 covert spacecraft we are informed. On his website Paglen goes into further detail as to how he was able to locate and intercept these secret objects. He explains that he draws inspiration from early astronomers such as Kepler and Galileo. Knowing how these observers were treated by the Catholic Church one can only hope that Paglen’s attempts at drawing attention to a new orbital reality does not lead to sanctions by the military elite.
At the entrance to the gallery’s semi-darkened area we encounter a cluster of low-tech models constructed from cardboard, polystyrene and plastic bottles. Small in scale and suspended from the ceiling, they are hand-made sculptural interpretations of satellites. The artist, Joanna Griffin organized and facilitated a workshop inside the gallery with a group of participants. Their contributions and outcomes form the basis of Griffin’s ongoing research project The Satellite Investigators. This physical, hands-on approach to extraterrestrial technology offers a lay perspective as opposed to a theoretical observation. If a satellite is an object which has been placed into orbit by human endeavour then we should at least feel that we have a sense of ownership of it? To her credit, Griffin’s fascination with satellites and space has gained her acceptance and entry into the bastions of scientific exploration, working with scientists at Space Science Lab, UC Berkeley and the Mullard Space Science Laboratory, the UK’s largest university-based space science research group.
A lay perspective of universal physics is also revealed in Aisling O’Beirn’s scintillating Flash animation Some Structures Invisible to the Naked Eye. The film presents a rapid sequence of swirling drawings converging then splintering into brief pulsating black and white sharp lined marks. The artist attempts to expose ‘some of contemporary physics more quirky and abstract theories relating to space…’ Through this imaginative visual aid, O’Beirn’s animation uncovers and demystifies a part of the cryptic world that the rhetoric of science obscures. The lines of magnetic energy around the earth, the pulsing waves from Pulsar Stars and the flow of energy into black holes are also drawn, purposively small, in white chalk on a large expanse of blackboard walls. The figure 8 swirling in many of these pictograms suggests links to the mathematical representation of infinity and the mystic lemniscates of eternity. Like a contemporary alchemist O’Beirn transmutes base materials into contemplative forms on which to meditate on the eternal.
Simon Faithfull’s 25-minute film, Escape Vehicle No 6 also transports us to another plane both literally and metaphorically. We watch the artist release a weather balloon with a chair suspended below. A camera fixed to the balloon films the chair and sends its signal remotely to a receiver. As it rises, the chair lunges, swinging madly in response to the atmospheric pressures and air currents. We watch the earth recede and disappear into a fog bank, we re-emerge into a sun filled region above the clouds. It’s stunning. At 18 miles above the earth the balloon collapses in on its self, the chair works free from its bindings and disappears. The intermittent sounds of a bell toll and static which has accompanied the journey ceases and we are left in silence at the edge of space. The film lends itself to reflection on intellectual aspiration and physical limitation, a new telling of old myths that caution against the hubris of our times.
Secret Satellites reveals how visual art can invigorate material exhausted through scientific explanation. The decision by Belfast Exposed’s senior curator, Karen Downey to incorporate sculptural outcomes in addition to the lens based works was welcome and to be applauded. I left the gallery wondering in which part of the world Simon Faithfull’s chair had landed.
Secret Satellites, continues until 30 April. For more information please visit www.belfastexposed.org.
Image: Four Geostationary Satellites Above the Sierra Nevada (2007) © Trevor Paglen
Courtesy Galerie Thomas Zander, Köln and Altman Siegel Gallery, San Francisco