The Sciences

Art in Orbit

Boldly going where no gallery has gone before

By Jennifer KahnSep 1, 2003 5:00 AM


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In January 2002 British artist Susan Collins presented curators at the Tate Museum in London with a proposal for an art gallery in Earth orbit. She meant it as a provocative work of fiction: "At the time, the Tate was opening a slew of satellite museums in the U.K. I thought, 'Why not a literal satellite?'" But something curious happened: Everyone seemed to like the idea. The Tate placed the proposal on the museum's Web site, and Collins asked three architecture firms to propose designs for an orbiting museum (see The firms quickly warmed to the task. ETALAB, based in London and New York, drew up elaborate plans for a flexible, amoeba-shaped structure that included a float-through gallery in the middle, telescopic windows to magnify distant planets, and outer rooms in which visitors could experience different amounts of simulated gravity. Softroom, a British design house, was more pragmatic, suggesting a capsulelike "space island" built from spare shuttle parts. Somewhere in between, Sarah Wigglesworth Architects of London drafted a modernist alternative: a straightedged, sharp-cornered satellite exhibiting pieces from the Tate collection that would take on new meanings in zero gravity. Artist Eduardo Kac has taken these ideas a step further. He envisions a gallery of works designed specifically for the space environment, such as a huge sculpture held together by a single delicate hinge.

The Tate in Space project drew attention from scientists as well. "It's a little insane, but the parts that aren't insane are intriguing," says astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson of the American Museum of Natural History. "We're so focused on planting flags on other planets that we forget that zero gravity opens a whole new realm of artistic expression." Since Sputnik, the realm beyond Earth's atmosphere has effectively been a private playground for big-budget research and military experiments. According to Ann Druyan, who heads Cosmos Studios and who cowrote Cosmos with her late husband, Carl Sagan, this off-limits feeling is one reason that space exploration has lost its initial romance. "We used to see space as an exciting frontier, as part of a future where we were all going to be cool and wear Mylar. I think we've lost that dream," she says with a sigh. A space gallery could recapture some of that magic, especially at a time when the future feels increasingly apocalyptic. Many mission planners seem to agree. NASA created a publicity blitz when it equipped Voyager 1 and 2 with gold-plated discs that carried recordings of sights and sounds on Earth—an idea masterminded by Sagan—before sending the probes past the outer planets toward other stars. Hoping for a similar reaction, the team developing the Beagle 2 lander commissioned British artist Damien Hirst to create a multicolored painting that will double as a calibration chart when the spacecraft touches down on Mars in December. Druyan herself is working to put a 100-foot-wide reflective solar sail into space using a ballistic missile launched from a Russian submarine. The purpose of the mission, Cosmos 1, is to test a new type of space propulsion. But when the sail reaches orbit, it will open like a flower and slowly spiral away from Earth, powered only by sunlight—almost like a conceptual artwork. For a few weeks, Cosmos 1 will be visible from the ground as a new, fast-moving star. Space scientist Andrew Coates of University College London describes Tate in Space as "an adventure of the imagination" but recognizes that it raises practical questions as well. He therefore signed on to help Collins shape her proposal so it would be physically plausible—or at least as plausible as a manned mission to Mars. That is still an awfully high hurdle, of course, and Collins would be astonished (though intrigued) if these tentative mixings of space and art led to an orbiting gallery. "My intention was not necessarily to see it built," she says. "I think the idea may be better than the reality." But that doesn't mean it can't happen. With the finances of a Bill Gates and the determination of a Steve Fossett, Earth-orbiting sculpture could become the new avant-garde. Meanwhile, the Tate exhibit has Druyan thinking about how other types of space art, even on a more modest scale, could help restore our sense of wonder. "Rationally we know that the universe is vast, but emotionally we're unreconstructed pre-Copernicans. If extraterrestrial art helps us come to grips with the fact that we're part of this larger universe, I think that would only be good," she says.

"We wanted to maximize sight lines through the gallery and create an environment that is dynamic and liberating, like space itself," says ETALAB director Opher Elia-Shaul. The gallery's lightweight reinforced-aerogel skin would contain actuators or hydraulics so it could change shape like a giant water droplet. Illustration courtesy of Virtual Artworks and Etalab © 2002.

The Tate in Space Web site has cool downloadable models of many of the entries:

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