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Space Canon
Claire L Evans Dot Com
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  • Claire L. Evans’ project
    The human species is rapidly and indisputably moving towards the technological singularity. The cadence of the flow of information and innovation in...
    Now playing SpaceCollective
    Where forward thinking terrestrials share ideas and information about the state of the species, their planet and the universe, living the lives of science fiction. Introduction
    Featuring Powers of Ten by Charles and Ray Eames, based on an idea by Kees Boeke.

    The moon is a rock.

    But it's also Selene, Artemis, Diana, Isis, the lunar deities; an eldritch clock by which we measure our growth and fertility; home of an old man in the West and a rabbit in the East; the site of countless imaginary voyages; a long-believed trigger of lunacy (luna...see?). It's another world, close enough to our to peer down at us; to it, we compose sonatas. It can be blue, made of cheese, a harvest moon; we've long fantasized about its dark side, perhaps dotted with black monoliths or inhabited by flying men.

    The moon is a totem of great importance in all religions and traditions; in astrology, it stands for all those things which make this fine scienceblogs readership develop facial tics: the unconscious, parapsychology, dreams, imagination, the emotional world, all that is shifting and ephemeral. According to the Penguin Dictionary of Symbols, as the light of the moon is merely a reflection of the light of the sun, "the Moon is the symbol of knowledge acquired through reflection, that is, theoretical or conceptual knowledge."

    All of this to say that while the moon is a rock, it's also an idea.

    And, as an idea, it appeals to artists. The moon, however, remains beyond the reach of artists by virtue of what makes it interesting to them: namely, its moon-ness, a perfect storm of mystery, opacity, and unreachability.

    So just how do you implement the moon in your practice when it's 240,000 miles away? As an artist, how do you stake a claim somewhere inside of the patriotic military-industrial research bureaucracy that controls the purse strings, and thus access to our nearest celestial bodies? There doesn't seem to be a direct entry. If you're part of the original Moon Museum posse, you go in the back door, sneaking your work illicitly onto the heels of a lunar lander. If you're Belgian artist Paul Van Hoeydonck, you meet astronaut David Scott at a dinner party.

    Van Hoeydonck is responsible for the only piece of art on the moon, a tiny memorial sculpture called "Fallen Astronaut." The piece is interesting for several reasons. For one, it presents us with a clear understanding of the kinds of technical limitations that moon artists must work under. Limitations, of course, can be instrumental to an artist's practice — a broke Basquiat painted on window frames and cabinet doors — but space art's parameters border on the draconian. In the design of the piece, Van Hoeydonck was restricted to materials that were both lightweight and sturdy, as well capable of withstanding extreme temperatures. Since it was to be a memorial to deceased astronauts, it couldn't be identifiably male or female, nor of any ethnic group. The somewhat questionable result: what looks like a metal Lego lying face-down on Mons Hadley.

    Like the Moon Museum, Fallen Astronaut was an unofficial venture; the statuette was smuggled aboard the Apollo 15 lunar module by the astronauts themselves — Scott and Jim Irwin — without the knowledge of NASA officials. Its "installation" was unorthodox: in laying down the sculpture and its accompanying plaque, Irwin and Scott performed a private ceremony on the lunar surface. "We just thought we'd recognize the guys that made the ultimate contribution," Scott later said. Notable: "the guys" include eight American and six Soviet astronauts, a surprisingly apolitical act of solidarity in the midst of the Cold War.

    Scott and Irwin were committed to the sanctity of their memorial; when Scott plopped the piece onto the lunar dust, Irwin covered the act with inane radio chatter to Mission Control, and they didn't announce the memorial until after their return to Earth. Even then, the astronauts kept Van Hoeydonck's name private, hoping to avoid any commercial exploitation of the piece. Van Hoeydonck, undoubtedly hoping to further his career, later violated the unspoken sacredness of Fallen Astronaut by attempting, in 1972, to sell hundreds of signed replicas of the piece at $750 a pop. We'd all recoil in horror if Maya Lin tried the same thing with the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial, but I'm almost tempted to give Van Hoeydonck a pass. After all, the Fallen Astronaut itself is just a totem, and a toylike one at that.

    I see this story as something of an inversion of the usual artist-scientist dialectic. Van Hoeydonck, here, was essentially an engineer. All he did was design a tin man to technical specifications, but it was Scott and Irwin who made the visionary decision to perform an unnecessary act of beauty on the chunk of rock orbiting our own. It was the astronauts who snuck the statuette all the way to the moon and secretly installed it. They understood that beyond being a rock, the moon is an idea, and that actions performed on the moon by human beings are instantly imbued with meaning, historical significance, and some kind of indefinable holiness. Scott, Irwin and NASA balked at Van Hoeydonck's commercial enterprise, and the artist eventually retracted it, instead donating various replicas of Fallen Astronaut to museums and keeping the rest to himself, un-monetized.

    While it's ordinarily the artists who defend the formal importance of ideas for their own sake, on Apollo 15 it was, well, not the scientists — but the military-trained, engineer-pilot, non-artist astronauts who did. Which perhaps goes to show that the experience of space, the perspective-altering transcendence of the so-called "overview effect," ultimately turns us all into poets.
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    This is the first in a series of posts about art, the moon, and art on the moon. You would think this would be a fairly limited subject, but...

    Art on the moon has been happening for a long time.

    In 1969, a coterie of American contemporary artists devised a plan to put an art museum on the Moon. When NASA's official channels proved too dauntingly bureaucratic, Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, David Novros, Forrest "Frosty" Myers, Claes Oldenburg, and John Chamberlain weren't deterred. Instead, they managed to sneak their "museum" — in reality a minuscule enamel wafer inscribed with six tiny drawings — onto the leg of the Apollo 12 mission's landing module, Intrepid. Of course, NASA has no official record of this intervention, but the New York Times ran the story several days after Apollo 12 took off.

    The museum, which looks like a paleo-modern computer chip, includes a drawing of a wavy line, courtesy of Rauschenberg, a doodle of a mouse by Oldenburg, John Chamberlain's template pattern, and a piece by Warhol that the Times in '69 called a "a calligraphic squiggle made up of the initials of his signature," but is obviously a penis.

    It seems to me that the artistry of this "museum" is as much about the gesture of sneaking it, illicitly, onto the leg of the lunar lander, as it is about the drawings themselves. The Moon Museum is a cosmic happening, an outer-space intervention, a performance piece with no human (or Selenite) witnesses. Whether or not it even exists is a point of contention; it bears a mystique that an official NASA presence would have irrevocably squelched. Which is perhaps what separates artists from those who seek the cosmos for scientific or technological reasons. To them, the objective may not necessarily be about the quest for knowledge, but rather the desire to play with and articulate Mystery, capital-M. Space inspires awe, feeling, and perspective — the currency of the arts.

    As much as the fierce nationalism of space history would suggest otherwise, space also belongs to no one. No nation, no species, and no ideological subcategory of humanity. Obviously astronomers, scientists and engineers have had the most serious crack at the interpretation of the vast impersonal Universe beyond our atmosphere — but mystics, myth-makers, and shamans were at it for centuries beforehand. Of course the prevailing rhetoric since the Enlightenment has been to distance the rational sanctity of science from the taxonomy-barren mish-mash that came before it, but our interdisciplinary age, it seems, should allow us to appreciate the importance of one without devaluing the other. This isn't a new idea: even NASA gave Laurie Anderson an artists' residency.

    As we expand our boundaries beyond the limits of our planet, the idea of "Moon Arts" or "Space Arts" won't seem any more sci-fi than regular old Terrestrial Art. Reality is fodder for exploration and creativity, so who's to say that artists, once they secure passage to orbit, the moon, Mars, and beyond, shouldn't have as much of a say in our understanding of space as the people who sent them there?


    Incidentally, the Moon Museum wasn't the only rogue intervention on the Apollo 12 Mission. Pranksters back at Cape Canaveral snuck laminated, fire-proof Playboy Centerfolds into astronauts' Al Bean and Pete Conrad's checklist booklets. The bunnies, which had captions like "Seen any interesting hills and valleys?" and "Survey — her activity," were the first American women in space.

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