Sputnik was only a little larger than a basketball: a thin-shelled ball of ultra-fine and polished alloy containing two radio transmitters connected to four long antennae. The batteries lasted two weeks. It was the first man-made satellite that reached space. It encircled the Earth for three months, and its launch by the Soviets in 1957 opened the new front of the Cold War arms race and with it an entirely new “Space Race”.
Four years later, the cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin was the first human to journey into outer space. Humankind severed the bonds of gravity. Eight years following that, the US successfully landed a man on the moon and brought him home safely. This bold attempt to bridge the distance to the stars was a huge leap for humanity as it consumes the resources of Earth, a planet circling another burning inferno of a star also destined to vanish.
Apollo 11 and Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon are etched in our memory as a moment of sterling victory: a victory to establish order in the arbitrary, to overcome the void, to vanquish the laws of nature, and of course – the ascendancy of the US over the Soviet Union.
But is there any alternative perspective on this American success story? Can it only be viewed as triumphant? Moreover, is this the only way to achieve it? Triumph is defined as victory over something, someone.
Is there another possibility? Can the Space Race be envisaged independently from the struggle for nuclear superiority, one that brought about the development of ballistic missiles capable of covering thousands of kilometers, armed with heavy warheads? Without competing and vying for victory, it is doubtful the Soviets would have extracted Sergei Korolev from a Gulag labor camp so he could lead their space program. It is doubtful the Americans would have ignored Wernher von Braun’s membership in the Nazi Party.
On September 12, 1962, when John F. Kennedy faced 40,000 men and women in the Rice University football stadium on a scorching hot Texas day, he did not speak about the journey to scientific discoveries but of struggle and triumph. The US space program, much like that of the Soviets, was both a strategic stroke and a national symbol. It was a fight for status and power, for ideological victory. This clash of titans that set fire to collective imagination also entrenched national identities and generated unimaginable technological advancements.
Space represents the unknown, the reaches of infinity, the great emptiness. It is what we both fear and desire. We have no choice but to conquer it. Since conquest (with victory to follow, obviously) is our goal, no wonder the path to it was accomplished on a 90-meter long missile filled with fuel, liquid oxygen, and ideological testosterone.
At first, the Space Race was imbued with the familiar palette of European colonialism and the American drive westward, the hues of a utopia to be born out of thin air in the seemingly empty horizon awaiting the first brash enough to claim it.
On the one hand, the current evolution of the Space Race continues in the same vein, with an exquisitely capitalist tone (as in todays reality, conquering space is primarily based on the efforts of progressive white billionaires). On the other hand, this race is also saturated with the markings of the surveillance society we live in: citizens are invited to watch hours and hours of “space porn” footage, a spectacle of photographic images, and fantasize about the wonders of the universe and its distant worlds – while in actual fact, the majority of humanity’s activity in space is not directed outwards but focuses back to Earth and its inhabitants.
The Final Frontier
The group exhibition The Final Frontier addresses the human need to detach from gravity, the huge powers that exploit this need, and of course the vast and indifferent outer space serving as its backdrop. The exhibited works are based on materials from the US and Soviet space programs, as well as current, privately funded programs.
The exhibition is designed in the format of an educational space expo, but all the works distance us from the myth of exploring new worlds and the urgent and intrepid drive to go where no man has gone before. It also brings us back to the place where man plods heavily at this very moment.
At the center of the works presented by Leigh Orpaz is the Atlas: the first operational ballistic missile introduced in 1959 by the US. The R&D process to create the Atlas was long and tedious, filled with malfunction problems and failed launches. And yet, while the Atlas did not last long in the family of transcontinental ballistic missiles, it was repeatedly deployed by the US space program, including the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions.
The video work Atlas (2019) presents the documentation of a failed launch in one of the missile tests. Orpaz’s work shows the missile fall apart against the clear blue sky in an endless loop while sparing us its grim destruction. The spewing flames seem to both propel us forward and consume us in their flight, and yet it continues with tenacious determination, forever suspended on the edge of inevitability.
The Atlas missiles were named for the mythological titan, shouldering the weight of the firmaments in Greek mythology, and this choice was deliberate. Penetrating the very skies to reach space requires enormous forces, along with the grit of Atlas himself. As the story goes, he was condemned to hold up the celestial heavens for eternity as punishment for daring to defy the gods.
An additional Atlas missile is presented in a large, two-directional light box, reminiscent of some exhibit from an olden-day history museum. Inside are enlarged scans of slides acquired by Orpaz’s grandfather in the 1960s when visiting the souvenir shop of the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC. The passing decades are apparent in the slide scans, now yellowing and scratched with time.
Orpaz often uses family archive materials inherited from her father and grandfather, both photographers. She uses analog photographs, slides, and Super 8 film reels – extinct technologies whose digital recreation surprisingly returns us to the past, as if entire lives have not passed since. This layering of timelines and stratification of technology serve Orpaz well in her constant dialogue with yesterday, in which she attests, among other things, to a society that suppresses its fear of the future while defining itself through nostalgic remembrance of how past generations envisioned that future.
Not far from the Atlas missiles presented by Orpaz is a television screening of a 3-D simulation of an SLS (Space Launcher System). This is a particularly heavy launcher developed by NASA for the Artemis program to carry the Orion spacecraft for a manned mission to bring the first woman and next man to the Moon by 2024, marking 52 years since the last human alit there. The goddess Artemis will again carry her beloved hunter to the heavens, as she did after his death.
The launcher has yet to be developed, the spacecraft is not yet constructed, but NASA simulations are an exemplary demonstrations of computer animation for creating hyper-reality. The huge hangar doors open. Sunlight slowly creeps in to illuminate the enormous launcher. After all, Hollywood and NASA are longstanding partners; even in the 1950s, the aerospace and rocket specialist Wernher von Braun was savvy enough to establish an association with Walt Disney, thus producing three television series on space research and enthusing the American public from every TV set and living room. This prepared the ground for enlisting public opinion to endorse massive government budgeting. And just as the US program drew repeatedly from the wellspring of Roman mythology to name its spacecrafts and missions, in this case it also employed the mythology of the United States itself. Astronauts were presented as modern cowboys, embarking on their conquest of the “New Frontier” mentioned by President Kennedy (the term “Final Frontier” was then refined in 1966 by William Shatner in his role as Captain James Tiberius Kirk in the opening theme of the “Star Trek” TV series).
Natali Issahary’s Eclipse series is comprised of nine versions of the moon during an eclipse; it spins white and luminescent in the mysterious blackness of the void. But the artist is not directing our attention to the heavenly bodies above at all, and instead presents the traces of photochemical processes. The moon we confidently identify is actually a simple black circle cut out of a carboard sheet, placed on development paper that Issahary exposed to various chemicals. This is a moon created in a darkroom, a chemical disruption that prevents the image from setting.
The nine versions of the “moon” are all scans of the same gelatin photographic paper, but even this knowledge cannot avert our fixation and immediate recognition of a moon. Issahary, known for works that subvert the medium of photography, offers a glimpse into the universe from an enclosed room. The chemical reactions and disturbances are not designed to expose the photographed image but rather the images seared into our minds.
Daniel Meir’s work features the live television broadcast of the Apollo 11 mission, with every second of the day meticulously documented by numerous film crews. The fruits of their labors were transmitted around the world, starting with the scripted and cheery breakfast and ending in the moment the spacecraft was nothing but a dot on the horizon, soon to disappear completely.
Most of the footage is presented from the perspective provided by the security cameras tracking the vehicle driving to the launch site: a blurry black-and-white taping of a white box with flashing lights crawling across the distance like an insect.
The work is screened in an acoustic chamber constructed in the gallery space. Lasting twenty minutes, it is designed for single viewing. The video (its chronological order disrupted) is just the backdrop for sound, and you can close your eyes to simply listen. The journey opens with a dense and metallic sound, the embodiment of alloy, sensors, insulation materials, and regulation systems all merging to form a thrumming and layered metal-made orchestra that accompanies and promotes the unfolding play. The many parts coalescing together into a single machine, tightly wired, are clearly discernable.
The shift to surveillance cameras also marks a change in the soundtrack. The vehicle and astronauts within it progress along the road dedicated to their passage; they are flanked by squad cars from front and behind, ready to serve. The convoy passes by cars parked on the waysides and the crowds watching, and the sound decompresses suddenly. It leaves behind only an indistinct and constant mechanical hum. The vehicle continues. Now fewer and fewer people stand to watch its passage. Finally, the squad cars also stop, as the single transport vehicle continues alone: a white and flashing square gliding along gray surfaces. The hum becomes a human voice trying to carry through to us, maybe through a comm system, but the words are incomprehensible. This unexplained buzzing brings to mind an ancient language, perhaps the very first fruits of the linguistic revolution that eventually allowed Homo sapiens to rule the Earth. Perhaps it is the language spoken by Mother Earth, the universal parent preparing to separate from her three sons and send them to the rock that was once a part of her. We watch in silence, and suddenly you can hear her panting and groaning.
Arik Weiss chooses to set at the center of the Space Race ethos the portraits of those that lost their lives in its pursuit. Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Roger Chaffee, and Edward White, the Apollo 1 crew, are depicted in a photograph that deviates from the familiar format of NASA astronauts, one taken as an inside joke by the crew members. The three men stand around a miniaturized model of the command capsule, their heads down and hands clasped as if in prayer for the chamber in which they would later be burned alive due to an oxygen leak that occurred in one of the tests prior to launch. Weiss divides the original photo into three separate screenings, one of each crew member. The inside joke, maybe a way for the threesome to belay their fears before a mission, is no longer funny. Now each of the three remain alone in space, praying private prayers. The image has been dismantled to form a monument.
Not far is a satellite photograph of the Soyuz 11 crew covered in flowers; their craft landed successfully but on their re-entrance into Earth’s atmosphere a tiny air valve released air from the chamber and killed the three men inside. The light box presented by Weiss contains the embalmed corpses of Vladislav Volkov, Georgy Dobrovolsky, and Viktor Patsayev, just as their original caskets were placed side by side. The three are dressed in dark suits, laying on a vivid red fabric. Around them are red flags and flowers. The magenta platter on which outer space was given over to the nations is drenched with tears.
Another light box depicts a group of Soviet officers looking at the blackened remains of Vladimir Komarov, who crashed with the Soyuz 1. Komarov, who had previously competed with Yuri Gagarin over the title of first man in space (a contest he lost), knew the probability of success was low. The process leading to the launch was rife with snags and setbacks but Komarov, well aware of the many risks and technical deficiencies, insisted he would man the mission – not Gagarin. Several years earlier, Gagarin had already become the first man in space, but Komarov was the first to die there. It’s told that as he plummeted to his inevitable death at tremendous speed, understanding the main and backup parachutes were both unusable, he received Prime Minister Alexei Kosygin thanks on the comm system for his contribution to the USSR. In response, Komarov cursed Kosygin bitterly, as well as the people who had sent him on the mission and did not stop in his diatribe until hitting ground. Komarov asked to be buried in an open casket, perhaps his way of thumbing his nose at Soviet national pride, making them view the tragic outcome of a clash of titans.
In another work by Weiss, he uses the “Monument to the Conquerors of Space,” constructed in 1964 by the Soviets to commemorate their astronauts. Weiss transforms the huge obelisk – 107 meters in height and headed with a rocket – into an animation work in which it shoots to the heavens only to fall in fragments to the ground. Boundless passion in the form of a colossal phallic titanium structure is made ridiculous, brittle, and insipid. An extravagant display of national impotence.
The space program presented by British artist Simon Faithfull is quite small scale: a fragile, solitary attempt to resist gravity, a defiance of human limitation doomed to failure.
In the video Escape Vehicle no.8 of the Gravity Sucks series, a weather balloon is documented as it soars to an altitude of thirty kilometers over the Earth. Attached to it is a rod connected to a chair and on its far side is a video camera. This work (from 2004) shows a chair as it slowly rises over fields and roads as the distance increases. It ascends into the clouds, finally reaching its inescapable end in minus 60 degrees centigrade, hovering under black skies.
Faithfull’s ejection seat was not designed by teams of engineers. This is no heroic undertaking or engineering masterpiece. This is merely a personal desire to cut the tie to gravity, to fulfill the potential of being a 3-dimensional form bound to a 2-dimensional surface. The simple sight of a chair allows us to imagine sitting on it as it climbs rapidly upwards as the temperatures drop and the air thins.
Also by Faithfull is the 2001 piece Space Car Proposal, a double screened animated depiction of a sketch planning out the artist’s goal of placing his own Ford Escort on the geo-stationary orbit using a particularly long cable to anchor it to the gallery floor and provide enough electricity to leave the lights and radio running. The car will not be discernible from the ground, but it would serve as a beacon for anyone approaching Earth from space in search of intelligent lifeforms.
This minor gesture, both funny and absurd, was altered dramatically in the seventeen-year retrospective marking its original showing, that of the red sportscar of billionaire Elon Musk launched by a Falcon B missile manufactured by the Space X conglomerate.
Amir Yatziv presents We are attempting to survive our time so we may live into yours from 2014. The title is taken from a quote by President Jimmy Carter, memorialized on a gold record alongside other information and sounds representing the diverse human cultures. Two such albums were recorded and launched in 1977 by two Voyager space probes. Two messages in a bottle sent to the farthest reaches of the galaxy and beyond. “We human beings are still divided into nation states, but these states are rapidly becoming a single global civilization,” stated Carter in an optimistic sentiment that echoed against the chasms of inequality and environmental damage produced during the 42 years that elapsed since.
The record Yatziv exhibits is laid on a record player connected to a single speaker, around which is a glass bell. The bell is linked to a vacuum pump that creates a simulation of the conditions in space, preventing the production of sound waves and emptying the gesture of its meaning. Clearly, the record was not primarily designed for some imagined alien living beyond our solar system. It was humanity’s way of spinning a lovely tale about itself, with the letter arriving at its destination the moment it was sent. Now we can retrieve it from the shelf, yellowing but intact, and recollect in the familiar way of reminiscence on how beautiful we were, how naïve, and how brightly the stars shone in our eyes.
- In the 1960s, the majority of the space development budget was allocated to NASA. Today, these funds are allocated to the DOD (Department of Defense), which in 2017 declared that space is another arena of warfare.
The artist’s father was a professional photographer, and her grandfather’s archive of images was discovered after his death.