PHOTOMONITOR, Exhibition Review, 'Encountering the Astronomical Sublime'

Encountering the Astronomical Sublime: Vintage NASA Photographs 1961 – 1980

Reviewed by Alastair Levy


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The relationship between landscape and the sublime is the overarching theme which acts as a container for two photographic exhibitions curently showing at Breese Little. In the main gallery space a mid-career survey of the work of Jan Kempenaers presents prints from the artist’s Spomenik series alongside recent work from various strands of an increasingly diverse practice. Whilst it is the earlier documentation of war memorials in ex-Yugoslavia that he is best known for, the newer work here conveys a sensibility that is more delicate and open-ended. Whereas the images of monuments take the form of a list or inventory of sorts, many of the other prints on show are more allusive and free-form.

It is not only in subject matter but also in scale that much of the newer work marks a change in direction. A serene depiction of Neist Point in Scotland is the smallest print on display but has great impact in its quiet and stillness. It is only after some time that it becomes apparent that the sloping headland is dotted with walkers on a path. This link between humans and the landscape runs through much of the artist’s work and is addressed again in the neighbouring image, Lost Spomenik (Kamenska). This monochrome offset print merges a found image of a memorial with a recent photograph taken by Kempenaers depicting the same site emptied of the pre-existing structure. This playful approach to subject, form and technique results in arguably the most affecting image of the show.

The other-worldly landforms of Iceland have attracted a large number of artists over the past decade and it is Kempenaers’ print Rock #3 which presents the most direct visual link with the collection of vintage NASA photographs in the upstairs space. Among the first group of images here is a sequence of nine views of the earth arranged, not in chronological order, but by distance – from far to near. The last of these is a ghostly black and white still from a live telecast made in 1968. Despite being the closest view of our planet in the series, ironically it is the most ambiguous. 

This exhibition borrows its title from Elizabeth Kessler’s publication Picturing The Cosmos: Hubble Space Telescope Images and The Astronomical Sublime. In this book the author argues that there is a strong link between NASA’s image production and that of 19th century painters and photographers in the American West. Both realms represent the unknown, the potentially limitless, and it is easy to see how artists are drawn to this subject matter. Should we then view NASA as not just an agent of science but also of art?

These images may be viewed as propaganda, justifying the expenditure of taxpayers dollars on a seemingly unessential project of exploration. They might also be viewed as artefacts of our current civilisation at some point much further on in time; valued in a similar way to that in which ancient relics are today. Regardless of NASA’s motivations in their production they are fascinating images and provide us with a lasting document of the innate human desire to push beyond the boundaries of what is known.

Henry Little