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Space Art


While there are many artworks that refer to space, few artists have so far investigated space directly as a unique context for the creation and installation of work. Tate in Space is attempting to redress this as an intrinsic part of its future programme, exploring the potential for artists residencies, sci-art collaborations and new commissions in addition to developing imaginative and appropriate ways in which Tate in Space may accomodate existing works from Tate's collection.

Part of the research focuses on a practical investigation into issues of conservation in a zero gravity, confined and nonrenewable atmospheric environment. What happens to a sculpture such as Richard Serra's Trip Hammer (1988) when denied of the gravity that holds it in place? How might this environment change the nature of works such as Cornelia Parker's Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View  (1991)?

Simon Patterson, The Great Bear,  1992
The Great Bear, Simon Patterson © 1992

Another aspect of the research relates to cultural concerns, in particular the question of interpretation. Issues of context become amplified in relation to the content or appropriateness of work sited in Space. What happens to works when they are taken out of their original context? For instance, how might a work such as Simon Patterson's The Great Bear (1992, see above) function when taken out of an environment where the public transport reference may be irrelevant and probably unknown? What might the function of Art be in Outer Space? and who and where might be its audience?
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Against Gravitropism: Art and the Joys of Levitation

by Eduardo Kac

In his seminal book Vision in Motion, published posthumously in 1947, Moholy-Nagy appears levitating a chisel with compressed air. The photograph is striking: we see Moholy-Nagy's profile and before him the object suspended in the air with no apparent means of support. In previous books Moholy-Nagy articulated notions about the evolution of sculptural form, suggesting that the virtual volume--volume created optically by the accelerated motion of an object--was a new possibility for sculpture. As an artist crossing many discipline boundaries, Moholy-Nagy also considered that in the future the neutralization of gravity could be a useful tool in design.

Photo of Moholy-Nagy levitating a chisel
Moholy-Nagy levitating a chisel, as reproduced in Vision in Motion, ©1947

Although the Hungarian constructivist did not explore this notion himself, the use of magnetism to suspend forms in space became the key element in the innovative work of the Greek kinetic artist Takis. In 1959 Takis introduced the aesthetic of magnetic levitation with his elegant Télésculpture. The piece is composed of three small conical metal pieces which are attached, through thin wires, to three nails. The three conical pieces are suspended above an irregular plane and levitate in front of a magnet. This was the seed of a complex body of work through which this magician of levitation has investigated the expressive power of invisible forces. In September of 1959, the Moon was first visited by the Soviet spacecraft Lunik 2. As the first probe to impact the Moon, Lunik 2 made evident that human displacement in space was on the horizon. Fascinated by the implications of this idea, Takis realized an event in 1960 at the Iris Clert Gallery, in Paris, entitled L'Impossible, Un Homme Dans L'Espace (Impossible, A Man in Space). Donning a "Space Suit" designed by Takis, wearing a helmet, and attached to a metal rod connected to the floor, Sinclair Belles was "launched" across the gallery onto a safety net. Just as Lucio Fontana's Spatialist movement made direct references to space (in 1951 he wrote "Man's real conquest of space is his detachment from the earth") and Yves Klein's Leap into the Void (1960) was a photomontage alluding to the new condition of the body considered, rather concretely, in relation to the cosmos, the event orchestrated by Takis pointed to the unknown: the logic and the biologic that govern human existence on Earth will not readily apply to our life in space.

Leap into the Void, Yves Klein
Leap into The Void, © Yves Klein (1928-1962), Silver gelatin print 350x270mm
© ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2002

If Takis' work has a forceful and raw power that emanates from his unadorned handling of materials such as iron and steel, quite different are the levitation projects by American Thomas Shannon. Shannon has been creating since the early 1980s a series of sculptures based on materials such as bronze, gold, and marble, as well as painted wood, in which the source of magnetism is not visible. Rather than seeking to make evident the tension that results when opposite poles attract, Shannon's sculptures search for a sense of quiet equilibrium, resting on the visual harmony created by the presence of two basic components: the base and the floating element. Finding in science and natural phenomena a rich source for visual research, Shannon's vocabulary takes levitation into the realm of a reduced articulation of sculptural forms where pairing of objects structures the magnetic experience.

Tom Shannon, Past, Present, Future, 1986
Past, Present, Future, sculpture by Tom Shannon ©1986

Many developments in twentieth-century art led to a radical reduction in the use of physical matter to form sculptural volume and to support this volume in space. From Gabo's constructions (1919/20) to Fontana's perforations, from Moholy-Nagy kinetic works to Calder's mobiles, we have witnessed a movement to liberate modern sculpture from the constraints of enclosed and static form resting on the two-dimensional surface of the pedestal. Artists such as Takis and Shannon -- and the Brazilian sculptor Mario Ramiro, who in 1986 created a self-regulating electromagnetic levitator entitled G0 (standing for "zero gravity") -- have given continuation to this search to release sculpture from gravitropism. [1] In Ramiro's Gravidade Zero (Zero Gravity), an electromagnet regulated by a photo-sensor maintains a metallic form floating in space in a state of levitation. Freed from a two-dimensional base, and from any point of support in space, this object is in a truly 3D kinetic space. Shown below is a view of the electromagnet with the object surrounded by two lenses and light source. The levitating form presents volume-inversion relations: The area of the object's greater mass can be seen at the top. The lower part, the traditional base of the object, does not need to support the volume above it.

Mario Ramiro, Gravidade Zero, detail, 1986
Detail of Gravidade Zero (Zero Gravity), Mario Ramiro © 1986

The inevitable conclusion is that zero gravity is the next frontier. Artworks have been taken aboard the Space Shuttle since 1969, when The Moon Museum, a small ceramic tile with drawings by artists such as Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol, was carried on Apollo 12. In 1989 Lowry Burgess flew objects on the Shuttle as part of a conceptual artwork entitled Boundless Cubic Lunar Aperture. However, none of these works were created specifically to investigate the new possibilities of art in true weightlessness. The first works to do so are the sculpture S.P.A.C.E., created outside the Earth by American artist Joseph McShane in 1984 and The Cosmic Dancer, by Arthur Woods, an American artist living in Switzerland.

McShane's work was launched into space on October 5, 1984 aboard the U.S. Space Shuttle Challenger. McShane’s piece was produced with the vacuum of space and the conditions of zero gravity and returned to Earth in its altered state. A sphere with a valve and earth atmosphere within was opened once in orbit. The vacuum of space evacuated the sphere, the valve was closed, and the vacuum of space was then contained within. For McShane, the artwork is not the glass object per se, but the containment of outer space within, the potential wonder generated by bringing space vacuum to Earth and to close proximity to viewers. The question concerning the reception of space art necessarily involves a reflection on the experience of it in space.

The primary viewers for The Cosmic Dancer lived with the "terrors and pleasures of levitation" in conditions of zero gravity. A sharp-angled form launched to the Mir Space Station on May 22, 1993, The Cosmic Dancer stressed the cultural dimension of space since it created the experience of art integrated into a human environment beyond Earth. The video that documents the project shows the two Russian cosmonauts Alexander Polischuk and Gennadi Mannakov performing (rotating, hovering, flying) with the sculpture in the confines of Mir, where the sculpture was left. The flaming remnants of the Mir space station plunged into the South Pacific on 23 March, 2002.

Arthur Woods, Cosmic Dancer, Mir space station, 1993
The Cosmic Dancer sculpture on the mir space station.
Space art project by Arthur Woods launched on may 22, 1993
Arthur Woods © 1993

The Cosmic Dancer opens a new world of speculative inquiry into the future of art in worlds other than the Earth. While we remain confined to the blue planet, artists seeking to explore levitation beyond magnetism and electromagnetism can investigate advanced techniques presently only found in research laboratories. A high-temperature electrostatic levitator allows the control of heating and levitation independently and, unlike an electromagnetic levitator, does not require that the floating object be a conductor of electric charge. Acoustic levitators enable the suspension of liquids in a state of equilibrium through acoustic radiation force. Also, liquids can be suspended by a gas jet and stabilized by acoustic forces. Superconductor levitators enable objects to float above a magnet in fog of liquid nitrogen. With a laser levitator it is possible to trap gas bubbles in water and create a condition of stable levitation by applying optical radiation pressure of the light beam horizontally and vertically. At last, as levitation touches biology, molecular magnetism is predicated on the application of ordinary but very strong magnetic forces over a regular object. The forces are directed upwards and take advantage of the very weak magnetic response of the object present in the field, enabling the levitation of objects usually not regarded as capable of levitation (such as plastics) and living organisms (plants, insects, small animals -- and conceivably humans, if the field could be made strong enough). These techniques offer a glimpse into what might be possible when life in the international space station becomes more common, when colonization of the Moon goes from science fiction to science fact, and when the space program overcomes what, in the public opinion, is its most exciting challenge: the Mars landing. The creation of new alloys and compounds in zero gravity and the prospect of interplanetary colonization suggest that space exploration is more than a metaphor in art. It is a physical and conceptual challenge that must be met.

This text was originally published in Kostic, Aleksandra (ed.). I Levitate, What's Next...
(Maribor, Slovenia: Kibla, 2001), pp. 88-97.
An updated version of this text can be found at

1 - "Gravitropism" is a Botany term that designates growth in response to gravity. Roots have positive gravitropism because they grow in the same direction of gravitational forces (i.e. down). Stems on the other hand have negative gravitropism, as they grow against gravity (i.e. up). I use the term gravitropism in art to underscore the fact that gravity plays a fundamental role in the forms we are able to create on Earth, and that forms created in zero gravity to be experienced in the same environment might be radically different.

Eduardo Kac is an artist, writer and Associate Professor of Art and Technology at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago http://www.ekac.org

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Space Art Links

Ars Astronautica - Space Art Web Project

Arthur Woods - Cosmic Dancer on Mir

Arts Catalyst - the science-art agency

International Association of Astronomical Artists


Richard Clar - Art Techologies ®

Frank Pietronigro: Research Project Number 33
The Mars Patent

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