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May 7, 2012 | by  | in Arts Visual Arts | [ssba]

Dark Sky

As a species we have always been obsessed with space. Its enormity and mystery have confounded human beings for thousands of years, and relatively speaking we know very little about it now. That being said, over the last two centuries, the engagement between the individual and the cosmos has begun to be recorded in visual forms, each approach as unique as the person who created it. Dark Sky is the new exhibit at the Adam Art Gallery and it devotes itself to the assessment of the way in which we have engaged with the celestial bodies over the last two centuries.

It’s not often that you get to view the matter of the universe in a gallery setting, let alone watch it being translated into a visual form right in front of your eyes. You might notice over the next few weeks that the window into the Adam Art Gallery contains a canvas that is continually changing and evolving.

The reason for this transformation is the machine which is positioned above the canvas, a complicated piece of technology which is hooked up to a large dome on the roof. The external piece of equipment looks fairly innocuous, but its function is to measure radio waves emanating from space and landing on the gallery. The mechanism then paints on the canvas according to the data that is being received from the dark chasms of the sky. This work represents an excellent allegory for the exhibit as a whole, as a marriage between the worlds of science, technology, and the world of existential art.

As I wandered around the gallery I struggled to view the exhibit as an artistic whole, which is in no way a criticism, I was just surprised. A plethora of images from the collection of the curator of the exhibit, Geoffery Batchen, adorn the upper levels of the gallery and they ask some very interesting questions about the way we approach works in galleries. If the exhibit’s purpose was to delve into the inky black of the night sky with its works then this portion of the gallery would make no sense. A collection of images from the office of a post-graduate student, which he told me had been sourced entirelyfrom ebay, would normally be completely innocuous and almost arrogant in an art gallery setting. However they do have immense historical value as they represent the narratives that existed during the 20th century between the celestial bodies in space, and the public imagination of the developed world. Images of civilians dressed in proper dapper style sitting astride a sliver moon made out of paper, diligently smiling at the camera, conjure up the story of our relationship with the idea of the moon. These images are an excellent exhibit, but feel slightly out of place in the eerie upper levels of The Adam.

The dichotomy between material and setting continues as you descend through the gallery, an unsettling combination of intensely aesthetic works and objects of profoundly historic value dominate the journey through Dark Sky. The stairwell epitomises this gap with two opposing walls featuring very different takes on the subject matter at hand. An unframed, gloriously melancholic Colin McCahon painting sits opposite a manicured and very carefully conserved display of photographic evidence from expeditions around the southern hemisphere to observe the 1874 transit of Venus. The premise for this exhibit is the upcoming transit of Venus in June, the last time it will occur in any of our short times on this mortal coil. So with that organising factor in mind these display cases containing a photographic history of this event make sense, kind of.

To be honest I’m still not convinced. There is some lovely work in this exhibit, artists playing with the sky and the way that
long photographic exposures can create new views of the sky being the highlight. But it all seems profoundly confused. The historical and anecdotal works have been sledge hammered in with the artistic ones and it just doesn’t work. This exhibit is definitely worth seeing as it contains some really interesting works and some amazing technology, but it doesn’t live up to the requirements that it seems to have set for itself. By trying to bring together several different narratives regarding the night sky and what it contains, Batchen has created a hodgepodge which is charming but also deeply confusing and for me personally, quite frustrating.


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  1. Rob Kelly says:

    Hi, the sentence where i refer to a series of images from the office of a postgraduate student is a bit misleading. Batchen himself is a professor of art history and a leading Photographic theorist. However, this doesn’t change my perceptions of his approach. Apologies for any confusion.

    Rob Kelly
    Visual Arts Editor

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