It is a rare and humbling thing to look up at the night sky, see a dazzling point of light silently wandering across it, and know that you have art there.
On 19 February a two-stage Antares rocket launched from Wallops Island, Virginia, USA. This mission sent a spacecraft into low Earth orbit to rendezvous with the International Space Station (ISS). It was carrying crew supplies, experiments, vehicle hardware and an art gallery.
‘Moon Gallery: Test flight’ features the work of 64 international artists, and the entire exhibition fits into a small 8 cm x 8 cm grid. It is curated by the Stichting Moon Gallery Foundation in Amsterdam. Our contribution to the gallery is Like gold to airy thinness beat (2021) – a tiny sculpture of a golden ship that fits inside a 1 cm cube.
In 2021 we responded to an open-call from the Moon Gallery Foundation, looking for submissions for an exhibition to send to the ISS that will: “carry important values for humanity not only at this point on Earth but also for a future multi-planetary society”.
The Foundation promotes international cooperation between the creative/artistic and space/technology disciplines. Ultimately, its goal is to send 100 artifacts to the Moon as early as 2025. This would be the first permanent museum on the Moon.
The call-out resonated strongly with us. We both have a long history of creative activity in the area where art and space overlap. The exhibition brief offered a tantalising contrast: both extraordinary freedoms (from gravity and planet Earth itself) and formidable restrictions (each artwork must fit into a tiny 1 cm cube).
One of the touchstones for the piece was the idea of solar sail technology. Solar sails allow spacecraft to be propelled not by rocket engines, but by light itself. Once free of Earth, these vast (but very thin) sails can unfurl. Photons can impart momentum to an object, so solar sails can catch the gentle pressure of sunlight and carry new ships across space to other worlds. This connects our most advanced technology to one of our earliest forms of transport.
This technology suggested the title of our piece, derived from the poem A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning written by John Donne around 1612. He wrote this love poem to his wife in England before voyaging to Europe. He assures her that their connection will not breach but expand “Like gold to airy thinness beat”. Remaining connected while being separated by vast distances is one of the central ideas of the poem; we thought this would resonate strongly with the primary audience for the exhibition – astronauts on the ISS.
Making the work was initially daunting as it was handmade and we had no experience of working on this miniature scale. But the piece gradually evolved to fit its intended environment. Wood, paper, gold leaf, shell gold and resin combine to suggest the form of a medieval square-rigged ship known a ‘cog’.
An important consideration for us was creating work for a microgravity environment. Allowing the sculpture to float in a way it never could on Earth was in creative tension with ensuring the delicate piece would be held in a stable position, in order to survive a rocket launch. Eventually we agreed to allow the piece to move and accept the risk of it being damaged, as we felt that vulnerability would further enrich the context of the work.
Finally watching the gallery launch into space was one of many extraordinary events that continue to re-contextualise the work. In March, the Moon Gallery was displayed floating in the space station’s cupola. There, in the observation area with windows that provide a panoramic view of Earth, the art is recontextualised again against a background of deserts and teal oceans, an exhibition space that is an entire planet.
The ISS is regularly visible overhead and some evenings we go out to view it – a bright star moving across the night skies, a reminder of what is possible.
Gillian Fitzpatrick is a multi-media artist based in Ireland.
Justin Donnelly is an academic in TU Dublin, with a background in astrophysics and interests in the visual arts, writing and filmmaking.