For centuries, outer space has symbolised an enigma that has fascinated us as humans. Astronomy has occupied, and continues to occupy, a significant role in scientific advances, popular culture, and most recently: a speculative settlement option given climate change and the current state of planet Earth. This preoccupation with the cosmos denotes a collective concern with the universe: the space we occupy (and don’t), the ways it governs us on Earth, and beyond… How has this been translated into visual arts? What has led us to where we are today? By tracing the origins of outer space in art, one can better conceptualise the sculptural works of Paul Kneale, who through his sculptural practice, deals with astronomical concepts and investigates the relationship between abstract, sometimes cosmic theories – which exist as ideas – and the scale of the human body that contemplates them.
Progressing knowledge of space has influenced art for hundreds of years. Notable examples include the Copernican revolution permeating art during the Renaissance. Giotto painted a blazing comet inspired by his observance of Halley’s comet of 1301 in The Adoration of the Magi, 1303 in the Scrovegni family chapel. Approximately one hundred years later in the Netherlands, the Limbourg brothers produced the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, which gives prominence to realistic illustrations of the sky, and includes both meteor illustrations and zodiac references that accounted for different health related predicaments that were distinctive to the particular constellations of people’s birthday.
Fast-forward to the 19th and 20th century, when an increased interest in uniting physics and astronomy prevailed. The strides that were made in terms of quantum physics during this time have laid the foundation of our modern knowledge of the physical universe (from Edwin Hubble’s discovery that the universe is expanding, to the first man on the moon in 1969). There are countless examples of how these discoveries have infiltrated modern art. Astronomical events illustrated in Van Gogh’s Starry Night, 1889 which were likely inspired by astronomer Camille Flammarion’s published drawings of spiral nebulae. Alexander Calder’s A Universe and Wassily Kandinsky’s Several Circles, 1926 both interpret the cosmos in an abstract fashion. Finally, Andy Warhol’s Moonwalk, 1987 depicts the first man on the moon in his signature pop art style. While these artists celebrate and explore astronomy’s findings with wonder and modern interpretation, there is still much to be said about the anxieties that the ‘unknown’ represents.
With space-related advances have come collective fears on the topic (i.e. fantasy/science fiction films, angst with regard to aliens and extraterrestrial bodies, etc.) Part of this stemmed from the Space Race between the USSR and the United States during the 1950s-1970s. When the first Sputnik was launched, Americans embroiled in the Cold War were overcome with fear as the notion of being struck by missiles in North America was becoming increasingly possible. It is reasonable to assume that the Space Race made humanity evolve from hopeful to fearful. An important example of how this is portrayed in art is DC’s Watchmen comics which were first published in 1986, towards the end of the Cold War. Alan Moore based the comic series’ storylines on society’s collective worries, and writes about Dr. Manhattan – the only hero capable of saving Earth – leaving our planet because he is tired of humanity, and opts for Mars instead.
In the 21st century, major advances in astronomy photography, technology and beyond have come about. Although it is becoming increasingly possible to find answers to and to solve outer space’s perplexities, there are still big question marks, and this territory is unclear in terms of generating both hope and apprehension. In popular culture, space is referred to as ‘the next frontier’ to fight climate change. Paul Kneale‘s sculptural series makes allusion to current knowledge of black holes/ event horizons and satellites, and raises questions as to our current relationship with outer space.
In his sculpture series titled ‘Event Horizon’, Paul Kneale makes direct reference to the astronomical event of event horizons, which is a theoretical boundary around a black hole where no light or other radiation can escape. The metallic mobiles in this series are installed in ‘floating’ stance and resemble discarded satellite or rocket parts.
Their semblance to ‘space junk’ causes the viewer to reflect on how such objects wander the universe, which is not even inhabited, and yet is already cluttered with both physical waste and digital data clutter. The daily objects used to create these pieces are everyday items, but their shape has been altered. They have undergone dents and blows; the paint is stripped away and surfaces are melted or warped. By using such materials for this series and by altering them, Kneale effectively recalls a sense of simultaneous alienation and familiarity in the viewer.
The sculptures’ neon halos, made of tempered glass tubes filled with free-flowing noble gases create a prominent glow, and enhance the pieces with a futuristic element, which in turn evokes wonderment. For instance, Space Junk (Satellite), 2018 is reminiscent of both the typically urban satellite dish and of the cosmic debris floating over Earth – but is unique thanks to its hollow concave shape, and upside-down position. By making references to what comprises the interstellar landscape (i.e. neon and argon in the tempered glass tubes and the satellite skeleton shape), the viewer is invited to question mankind’s relationship to space. This brings a new set of considerations to Paul Kneale’s work, and what our future rapport to outer space will resemble.
Similar themes are explored in Paul Kneale’s sculptures that were exhibited in COMMAND-ALTERNATIVE-ESCAPE at Thetis Gardens, in the Arsenale Novissimo, coinciding with La Biennale di Venezia 57°. The same noble gases filling glass tubes are used in ‘Event Horizon’ and the sculptures of ‘COMMAND-ALTERNATIVE-ESCAPE’, and are brilliantly illuminated by high voltage electricity. This cohesive simulacrum of the cosmic landscape renders these artworks more accessible and makes the popular fantasy of outer space more familiar to the viewer. The sculptures are comprised of objects from this world, but almost transport the onlooker to an otherworldly space. The works embody a fantasy of what space is thought to be like in popular imagination.
By repurposing objects (satellite dishes, streetlight poles) to create sculptures in ‘Event Horizon’ and COMMAND-ALTERNATIVE-ESCAPE, Paul Kneale creates an uncanny dimension that brings the viewer, regardless of the setting (whether outdoors or in a gallery space) closer to outer space. These works urge the spectator to rethink our proximity and relationship with the cosmos. Paul Kneale adds a meditative approach to this type of art, by bridging abstract and cosmic theories – which exist as ideas – and physically bringing them to human body scale. This allows us to contemplate them in a more tangible way.