There is something comforting in the thought of space. A weightless silent vacuum that encompasses everything we know and everything we don’t, contains light, embraces dark, creates, destroys, and hands out hope while remaining the biggest mystery.
As I have already mentioned, among the many things I reconsidered during my blogging sabbatical was my relationship with art and exhibitions. However one of the exhibitions I really enjoyed at that time was Visions of the Universe at the National Maritime Museum, and as I was recently trying to make space on my crammed iPhone, I stumbled on the pictures from my visit. I decided to take a break, make a cup of lavender chamomile, and tell you all about it.
Even though I grew wary of exhibition spaces, I felt a sense of peace when I stepped in this one. Brilliantly curated, the exhibition examined the evolution of astronomical imaging, from hand-drawn sketches of the moon to visions of the weather on distant planets and looking beyond the Milky Way into galaxies far, far away.
I felt a tingling fascination brewing inside me with every slow step, intent glance, and piece of information I read. There is something truly terrifying yet incredibly comforting in realising how massive space is, how you are surrounded by the universe, how small you are in comparison to everything that goes on around you. It is a very humbling moment. My favourite part had to be the moon, as I find it mystifying. So close, yet so distant. The far side of the moon fascinates me as well (we always see the same side of the moon due to the tidal effects that keep it locked with one face permanently towards us), as it is very different from the side that we see, romanticised in my head as the real, truer side of the bright persona we encounter.
The exhibition was divided in different sections, from individual planets to galaxies and planetary systems. Visitors could see images of the moon, sun, the planets and deep space captured by NASA, the Russian space programme and some of the greatest telescopes in the world, but the pictures that fascinated me were the amateur efforts to capture the lights on the sky.
I loved Sir John Herschel‘s ‘the Great Nebula in Orion‘, the result of five years of observing and mapping the skies of the southern hemisphere. His drawing observed a cloud of gas and dust which will eventually condense to form dense knots that will become stars or planets, making this drawing effectively a childhood portrait of a planetary system.
I also really the shaky filtered images of Venus in transit, passing in front of the Sun, showing the magnitude and scale of both planets in the most beautiful way. I was surprised to see it was Wolfgang Tillmans‘ work, abstract depictions of his teenage fascination with space.
Even though the centre piece of the exhibition was the ‘Mars Window’ – a 13×4 metre curved wall onto which the latest images beamed back by NASA’s Mars Curiosity Rover are projected, I was mesmerised by ‘the black marble‘ as captured by the Suomi NPP Satellite, showing the effects of human life on the earth, in a stunning, yet frightful depiction.
The sweetest moment of the exhibition for me was when I stumbled on the answer a little boy gave to a question in the activity room. When he was asked if he would go to Mars (explaining the amount of time it would take, and the chance of not being able to come back), he wrote down: ‘No, because I would miss my mummy and daddy‘.
Other amazing pictures included the first astronomical image ever taken; Edwin Hubble’s 1923 photograph which confirmed the existence of galaxies beyond our own; the 1969 image of the first human to walk on the moon; and the astronomical photograph which helped to prove the General Theory of Relativity.
Reading about the planets and their idiosyncrasies reminded me of Jodorowsky’s Holly Mountain, and I soon understood the anthropomorphic endeavours of the ancient Greeks. In the quest of understanding the unknown man fits in a mould, and if it does not fit, he creates a tailor-made one. For most people space is simply another part of nature. The sky is a ceiling, not a curtain that hides something behind. There is no time to think about it when there are so many earthbound problems. Even Icarus‘ wings melted way before reaching the sun.
But he flew, and felt the warmth, and being part of something bigger, and greater, and more massive than anything else.
Looking up gives you perspective, meaning, purpose.
In Greek, human is translated as Anthropos, coming from ano (upwards) and throsko (to look), noting that the difference between man and animal is that he looks up and realises the marvel that surrounds him. Look up.