Local artist Dave Pressler is poised to become the first professional artist launched into the outer limits. In fact, this first-contact assertion is generating some controversy in certain circles, but the basic facts are for sure: he's got his Virgin Galactic ticket and he's already started training for the mission.
Many artists have been captivated by the expanse of the galaxy and beyond, and Pressler has been no exception. Best known for his multidimensional universes of robots and the aliens that love them, as seen through his work in sculpture, animation, painting, printmaking and general fondness for automatons, it is easy to see that Pressler has always wanted to be an astronaut. He supports the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation, his studio has a library section devoted to signed and rare astronaut books, and there is a kind of altar of ephemera centered around a photograph of Pressler with 10 living astronauts at a recent foundation convention.
He will be flying on Virgin Galactic's Knight 2 / Spaceship 2 (a swanky scale model of which has pride of place in his studio); the design won the X Prize and last year had a successful cold-fuel launch. "[My wife] Lisa bought me a ticket for my birthday last year. I'm the 722nd passenger in line. At six passengers per flight, starting with one flight a month then upping to once a week," he says. He figures he's flying around the end of 2015. But the preparations are already well underway. He has been blogging about it and it turns out the preparation regimen is actually pretty intense. "It's basically seven months of training, and seven minutes in space."
Last September, he visited the assembly plant in the Mojave Desert. He later traveled to the NASTAR training center in Pennsylvania, where he enjoyed a ride in something called a centrifuge gondola that is bolted 30 feet into solid bedrock. They call the passengers "future astronauts," and are actually using these space tourists as subjects in a government study to develop health guidelines for space flight. Sure, that means they don't have these guidelines at the present, but Pressler is sanguine. He feels sure that "in the future everyone will be able to buy a ticket and go to space if they want to."
In fact a recent exhibition in Riverside took on this very topic when "Free Enterprise: The Art of Citizen Space Exploration" hosted the first contemporary art exhibition in the U.S. to present an international array of artists and organizations who are exploring the potential democratization of space exploration and the intersection between artistic production and civilian space travel. The possibility of fulfilling the human dream to fly into space has been encouraged by a major political and cultural shift away from state-sponsored space activities -- which are controlled by agencies such as NASA in the U.S., JAXA in Japan and RKA in Russia -- towards a private enterprise model." So who else is signed up at Virgin now? "Leonardo DiCaprio, Ashton Kutcher, a marine aviator who never got to be a test pilot, a scientist from Argentina -- because it's easier to give scientists space training than give astronauts science training," says Pressler.
There won't be too much time to draw (seven minutes) and no pictures are allowed (but the ship is fully wired with cameras), but Pressler expects the experience to transform how he looks at the world -- and therefore his art. "I mean, how could it not? Most images of space are functions of the imagination, borrowed or mediated images; it has to make a difference to have the actual direct experience." That's what Pressler feels like happened to Apollo Astronaut Alan Bean, who claims the chiron "The only artist to have walked on the moon," but who Pressler points out only became a painter after he got back to Earth. It's a topic of heated debate. And another challenge to Pressler's first-artist title is that there's a Russian artist who is doing the full-on training program (as opposed to the seven-month Virgin training). But that could take 2-3 years, so it really boils down to a question of timing.
Pressler will be in good company: part of the enduring romance between art and rocket science that really began in earnest in the Light & Space days continues to this day. SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) has a suitably robust artists in residence program, as does JPL from time to time. Of course, not every space-obsessed artist is interested in the technology; some are interested in how an awareness of space changes our collective and individual relationship to the cosmos, shifts the scale of our existence, and infiltrates popular culture. An incomplete yet eclectic set of examples might include the painter Vija Celmins, whose obsessive and immaculate renderings of finely detailed starry skies have more to do with the fractal patterns of the natural world than with scientific dominion; her precision is surely aided and inspired by the pictures she took coming back from space. Lia Halloran has a more esoteric aesthetic and a much more fluid, organic process, but as she says in her statement, her abstract imagery "makes use of scientific concepts as a starting point and explores how perception, time and scale inform the human desire to understand the world and our emotional and psychological place within it."
One of the cheekiest, most ambitious, and interactive projects in this realm has been Tom Sachs' Space Program. A 2007 exhibition at Gagosian Gallery in Beverly Hills saw the artist and his team constructing a life-size Lunar module inside the gallery, complete with lab coats and space suits made in collaboration with both NASA and Prada. As is Sachs' way, the module itself, though enormous and sturdy, was largely built from industrial cast-offs like cardboard and duct tape. A 2012 iteration produced at the Park Avenue Armory in conjunction with Creative Time took the operation to Mars. In a way, the space program was just a perfect occasion for Sachs to continue and evolve his well-established penchant for combining high-fashion conceits with low-value materials into images, objects, books, and performances that both satirize and celebrate our culture's expensive appetite for consumption and spectacle (of which the fetishized art object is a feature). But in truth, Sachs, like Pressler, is also genuinely enraptured by the sheer excitement that surrounds spaceships. One of the most important functions of art is its power to show us our familiar world from new perspectives -- so maybe artists are exactly who we should be sending up to have a look around.
Top Image: Alan Bean, "A New Frontier."
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