Drive up the snaking stretch of the recently reopened Angeles Crest Highway, past the clumps of singed trees from the Station Fire in 2009, and you'll eventually get to the top of Mount Wilson. Atop the 5,800-feet perch sits the Mount Wilson Observatory, founded in 1904 to take advantage of the unusually pristine conditions: still air and clear views, nothing like the dirty, fascinating metropolis floating below.
Mt. Wilson has hosted some of the most perspective-shifting discoveries of the last century. In 1919, the astronomer Edwin Hubble discovered with the 100-inch Hooker telescope that our Milky Way was just one galaxy among billions. Or, as the Observatory's superintendent Dave Jurasevich put it to a tour of artists last weekend, "The Milky Way is not the center of everything, like we thought. We're way out on a spiral arm in the suburbs."
The artists, along with volunteers, were visiting the Observatory to prepare for Knowledges, an experimental art show that will take place on the grounds this Saturday and Sunday. In addition to photographs and other two-dimensional art, there will be performances and concerts from more than 30 artists (including James Benning, Charles Gaines and Mungo Thompson), many of whom created site-specific work. The show, organized and curated by artists Christina Ondrus and Elleni Sclavenitis, hopes to explore what Ondrus calls "the ineffable," punctuated by our sometimes heroic, sometimes humble means to acquire more knowledge about who and where we are.
There's inspiration -- ineffable and in plain sight -- to be tapped all over Mt. Wilson. Not only in the thrill of standing where Hubble discovered that the universe is expanding, but also in the myriad details of the 40-acre site. In the antechambers leading to the 60-inch telescope, the Observatory's first major instrument, there's a high voltage structure that can kill you if you touch it but it still sports its original 1907 Edison light bulbs. There's Hubble's locker with his name tag still tacked on the front. There's also a 1950s control panel built by CalTech that looks like you could shoot flying saucers with it.
Many of the artists who will be showing at Knowledges were inspired by Mt. Wilson but also the larger ideas of deep space and our place in the cosmos. It's not a new preoccupation for artists. Throughout history, theories about the universe have been explored through art or architecture, often intertwined with spiritual belief. In the 2nd to 1st century AD, the Great Stupa, a dome-shaped shrine to Buddha was constructed in India to represent the physical universe infused with the Buddha's nature. The egg shape is pierced in the center by an axis that connects the earth to the heavens. In the first century AD, the two largest monuments in Mexico, the Pyramid of the Sun and the Pyramid of the Moon, were erected in Teotihuacan.
Speeding up to the 20th century, the Italian futurist Giacomo Balla in 1914 painted "Mercury Passing before the Sun Seen through a Telescope," a series of geometric prisms shot with light. In 1902, Georges Melies fantasized about a lunar dream world in his silent film, "A Trip to the Moon." In the late 1960s, Robert Rauschenberg created a series of lithographs celebrating the achievements of NASA's Apollo mission to the Moon.
The examples of artists grappling with astronomy and the questions it answers and leaves behind are legion. In 2001, several Pasadena art and culture institutions attempted to wrap their arms around some of those efforts with The Universe, a program of exhibitions and concerts intended to explore humankind's understanding of its place in the universe. Works included documentation from "The Green Hypotenuse," Rockne Krebs' eight-mile-long laser installation from Mount Wilson to the California Institute of Technology, made in 1983.
Knowledges is continuing with a rich tradition. Artist Emilie Halpern has created a mirror for the show that will sit on the forest floor and catch the sun's light. The mirror will then reflect it back into space. For anyone looking from above, Halpern says it will produce a dark rectangle.
"There's so much looking up that happens at the Observatory," Halpern said. "I wanted to make something for anyone who might be looking down at us."
Her simple communication with whoever might be observing us falls in line with one of Halpern's inspirations, the Golden Voyager Record, designed by a NASA committee led by Carl Sagan to teach intelligent life forms about Earth through images and sounds, such as wind, heartbeats and bird songs. It was included aboard the Voyager spacecraft, which launched in 1977. Earlier this month, Time magazine reported that the Voyager 1 is on its way to leaving our solar system and entering interstellar space.
For composer Anna Huff, a member of the collaborative performance group Cloud Eye Control with director Chi-wang Yang and animator Miwa Matreyek, set to perform on Saturday evening, the exercise of looking afar also resonates with the practice of looking inward. Writing new songs for the performance that the group first created while graduate students at CalArts, Huff listened to spacey, repetitive music genres like Krautrock, and thought about the construction of guided meditations. One song, "Space Meditation," "is very much about imagining yourself as a series of atoms in the universe," Huff said. "It's about inner and outer space, and letting go."
Artist Katie Grinnan usually works with photo-based installations, but for Astrology Orchestra at Knowledges she's crafted instruments that correlate with her astrological birth chart. In other words, there's an instrument that represents the Sun, Mercury, Venus and so on, all the way to Pluto (which is made with fragile glass instead of wood to call attention to its demotion from planet to star). Born on August 29, 1970, Grinnan has the instruments tuned so that the note of the string at the diameter of each sculpture correlates to the frequency of the planetary spin. A metronome counts out nine beats for the planetary players, who will rely on improv as much as the zodiac. Anchored by what Grinnan describes as atonal and haunted notes, the performance will happen Saturday night from 6-7 pm and Sunday from 1-2 pm.
"I like these things, like astrology, that are speculative," Grinnan said. "It has to do with perception, the way you think you know something, but really all you have is your translation of that thing. It can only be translated through you, your experiences and observations."
Observation is at the fulcrum of Knowledges, a year in the making. Ondrus points out the similarities between the artistic and scientific processes. "Both are about observation and vision," she said, "and both seem compelled by this innately human curiosity." In her own work, the ineffable keeps taking her attention but she can't entirely explain the fascination. "That's why I keep making work about it. I don't really know any of the answers but I keep wanting to explore."