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There Are Many Moons: The Unveiling of the Science of Moons Through Art

Artwork by Penelope Umbrico for the MOONS exhibition
Image of artwork by Penelope Umbrico for the exhibition MOONS | Williamson Gallery at ArtCenter College of Design | Williamson Gallery at ArtCenter College of Design
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Artwork by Tim Hawkinson for the MOONS exhibition
Artwork by Tim Hawkinson for the "Moons" exhibition | Williamson Gallery at ArtCenter College of Design

"Moons" is an art and science exhibition that coincides with AstroFest 2018. As part of Pasadena’s City of Astronomy partnership, the initiative is focused on raising public consciousness about space discoveries in the exploration of Earth's star system and beyond. The group exhibition at ArtCenter College of Design’s Alyce de Roulet Williamson Gallery examines the curiosities, myths and human conceptions of moons as they play out against science while proposing an updated reality that is gradually unfolding to reveal new truths.

In the exhibition’s catalog essay, curator Stephen Nowlin explores the intersections of art and science as they relate to moons.


From the nocturnal side of planet Earth, Galileo Galilei peered skyward to darkness and christened a quartet of bright dots he’d been observing for months. It was March 2, 1610, and he would call them the Medicea Sydera (Medician Stars), four specks honoring Grand Duke Cosimo de’ Medici of Tuscany, along with Cosimo’s three bothers. It wasn’t all selfless homage; Galileo was seeking the Duke’s patronage. It was, however, a big deal in history and in the quest for a better understanding of ourselves. At first appearing as mere points of starlight among so many others, Galileo’s weeks of observation soon revealed that these particular dots were satellites orbiting the massive planet Jupiter.

The cover of the book Sidereus Nuncius (Starry Messenger) by Galileo Galilei
The cover of Sidereus Nuncius (Starry Messenger) | Williamson Gallery at ArtCenter College of Design

In the seventeenth century, four of anything caught circling a planet other than our own would have been seen as a challenge to the Ptolemaic and Roman Catholic certainties that only God’s good earth was the center around which all else revolved. Galileo’s discoveries to the contrary were published in his book Sidereus Nuncius (Starry Messenger) the same year as his discovery, but his celestial naming for the House of Medici has been largely eclipsed. Astronomer Simon Marius — who is said to have observed the Jupiter dots just before, after or simultaneously to Galileo — provided the names we ended up using today: Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto. Galileo, at the time, refused to use Marius’s designations and accused him of plagiarism. Galileo’s discovery prevailed in popularity, and today we collectively refer to the orbs Marius named as the Galilean satellites.

Celestial bodies tethered by orbital physics to our solar system’s planets, commonly known as moons, comprise a consortium of enticing worlds that are rocky, wet, icy, cratered, hot, cold, and puzzling, some of whose veneers are textured with mountains, lakes, concealed oceans, valleys, volcanoes, geysers, canyons, and plains, and have both water and heat to fuel tantalizing speculations. Such objects present a pathway to the poetics and the disruptions ignited by an age-old urge to ponder reality beyond the single planet in which we are cradled.

We’ve only just started to become familiar with the enormous diversity and broad set of complexions belonging to our neighboring planets’ satellites. Only since the advent of powerful space telescopes, fly-by probes and targeted landers have we realized how many moons there are and that our own seemingly desolate but nonetheless gorgeous gray Luna is not, as it turns out, the de facto template for what all moons are like — including Galileo’s first four.

There are now so many moons, in fact, that it’s hard to keep track of what moons belong to which planets. Mercury is easy because it doesn’t have any moons, and neither does Venus. Earth has only one; Mars has two; 79 for the giant Jupiter; 62 for Saturn; Uranus has 27; and Neptune has 14. The dwarf planet formerly known as planet Pluto has five. Some are big like planets, and two are bigger than the planet Mercury. Altogether, there are over 180, with more yet to be discovered.

To their parent planets, moons can be like offspring, or little brothers and sisters, step-siblings or wholly unrelated adoptions. In every case, the family is lured together and bonded by the loving bear hug of gravity. Precise family trees in space are an ongoing challenge, but anything out there that is terra firma (or terra not-so-firma) will have long-lost relatives obscured by cosmic dust and gas. Vast amounts of time are the slow stir of the pot, until 4.5 billion years or so later the neighborhood ends up concocted somewhat like ours is today: a burning mother star, eight major planets with a host of minor leaguers, a couple hundred moons, and lesser shards, fragments and flying snowballs. We call our own moon “Moon,” but its earliest incarnation may have been Theia, an object about the size of Mars that landed a glancing blow into primordial Earth and either reformed its smithereens as an orbiting satellite, or emerged right along with the planet itself from the same dusty donut of shattered collision debris. No one knows the exact details, only that it happened, somehow.

Artwork by Jacqueline Woods for the MOONS exhibition | Williamson Gallery at ArtCenter College of Design
Artwork by Jacqueline Woods for the "Moons" exhibition | Williamson Gallery at ArtCenter College of Design

A human compulsion to unravel the mysteries of the somehow that anything requires has fueled eons of tangential lore on just about everything not otherwise obvious. Throughout their timeless choreography together, Earthlings have explained away the Moon in ornate narratives and imaginative mythologies, a cascade of primal expressions artfully constructed and able to append meaning to that beguiling light in the sky — the night’s punctual, floating, ghostly or glorious illumination. It needed a somehow. Deities and genders, a sibling of Sol, a scapegoat for biorhythms, a stimulant for werewolves and a friend of vampires, a dire predictor, an overseer of harvests, candlelight to all that is spooky and a romantic backdrop. The moon has been everything throughout the full flowering of human history but only relatively recently, and rather humbly, by comparison, has it simply been seen as what it really is.

To paraphrase the physicist and artist Richard Feynman: Who are poets that can speak so eloquently of the Moon if it is divine, but if it is rocks and minerals, must be silent?

Sturdy among the pillars supporting recent art’s 150-year string of paradigmatic makeovers is the inclination to objectify what is aesthetic and transcendent. Despite its winding pictorial course through history, its enduring tributaries of style and pools of fantasy and allegory, modern and contemporary art’s prevailing undercurrent has been to convert the enthrallments and intrigues of imagined worlds into equal sensations of the real world. In the visual arts, this is accomplished by making objects rather than pictures, and pictures that behave as objects, shifting the experiential paradigm from the imaginary to the real. Our Moon’s veneer of ancient narratives, bedtime stories and superstitions are revered still, reinforced again and again, but it now shines naked and exposed, objectified by science. We know its dusty candor and its unadorned exhortation for poets to recalibrate, to discover nuances of the natural and a romance of the real.

Among the art and moons of "Moons," some are simple portraits of faraway places we don’t yet know very well, the faces of wonder worlds and orbiting mysteries. All acclaim the atonal orchestrations of human curiosity. Nine alien moons and the one circling Earth are the photographic outcomes of Kevin M. Gill, a software engineer for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, who wrangles data from spacecraft and synthesizes them into stunning accounts of what’s really out there, what silently beckons.

In an equally candid view, London artist Melanie King follows misty perceptions that gesture from the spectacle of a full moon in transit, a meditation on the sublime silent eye keeping watch on a human ethos unfolding below, so emotionally linked yet physically aloof. Karley Sullivan has rendered representations of 143 barely known moons that are confirmed orbiters of Earth’s solar neighbors, perhaps challenging the historical hubris of our one-moon planet as a divine center of the universe. Her graphic inquiry both documents the checklist of discovered moons and probes for their secrets.

Human conventions, born of repetition and rhythm, and cycles and expectations, have yielded the notion that moons are of the night. But the Moon and everything else outside our circumference belongs to all skies, the ones sunlit as well as shaded. Reality beyond Earth disregards our circadian expectations.

Artwork by Sarah Perry for the MOONS exhibition | Williamson Gallery at ArtCenter College of Design
Artwork by Sarah Perry for the "Moons" exhibition | Williamson Gallery at ArtCenter College of Design

Artist Steve Roden thwarts expectations with a series of moon musical scores, in which craters are replaced by audio speakers and their Moon locations superimposed by staff lines of sheet music, diagrams for triggering a lunar syncopation of sound. New Yorker Penelope Umbrico addresses the ubiquity of moon imagery on the internet, using its cultural saturation as commentary on how media exhausts our perceptions, and how the extraordinary can be reduced and marginalized by repetition until it becomes conventional and stripped of signification.

Earth and moon cycles are inextricably tied to our body identity, to which all that is different may seem alien. But only to our own Earth-bound perspectives, are we the rule and everything else the exception. In truth, we are also aliens in the us-versus-Universe duality. The curiosity of Galileo, the reality of 200 moons instead of one-per-planet, and the cultural incisions of art together with science are all of the sorts that challenge our ingrained domestic worldviews.

Outside such convention, Southern California artist James Griffith infuses his works with a past that records life-and-death cycles, by using natural unearthed tar as his medium. His Moon renderings reference the primordial interactions that brought life to a planet, along with the role played by its satellite in nurturing those evolutionary processes. In similar fashion, Jacqueline Woods uses light-sensitive paper and photo chemicals to brew moon portraits into existence, modeling a kind of photosynthesis where moons and the imagination engage science with the poetic.

Artist Sarah Perry looks askance at the alienation of the Other, combining moon worlds with Earth creatures and props, ignoring the strained etiquette of difference, and forging new alloys of embrace out of stark celestial contrasts. Tim Hawkinson creates a moonscape made of lips and mouths accompanied by a floating thumb-astronaut, their ultimate insertion one into the other belying a childlike yearning for the comfort of our reliable orbiting security blanket. And in the tradition of cloud watching, the art duo Alternative Moons (Nadine Schlieper and Robert Pufleb) find enchanting imposters in the hot-griddled reactions of flour batter to extreme heat, showing a series of pancake photos that tease our clichéd impression of a prototypical moon. It’s a witty caution against life’s illusions, and at the same time, a testament to the seduction of otherworldly mysteries in space.

Only one moon seems quaint by comparison. In the future, the myths and endearments surrounding Earth’s satellite may be part of how our epoch’s story is told, the time when human perceptions were circumscribed by a provincial corner of space. And then how, the story will go, the skies slowly opened up to their stunning and tangled truths.

Read full details on the "Moons" exhibition on the ArtsCenter website.

Top Image: Artwork by Penelope Umbrico for the "Moons" exhibition | Williamson Gallery at ArtCenter College of Design

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