SINGAPORE: In 1999, Slovenian director Dragan Zivadinov literally took his art to greater heights. The stratosphere, to be exact.
Inside a special aircraft used to simulate zero gravity conditions for training cosmonauts and astronauts, his company shot straight up and plummeted down 15 times to perform the world’s first weightless theatre performance over Moscow.
The theatre director, who had been a cosmonaut candidate under the Russian space programme Roscosmos, recalled: “Each time, you had 25 seconds of zero gravity (coming down). During the last one, the seatbelts in the chairs for audiences and theatre critics were unbuckled, and they also floated along with the actors. Every critic had a special pocket for puking, so if they became ill, they could just puke in it so they won’t destroy the performance!”
Zivadinov isn’t content with just performing in the stratosphere. One of his long-term theatre projects aims to eventually be able to launch 14 performers – or at least an “artistic satellite” representing each one – in orbit by 2045.
A demonstration of the kind of weightless theatre performance pioneered by Dragan Zivadinov during the media preview of The Universe And Art. In the background is footage of the 1999 performance done in zero gravity. (Photo: Mayo Martin)
A short video of the high-flying antics of Zivadinov’s group is but one of the examples of artists’ interest in dealing with space that can be seen in The Universe And Art, a fascinating new exhibition at ArtScience Museum, which runs from Apr 1 to Jul 30.
That same section includes replicas of artworks that are currently found on the moon, including a thumbnail-sized piece called Moon Museum. It featured drawings by the likes of Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg, and was secretly stuck on Apollo 12’s lunar landing module in 1969.
There are also sculptures of works that have been taken on board the International Space Station and Mir space station, and museum visitors can hear sounds that were recorded for the Voyager Golden Records, which are onboard the two Voyager spacecraft currently hurtling through space.
“Seeing art that is in space and was conceived for space can serve as a reminder that wherever we have humanity, we have art – and that includes the environment of space,” said Honor Harger, the museum’s executive director.
A detail from Jules de Balincourt's Space Investors. (Photo: Mayo Martin)
But the section on Space Art is just the tip of the iceberg in the expansive show co-organised and co-curated by Tokyo’s Mori Art Museum.
Comprising 120 artworks, artefacts and manuscripts – including selections from the Asian Civilisations Museum - The Universe And Art encompasses views about the universe, from Eastern and Western cultures, both ancient and contemporary.
From ancient stupas and starmaps to sculptural robots straight out of science fiction to first edition books by the biggest names in science, the exhibition casts light on “how humanity has contemplated the universe… bringing in artists, philosophers and theologians in dialogue with scientists to look at this vast topic of the cosmos,” said Harger.
If Zivadinov’s gravity-defying exploits and the fact that there’s an Andy Warhol work on the moon still hasn’t piqued your curiosity, here are three more reasons why you should explore The Universe And Art.
A collection of first edition books from Copernicus, Newton and other big names in science, both in the East and West. (Photo: Marina Bay Sands)
1. THE BIGGEST NAMES IN SCIENCE ARE HERE
Does the name Galileo Galilei ring a bell? What about Charles Darwin, Nicolaus Copernicus, Isaac Newton and Johannes Kepler?
Extremely rare first edition copies of their most important work are in the show. Whether it’s Copernicus’ On The Revolutions Of The Heavenly Spheres from 1643 or Darwin’s On The Origin Of Species in 1859, one has to take a step back to let it all sink in – these books and the ideas in them have shaped the very foundations of our knowledge of the world and ourselves.
A first edition copy of Galileo Galilei's The Starry Messenger from 1610. (Photo: Mayo Martin)
And if books aren’t your thing, somewhere there’s a replica of the telescope used by Galileo to go moongazing (there are his drawings, too). Looking through that same telescope, he would eventually discover that Jupiter also had moons.
But the show is far from being Western-centric – it also includes manuscripts from Egypt, Yemen and Iran that reveal just how forward-thinking Islamic cosmologists were even before their European counterparts. Among the works are Persian astronomer Zakariya al-Qazwini’s The Wonders Of Creation, which came out in the 13th century.
From left: Patricia Piccinini's The Rookie and Hajime Sorayama's Sexy Robot. (Photo: Mayo Martin)
2. IT’S GOT ANCIENT ALIENS AND OTHER WEIRD STUFF, TOO
In the 1800s, there were reports in Japan of a certain “hollow ship” that came out of nowhere, with a beautiful woman emerging from it. It came out in the newspapers of that time, which is on display at the show, and the stories include an image of what suspiciously looks like your quintessential UFO.
These and other works reveal our collective fascination with the unknown. Elsewhere, you’ve got comics and other pop culture works referencing life outside earth, and works of art that, even if they don't exactly scream “alien conspiracy”, underscore mankind’s willingness to explore what’s strange and possible beyond the knowable world.
A copy of a news report about a "hollow ship" that arrived in Japan in the 1800s. (Photo: Mayo Martin)
From a video of an alien landscape (that’s actually a close-up of a piece of amber with insects in it) to sculptures of a tentacled baby-like creature and even a Sexy Robot (by the artist-designer of the Sony’s AIBO robot dog), it’s hard not to wonder “what if”?
Plus, if you’re a hardcore conspiracy theorist, there’s one photograph by American artist Trevor Paglen that might interest you. Called They Watch The Moon, it’s a shot of a secret government surveillance station in the forests of West Virginia. With telescopes normally used to look up at the sky, he trains his sights on this mysterious place. It’s actually where radio astronomers “listen” to the sky, but who knows if it’s another Area 51, right?
Bjorn Dahlem's installation Black Hole (M-Spheres). (Photo: Marina Bay Sands)
3. INDULGE IN SOME AMAZING WORKS OF ART
The biggest names in science are represented in The Universe And Art, but so, too, are some of the biggest names in the contemporary art scene, such as photographers Hiroshi Sugimoto and Wolfgang Tillmans.
Among the awe-inspiring pieces in the show is Andreas Gursky’s large-format photograph of the Super-Kamiokande observatory in Japan. It’s the world’s largest underground neutrino detector, which hunts for one of the more mysterious particles in the cosmos. But through his lenses, it looks like a magical, golden temple straight out of a sci-fi movie set.
Tom Sachs' detail sculpture of the ill-fated Challenger space shuttle. (Photo: Mayo Martin)
The show also isn’t lacking in spectacle – there’s a detailed sculpture of the ill-fated Challenger space shuttle by American artist Tom Sachs, and an imposing installation by German artist Bjorn Dahlem that’s his take on the idea of black holes.
Finally, there’s a new commissioned work by British artist Conrad Shawcross. Called Slow Arc Inside A Cube VIII, it comprises a metal steel structure lit up by lights, creating a rippling latticework of shadows that fill up an entire room. It’s supposed to reference the scientific notion of dark matter, but even if you don’t get that, entering the space is bound to be a truly meditative and hypnotic experience.
Laurent Grasso's (from left) Pretre Jomon and Ancient Aliens. (Photo: Mayo Martin)