The art of astronomy

THE BEYOND VISIBILITY: LIGHT AND DUST EXHIBITION AT THE UNIVERSITY OF TECHNOLOGY, SYDNEY GALLERY. CREDIT: PAUL PAVLOU AND UTS GALLERY.
THE BEYOND VISIBILITY: LIGHT AND DUST EXHIBITION AT THE UNIVERSITY OF TECHNOLOGY, SYDNEY GALLERY. CREDIT: PAUL PAVLOU AND UTS GALLERY.

The fact that we are a tiny part of an awe-inspiring universe is all too apparent at night in the rural and remote parts of Australia. Skies crammed with glittering stars, planets, galaxies, comets, meteorites and cosmic dust surround us. That’s why, from the earliest times, astronomy has been a formative element in Australian culture. It calls forth—demands—a response, and has been a significant source of inspiration to artists.

The Aboriginal peoples were among the world’s first astronomers, naming constellations and tracking them across the sky. They recorded and used their observations for navigation, and they timed and followed the seasons using the positions of the stars and planets (see Dreaming of the Sky). Not surprisingly, the night sky figures large in their visual arts.

HALLEY’S COMET (DETAIL) BY KAREN COMEAGAIN, YAMAJI ART.
HALLEY’S COMET (DETAIL) BY KAREN COMEAGAIN, YAMAJI ART.

An exhibition of paintings by artists from the Yamaji Art group entitled ‘Ilgarijiri—things belonging to the sky’was put together for the 2009 International Year of Astronomy. The project is a collaboration between the artists, who are based in Geraldton, Western Australia, and astronomers from the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research led by Curtin University’s Professor of Radio Astronomy and Premier’s Fellow, Steven Tingay.

EMU ON THE SKY (DETAIL) BY BARBARA COMEAGAIN, YAMAJI ART.
EMU ON THE SKY (DETAIL) BY BARBARA COMEAGAIN, YAMAJI ART.

Geraldton is the nearest city to Australia’s proposed site for the Square Kilometre Array at the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory on Boolardy Station (see Big science tackling the big questions). Besides Perth and Geraldton, the Ilgarijiri exhibition has travelled to Canberra, and to an international meeting in Cape Town in South Africa. In October 2011, it was exhibited at the Australian Embassy in Washington, D.C.

Links between ancient and modern, the Arts and the latest technology, are not unusual in astronomy. They demonstrate an aesthetic heart to the science. In 2009 another exhibition entitled Beyond visibility: light and dust—held at the art galleries of Monash University in Melbourne and the University of Technology in Sydney—explored the same rich vein. It was designed to draw attention to the history of human efforts to make two-dimensional pictures of the three-dimensional universe.

GALACTIC ENERGY(DETAIL) BY GEMMA MERRIT, YAMAJI ART.
GALACTIC ENERGY(DETAIL) BY GEMMA MERRIT, YAMAJI ART.

Beyond visibility: light and dust included large-scale prints of the work of famed astrophotographer David Malin, whose pioneering photographs taken at the Australian Astronomical Observatory (then known as the Anglo-Australian Observatory) were the first true-colour images of deep space. The Indigenous Yirrkala artist Gulumbu Yunupingu exhibited her bark paintings and hollow log memorial poles known as larrakitj encrusted with painted patterns representing the endless depths of the night sky and her vision of the universe. Felicity Spear contributed a seven-panel mural-sized work which gently curved from the wall out on to the floor of the Gallery like a large wave or curve in space.

The International Year of Astronomy stimulated many other arts events, including two exhibitions at the National Gallery of Victoria. Light years: photographs and space was a compendium of images from the glory years of NASA celebrating the 40th anniversary of the first Moon walk, while Shared sky included prints, paintings, photographs and Indigenous works celebrating the response to the sky through the ages.

Two works created for the International Year combined images and live music. One, Harmonious Revolutions, took the life and work of Galileo as its theme. It blended modern astronomical photographs with historical images, setting them against a narrative derived from Galileo’s writings and the music of his period played by some of Australia’s finest musicians. Another work, Music and the Cosmos, was presented by the University of Sydney in its Great Hall. It interleaved discussion of the latest research findings by three astronomy professors with music from The Planets by Gustav Holst, and an original composition, Four Suns, by Cliff Kerr, a PhD student in physics who also studied at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music.

Perhaps one of the most unusual artistic responses to astronomy emerged from a residency of choreographer Frances D’Ath at the Swinburne Centre for Astrophysics and Supercomputing. Frances and her dancer collaborators used different parts of their bodies to trace, mimic, outline, inscribe or otherwise respond to or reproduce the shapes and movements they encountered in simulations of galactic movement and interactions.

D’Ath’s inspiration? “I was walking through a park in Sydney one night, and I looked up,” she says. “The sky was so clear. I just thought, ‘This is the universe we live in. It contains enough awe and amazement to more than fill a lifetime.’”

PHOTO 1: THE BEYOND VISIBILITY: LIGHT AND DUST EXHIBITION AT THE UNIVERSITY OF TECHNOLOGY, SYDNEY GALLERY. CREDIT: PAUL PAVLOU AND UTS GALLERY.
ARTWORK FROM THE ILGARIJIRI—THINGS BELONGING TO THE SKY EXHIBITION:
PHOTO 2: HALLEY’S COMET (DETAIL) BY KAREN COMEAGAIN, YAMAJI ART.
PHOTO 3: EMU ON THE SKY (DETAIL) BY BARBARA COMEAGAIN, YAMAJI ART.
PHOTO 4: GALACTIC ENERGY(DETAIL) BY GEMMA MERRIT, YAMAJI ART.

Australian Astronomical Observatory (The Australian node for IYA 2009)
Helen Sim, Tel: +61 (2) 9372 4251, hsim@aao.gov.au