Contemporary art is not lost in space

by John L. Tran

Special To The Japan Times

In 1973, the year after the last manned mission to the moon, Skylab became the earth’s first inhabited space station. By this time, the excitement and optimism that followed Neil Armstrong’s “giant leap for mankind” had transformed into general indifference and grumbling about whether the space program was a cost-effective use of tax dollars.

Had NASA dropped the space program’s squeaky-clean image however, Skylab might have attracted a lot more public interest. After the first two crews had to deal with major repairs and technical issues, the third crew was overloaded with experiments from mission control and started rebelling. Trash talk was spoken, hipster beards were grown and orders generally ignored, culminating in the first astronaut industrial action when the crew refused to work until they could renegotiate their schedules.

One of their biggest gripes was that there was no time to just do nothing and contemplate the enormity of their situation. They wanted time to look out the window and take pictures that weren’t for scientific research. This was indeed such an issue that time is now allocated for crews on the International Space Station for exactly that. Bean counters and space skeptics will be shocked to learn from the “Mission [Space × Art] — Beyond Cosmologies” exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo (MOT) that not only are astronauts spending time staring into space, but they are also involved in art projects.

While space art is a relatively small field — in which works that have actually been created in space is an even smaller subset — it can only become more commonplace as costs fall and the private sector promises to open up space travel to non-specialists, albeit very wealthy ones. As such, “Space x Art” is a portent of things to come, especially as it eschews the figurative depiction of astronomical bodies that forms the core of space art as defined in the U.S. Instead, the exhibition looks to art that uses the conditions and phenomena of outer space as part of the creative process.

The Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency, JAXA, has been especially active in promoting this, and a number of space-specific works are on display, such as Yoichiro Kawaguchi’s project of preparing matcha (green tea) in microgravity and Takuro Osaka’s colorful light-trail project “Auroral Oval Spiral Top,” which were both designed to be performed on the International Space Station.

An even more ambitious achievement of art in space is ArtSat, a 10 cm² micro-satellite devised by a team from Tama Art University and launched into low Earth orbit earlier this year as part of a JAXA rocket payload. The display at the MOT exhibition includes a small screen that shows a real-time scrolling view of the earth’s surface, which updates every few seconds with ArtSat’s location, indicated by two bright white intersecting lines and a readout of the coordinates. These lines are reproduced on a larger scale by red laser beam gliding across the walls, reminding us that we, too, are constantly moving through space. A sparse but intricate soundscape by media artist Kenji Yasaka is created from sensor data that tracks the temperature of the satellite.

The idea of converting data into a sensory experience is a recurring feature of “Mission [Space × Art]“; black-and-white images and sculptures by Kohei Nawa are formed by the action of gravity on paint and an earth-bound work by Takuro Osaka is a grid of lights that are tripped by the passage of muons (elementary particles, similar to electrons). One of the centerpieces of the exhibition, TeamLab’s “Universe of Water Particles under Satellite’s Gravity,” is a huge work of 3-D projection mapping in which the trails of thousands of individual water drops are simulated by computer and cascade over the image of a man-made satellite.

As well as works and images that are intentionally experiments with no practical use (let’s call them “art”), the exhibition also features a number of non-art objects and displays, such as Apollo-era photographs, the mirrored geodetic satellite “Ajisai,” a planetary rover, rocket fairings and the “Megastar planetarium,” a labor of love by creator Takayuki Ohira, that can display millions of stars.

“Mission [Space × Art]” explicitly sets out to transcend boundaries, both physical and conceptual. Hoping to appeal to baby boomers who may have nostalgia for visions of the future, and millennials who have grown up spending more time in virtual reality than playing in the street or countryside, at its best the exhibition comes across as sophisticated, imaginative and cool.

However, there is also something awkward about the appeal to authority that the appropriation of scientific principles for the production of art implies, and the underlying ideal that the non-sentience of the cosmos can somehow correspond to spiritual transcendence. In this respect the least elegant exhibit, advertising campaigns for Cup Noodle and Pocari Sweat aboard the International Space Station, may be more truthful visions of our future off-planet.

“Mission [Space × Art] — Beyond Cosmologies” at the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo runs till Aug. 31; open 10 a.m.- 6 p.m. Closed Mon. ¥1,300. For more information, visit www.mot-art-museum.jp/eng/index.html.