In the beginning, long before Netflix and Google Maps, our ancestors had only the sky, the sun, the moon and the stars to guide, dazzle and humble them. Naturally, as religions began to form, the first place to look was up, because surely that’s where the deities dwell, right? And that yearning to better understand the firmament begat a study of the celestial patterns and instruments to bring them closer into view.
In the same way that holy men attempt to explain the import of worlds and beings we cannot see, “The Universe and Art,” an exhibition appropriately staged in a museum perched 53 floors above Tokyo, is ambitious to say the least. It endeavors to somehow convey the evolution of humankind’s understanding of the universe, and that’s a lot of air to cover.
Despite the wealth of knowledge that scientists have accrued over the centuries and the continuing emergence of new discoveries that challenge what we thought we knew, there is still plenty of uncharted dark matter out there to fire the imaginations of astrophysicists, artists and even mere mortals.
Take 2016, when time-honored zodiac charts were upended and billionaire Elon Musk announced his intention to colonize Mars. And just this month a green “fireball” wowed folks in Niigata, and NASA unveiled the world’s largest space telescope, promising even greater post-Hubble insight to whatever is out there. We’ve come so far, but it’s still the blink of an eye in light years.
The expansive “The Universe and Art” show, which is sequestered into four sections, begins with artifacts of early astronomy and ends with a longing gaze at the horizons of future space exploration. Be forewarned, though: This will not be a linear trip through time and space. Works have been chosen to fit the various themes but mental leaps must be taken. Alongside a rare sword forged in 1898 from a meteorite are hung contemporary works by Laurent Grasso, who depicts imaged historical encounters with extraterrestrials. Likewise, in the vicinity of an Edo Period (1603-1868) print reporting of a hollow bowl-shaped ship bearing strange letters, is Grasso again, creating fake artifacts connected to the flying saucer. Fortunately, it’s not all conceptualist in-jokes.
The first section of “The Universe and Art” includes Buddhist visualization of “heaven” in the intricate Tibetan, Nepalese and Japanese mandalas of the celestial kingdoms, along with the first baby steps of modern astronomy. Displayed next to famous works, such as reproduction of Galileo’s telescope and a page from Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Codex Manticus,” are lesser-known artifacts of Japanese star-gazing that include a brass telescope made by Kunitomo Ikkansai (1778-1840).
True to the Japanese tradition of improving upon imports, the budding astronomer used his family’s gunsmithing skills to build upon the ideas he saw in Dutch telescopes. He then used his reportedly superior telescope to make detailed observations of the moon. In his notes, he spoke of “communing with the divine will.”
Time-traveling a few centuries later, and several turns further in the exhibition space, viewers can immerse themselves in “Brilliant Noise” (2006), a cinematic installation depicting a violent symphony of solar storms. Projected on four walls in a dark room, the satellite imagery is a long way from Ikkansai’s ink drawings, but the common thread is our fascination with the unknown.
The flip-side is our risky endeavors to conquer the final frontier, as seen in Jules de Balincourt’s depiction of space as a place of interstellar junk and international competition for future investments. Likewise, counterbalancing more whimsical images — such as 1950s comic book imaginings of Martians and Venusians, or Patricia Piccinini’s curious space larvae — is Tom Sachs’ 2003 work “The Crawler,” a large model of the Space Shuttle Challenger, which exploded 73 seconds after liftoff in 1986. It serves as a solemn reminder of Icarus’ folly, not to mention Major Tom’s tin can.
The show’s finale is a multimedia installation by teamLab, a cosmic light show that succeeds in both discombobulating and exhilarating. It tidily echoes the sacred tones of the show’s opening Buddhist imagery, but it still feels like the lesser cousin of the collective’s large-scale “DMM.Planets” presentations staged in Odaiba this summer. Those were a bit more out of this world.
Following a similar trajectory to the memorable “Medicine and Art” exhibition held at the Mori roughly seven years ago, this hybrid does an admirable job of traversing the boundaries between history and visual arts. The seemingly haphazard collection of art and artifacts can become stepping stones for a journey of the mind; how far you want to travel is up to you.
“The Universe and Art: Princess Kaguya, Leonardo Da Vinci, teamLab” at Mori Art Museum runs until Jan. 9, 2017 (10 a.m. -10 p.m., Tues. till 5 p.m.). Admission is ¥1,600 (¥1,100 for university students, ¥600 for junior high school students and younger). For more information, visit www.mori.art.museum.