Visions of the Universe at the National Maritime Museum

by rebeccaswirsky



The National Maritime Museum walls have been painted black and atmospheric music is being piped through hidden speakers. As an extra sensory layer, the hushed crackle of gallery attendants’ walkie-talkies sound eerily similar to those of an astronaut’s. But don’t be fooled. There’s nothing gimicky about the epicly-titled Visions of the Universe.

Andromeda Galaxy © Aggelos Kechagias, 2010.
Andromeda Galaxy © Aggelos Kechagias, 2010. Takahashi FSQ 106 f/3.6 telescope with a QHY 9 mount.

Merging scientific knowledge with artistic concerns, the exhibition curates images from the Russian Space Programme, the European Southern Observatory and NASA. Alongside sit entries from the Royal Observatory’s Astronomy Photographer of the Year competition, which acknowledges a planet-wide fascination with space extending to Russia, India and America, with contributions from photographers as young as 15.

Combining the ethereal with the startlingly concrete, the exhibition’s layout nods to the blurred lines between the disciplines of science and art. Large-scale photographs by Turner Prize-winner Wolfgang Tillmans sit comfortably among NASA spacecraft-taken images. Tillmans’ smokily atmospheric series ‘Venus Transit’ (2004), in which the planet is a black disc crossing in front of the sun, comments on space as a spectacle of visual wonder alongside its limitless scientific possibilities. Tillmans comments, “All photographs are made, never just taken. They are colour on paper and at the same time evoke a sense of reality no other medium can achieve.”

Sky away from the Lights © Tunç Tezel, 2010.
Sky away from the Lights © Tunç Tezel, 2010. Hutech modified Canon 5D camera with a 35-mm f/2 lens at f/2.8; ISO 3200; 30-second exposure.

Colour also has a strong presence in more conventional scientific space documentation, with astronomy and art combining from necessity. In a short BBC film accompanying the exhibition, Marek Kukula, public astronomer of the Royal Observatory and co-curator of the exhibition, describes astronomers choosing colours to represent “invisible wavelengths outside the range of the visible spectrum.” Wryly referring to astronomy’s often lurid images, he adds, “Never let an astronomer decorate your house, is the message.” Conversely, as NASA technology becomes more sophisticated, the astronomical phrase ‘true-colour images’ has been created, referring to actual tonal representations of space.

The exhibition debunks long-favoured myths. The brightness of Venus, prized by the Romans, originates from thick layers of reflective cloud rather than its surface. Radio waves penetrating the cloud layer have managed to show Venus’s true self to be a tattered, volcanic, mustard-yellow landscape scarred by forces from within the planet’s interior – hardly a vision of romantic beauty. Equally as startling is the scientists’ near-certainty that Neptune’s rainfall of tiny diamonds is caused by an excess of methane. Unsolved mysteries are also highlighted, such as the difference between the two sides of the moon. In 1959, the Soviet Lunar 3 spacecraft took grainy pictures of deep craters, dips and highlands on the side facing away from Earth. Geologists have yet to understand their presence. Something to consider, perhaps, when next night-time constellation-spotting.

Star Trails, Blue Mountains © Ted Dobosz, 2009.
Star Trails, Blue Mountains © Ted Dobosz, 2009. Canon 40D DSLR camera with Tamron 17-mm lens at f/3.5.

The qualities associated with deep space resonate with those of deep water. Both realms seem to offer an uncanny, eery weightlessness and, of course, a sense of being far from home. Perhaps this would explain why, when I re-entered the sunlit terra firma brightness of Greenwich after the exhibition, the dislocation felt like emerging from the depths.

Visions of the Universe aims, in the words of its marketing material, to ‘captivate anyone who has ever stared up at the night sky in amazement, and anyone who simply loves beautiful photography.’ Complicated and serious enough to enthrall, this is a thoughtful, wide-ranging exhibition that deliberately avoids talking down to its visitors. A must.

This review was first published in August 2013 on the online Royal Academy of Arts Magazine.