The Economist

Renewing the lost wonder of the solar system


THERE is some danger these days of failing to be astonished by images delivered from space probes. Each generation becomes slightly more inured to imagery that each prior generation would have found unthinkable—consider pictures from Curiosity, a rover gently lowered by a rocket-powered crane onto Mars’s surface in 2012, or the Rosettaspace probe that arrived in orbit around a speeding comet in 2014, or New Horizons, another fired with 150km precision at Pluto, 5 billion kilometres away.

These pictures, along with other data from such explorers, orbiters and rovers, are the raw stuff of space science. But Michael Benson, a New York-based artist, believes that, properly presented, some of them belong in the pantheon of great photography. Mr Benson’s “Otherworlds” exhibition, which opened this week at the Natural History Museum in London, reinvigorates any blunted enthusiasm for what is out there.

With 77 images, the exhibition is smaller by half than “Planetfall”, his 2013 show at the Smithsonian. But he has a much larger palette of images, many of far greater quality, from which to choose. This is not mere recycling of pictures in the public sphere. Mr Benson has gone back to the original data, stitching together never-before-seen panoramas and balancing colours not yet explored in the images. He coaxes from the millions of files and billions of numbers entirely new creations, focused on data only from instruments that collect wavelengths visible to humans. The purpose, in part, is to create what visitors would actually see, with their own eyes, were they on Saturn’s rings, circling a comet or in lunar orbit.

Although “Otherworlds” is resolutely an art exhibition, didactic elements come through Mr Benson’s collaboration with Joe Michalski, a planetary geologist at the museum who helped to pen the understated yet informative blurbs that accompany each image. The pictures are laid out as a complete tour of the solar system. Starting with Earth, the moon and a roiling sun, visitors get a gravity slingshot at Mercury and set out past the solar system’s most well-known denizens, concluding with a stunning view of the blue haze surrounding Pluto, lit from behind.

Lesser-known objects make an appearance as well. The asteroid Eros, for example, is shown in a kind of chiaroscuro mosaic, making its five-hourly tumble in multiple exposures through the blackness. But the stars, as it were, are the planets. These are often studies in the purest geometry, their deviation from flawless spheres and circles imperceptible, their alignments framed to make images of striking simplicity. Jupiter exhibits a neat void, the shadow of its moon Io, which is perched in the foreground. A close view of Saturn nearly fills one frame, bands of every shade of blue arcing across its surface as its moon Mimas passes in front. Uranus and its rings seen from above are completely abstracted: a set of perfectly lit, perfect circles.

There is music, too, to these spheres: the exhibition includes a half-hour composition by Brian Eno, whose atmospherics are a good fit both with the space imagery and with the space itself, pinging around the vaulted ceilings of the museum’s Jerwood Gallery. An expectedly sparse arrangement occasionally hints at sounds from space: those little beeps that once preceded despatches from astronauts, for example, or something like the radiofrequency “whistlers” that pervade the Earth’s atmosphere.

Otherworldly though it is by design, inevitably visitors find the familiar. A close look at the turbulent fluidity of Jupiter’s bands, made more arresting in black and white, resonates with an image from the International Space Station of a typhoon over the Bay of Bengal. Fog seen from space drifts through the Valles Marineris of Mars, while on the surface, the rover Spirit has snapped a picture of a hazy sunset. These are not reminders that other worlds are similar to Earth in some way, but that all of the solar system arises from the same principles, some grander planetary, geologic and atmospheric scheme.

Just two images act as reminders of the robotic photographers. In one, a solar collector from the Rosetta probe juts through the shot; another squarely frames tracks on Mars left by the Curiosity rover. Every notable object in the Earth’s cosmic neighbourhood has been snapped by ingenious craft such as these. Or perhaps not: shortly before Prospero’s visit to the exhibition, news emerged of a hypothesised new ninth planet (for Pluto, to widespread dismay, was demoted from that position in 2006). Perhaps a future exhibition will reveal that, too, in arresting detail. The solar system still holds its surprises, and exhibitions like “Otherworlds” can ensure people will remain surprised.

(By D.J.P., From Prospero books, arts and culture blog)

Comments are closed.