As James Webb’s deep field images reminded me that the divide between science and art is artificial

The first assignment I give photography students is to create a starry landscape. To do this, I ask them to sweep the floor beneath them, collect the dust and dirt in a paper bag, and then scatter it onto a sheet of 8″ x 10″ photo paper. Then, using the photographic enlarger, expose the debris-covered paper to light.

After removing dust and dirt, the paper is immersed in a bath of chemical developer.

In less than two minutes, a picture of a universe full of galaxies slowly emerges.

I love it when the darkroom fills with the sound of their astonishment as they realize the dust beneath their feet has turned into a scene of scientific wonder.

I was reminded of this analog exercise when NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope shared the first deep field images. The public expression of wonder is not unlike that of my students in the darkroom.

But unlike our makeshift starscapes, the deep-field images capture an actual galaxy cluster, “the deepest, sharpest infrared view of the Universe yet.”

This imaging precision will help scientists solve the mysteries of our solar system and our place in it.

But they will also inspire further experiments by artists dealing with the theme of space, the universe and our fragile place in it.

create space art

Images of the cosmos offer considerable viewing pleasure. I listen to scientists passionately describing the information stored in their saturated colors and amorphous forms, what the luminosity and shadows are, and what lurks in the deep blacks that are mottled and mottled.

The mysteries of the universe are the stuff of science and imagination.

Artists throughout history have imagined and created proxy universes: constructs that are lyrical and speculative, alternative worlds that are representative of what we envision, hope and fear is “out there”.

The James Webb Space Telescope image of Stephan’s quintet. NASA/STScI, CC BY-SA

There are the photorealistic drawings and paintings by Vija Celmins. The night sky, carefully drawn or hand-painted with exceptional detail and precision.

There are David Stephenson’s time-lapse photographs that read like lyrical celestial drawings, reminding us that we are on a moving planet. Yosuke Takeda’s ambiguous starbursts of color and light. Thomas Ruff’s sensual celebrity photos, created by closely cropping the details of existing science images he purchased after failing to capture the cosmos with his own camera.

There’s also the incredible work of Blue Mountain-based duo Haines & Hinterding, where speckles become stars, black pigment is the night sky, and bleeding colored ink is a gas formation. They make rocks hum and use the sun’s rays so we can hear and smell their energy.

These works of art underscore the creative drive to use science for the purposes of art. The separation between science and art is artificial.

Pictures of our fantasies

The Webb telescope demonstrates science’s ability to give us images that are aesthetically imaginative, expressive, and technically accomplished, but—oddly enough—emotionally unemotional in me.

Science tells me these shapes are galaxies and stars billions of years away, but it doesn’t sink in. Instead, I see a fabulously constructed landscape like James Nasmyth’s famous 1874 moon paintings.

In my mind I picture the Webb images as consisting of fairy lights, color gels, mirrors, black cloth, filters and Photoshop.

A planetary nebula seen by the Webb telescope. NASA/STScI, CC BY-SA

The representatives of art invade my psyche. Looking at the deep field and planetary nebula, I remember that even these “objective” machine-generated images are constructed. The rays of light, holes and gases are artistic experiments in photographic abstraction that explore what lies beyond sight.

Imaging technology is always transforming what is “out there,” and how we see it is determined by what is “in here”: our own subjectivity; what we bring from ourselves and our lives to reading the picture.

The telescope is a photographer, crawling through the cosmos, making more of the unseen visible. Giving artists more references for appropriation, imagination and also criticism.

While scholars see structure and detail, artists see aesthetic and performative opportunities to pose pressing questions that concern the politics of space and place.

art in space

Webb’s images offer another opportunity to reflect on the work of American artist Trevor Paglen, who sent the world’s first work of art into space.

Paglen’s work examines the political geography of space and how governments, aided by science, are using space for mass surveillance and data collection.

The deepest and sharpest infrared image of the early Universe ever taken. NASA/STScI, CC BY-SA

He created a 100-foot-long diamond-shaped balloon called the Orbital Reflector, which would open up into a giant reflective balloon and be seen from Earth as a bright star. She was launched into space on a satellite, but engineers were unable to complete the sculpture’s installation due to the unexpected government shutdown.

Paglen’s artwork has been criticized by scholars.

Unlike astronomers, he wasn’t trying to unravel the mystery of the universe or our place in it. He asked: Is space a place for art? Who owns space and for whom is space?

Space is readily available to government, military, commercial and scientific interests. The earth remains the place of art for the time being.


About the author: Cherine Fahd is Associate Professor of Visual Communication at the School of Design, University of Technology Sydney. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. This article was originally published at The conversation and is re-released under a Creative Commons license.

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