BY Neal Brown in Reviews | 11 NOV 99
Featured in
Issue 49

Full Moon

BY Neal Brown in Reviews | 11 NOV 99

This exhibition and book of photographs - textless visual narratives which document the twelve 1968-72 Apollo missions - was selected by Michael Light from over 30,000 images owned by NASA. The photographs include some of the definitive images of our century, representing a grand summation of technological achievement, unprecedented visual splendour and a poignant new perception of existence. They are inestimably important, and many of them are ravishingly beautiful, so to question aspects of the show is not to diminish their value. Light's role in the project is described as that of artist, rather than curator, and it is unfortunately when he is 'artistic' that the project fails.

30 years is a long time after the Apollo moon missions for such a show and book to be conceived. The main reason for the timing, other than the photographs enduring intrinsic interest, seems to be that Light has become the first person to successfully wrest the original masters from NASA, rather than the degenerated copies that are usually shown. These, digitised and shown on a large scale, have gained both in resolution and increase of scale and are a pleasure to look at. Light has also accessed some interesting, obscurer images from the huge NASA cache. Principally, however, the show and book have appeared because of the developing symbiotic culture between art and science, part of which is predicated on the idea that an artist intervening in the presentation of scientific images improves them. In the same way that scientists had to wait until astronauts had been to space before they could go, so a third wave is preparing itself for departure - a motley crew of celestial artists, poets and tourists. The number of proposals in circulation for art to be placed or made in space is increasing, and perhaps NASA's relaxation over the use of its imagery is the beginning of a beneficial, art- friendly policy. Meanwhile, back on earth, the benefit of Light's artistic interventions, as opposed to his curatorial initiatives, seem dubious. The photographs are intrinsically very exciting: the lunar day is incredibly bright, yet because there is no atmosphere, has a black sky which gives moon landscape photography a dreamy negative quality - the moon appears like a macabre, pitted orb. The atmospheric vacuum means there is no obfuscating aerial perspective on which the human eye depends to judge distance, and ironically, because of this hyper-clarity, great ambiguities of scale arise. The effect is, unsurprisingly, one of alienation softened by occurrences of natural beauty.

But Light's interventions are strange. One of the show's interesting works is Snapshot of Duke Family on Lunar Surface by Charles Duke (Apollo 16,1972), for which the astronaut photographed a snapshot of his family which he had laid on the surface of the moon. This photograph of a photograph is extraordinary, yet in the enlargement for the book Light admits to 'adding a slight, digitally induced blur', an incomprehensible and gratuitously crass gesture. Elsewhere in the show, Video Projection (1999), which was made by Light from Apollo orbital still photographs and projected at a ludicrous high speed to no useful effect whatsoever, seems designed to persuade science and public alike that artists are tampering cretins.

'Full Moon' is a powerful show, both because of, and in spite of Light and his fiddling. The moral seems to be that the aesthetic value of scientific endeavour sometimes needs less, rather than more, self-conscious artistry to make its natural aesthetic qualities evident. There is a tiring list of problems about the show and book - the portentous design, the use of scale for its own sake (some of the works suffer technically from extreme over-enlargement) - as well as concerns about the degree to which Light has enhanced the images. These, while unfortunate, do not detract from Light's and the astronauts' achievement in bringing to us the sense of a literal otherworldliness, which in its way is so illuminating to our sense of self.

Neal Brown is an artist and writer based in London, UK.