BY Neal Brown in Reviews | 03 MAR 99
Featured in
Issue 45

The Hubble Space Telescope

BY Neal Brown in Reviews | 03 MAR 99

This show of extremely beautiful images from the Hubble Space Telescope takes place in an art gallery. However, this is an exhibition without an artist - unless we choose to see the works as anonymous documents of divine handiwork.

The Hubble Space Telescope orbits 380 miles above the earth, where, since 1993, it has provided astronomers with superlative images of the universe, unobstructed by the haze of earth's atmosphere. Hubble makes cosmology an observational science, creating images that are visually and contemplatively stunning and which give visible form to that which was previously only theoretically conceivable. The essence of the show is the visually splendid. As we cannot rely on observation of galaxies in visible light only, the telescope takes all wavelength ranges into consideration. So although some works are in natural colour, using the visible optical wavelength ranges of the spectrum, others combine colour from differing imaging modes such as composite infrared and ultraviolet.

All of the works are digital photo mosaics made from composite scans of space. Some are mounted on electric paper, which provides a uniform light, is very thin and lacks the clumsy depth of the light box. Without a backing structure, these images float enigmatically against the gallery walls. Other works have rectangular black lacunae where the telescope has not scanned, but even these voids are compositionally dynamic and stylish in a techie sort of way.

The works reveal inconceivably remote galaxies, black holes and the formative births, incandescent lives and deaths of stars. The universe is shown teeming with luminescent gas clouds, planets, collisions of galaxies and extraordinarily complex stellar matter. Overall, the effect is of an organic, almost biological process, like a huge enlargement of pond life. Some of the galaxies are so faint (about four billion times fainter than could be seen by the human eye), that they have never been seen before. In this sense the Hubble photographs are like time machines, allowing us to see galaxies as they were more than ten billion years ago, in the process of formation.

The Collision of the Antennae Galaxies (1996) show the fireworks and firestorm which resulted from the massive impact between two galaxies 63 million light-years ago. This depiction of a natural physical phenomena, which measures 45,000 light-years across, is consistent with other patterning marks seen elsewhere in nature, such as in marble, but on a much smaller scale. A Massive Black Hole in Centaurus A (1997) is reminiscent of police forensic photography, or venereal dermatology. Against a beautiful indecent pink, a dirt lane of dust and dust filaments is interspersed with flaming orange gas. Using infrared, Hubble has penetrated this dust to see a gravitational whirlpool so dense that it contains the mass of about a billion stars.

Other works, for example The 'Cat's Eye' Planetary Nebula (1994), reveal the structural forms of complex, delicately floral Nebula, while the gossamer pillars of colliding gases found in Cometary Knots in the Helix Nebula (1994) are reminiscent of iridescent tropical fish.

The photographs so extend our ability to see that, in a sense, our wonder and awe of the universe is made new. They stimulate reflection on a multitude of profound human concerns and our relationship with the primary forces of creation and destruction, successfully illuminating the cynicisms and optimisms of the metaphysical philosophies to which we are prone. For some, the photographs are evidence of the handiwork of a divine creator; for others evidence of either a suprasensible mystery beyond knowledge or a resolvable puzzle for scientific endeavour. Perhaps, however, they are neither: just evidence that we and our proceedings are very slight blips in a very large space.

The attractions of nature they reveal - rich form and colour, kinetic symmetry or asymmetry and organic pattern and chance - are arguably proof of a universality of natural form, whether on a macro or microcosmic scale, and therefore proof of the consonance of life. This distinguishes these photographs from the work of artists who sustain the illogical, sad view that the perception of aesthetic beauty in nature is an extrinsic delusion of our own making - and that it is horror and ugliness that is intrinsic to nature.

Varying definitions of human significance or insignificance, along with our existential vanities and despondencies, make it unlikely that any consensus about these photographs will ever be reached, except in one respect: that of a shared feeling of awe and wonderment. This feeling transcends the usual descriptive means of the brilliantly clever, originating science that has enabled our wonder and so falls within the grand province of feelings that is the business of artists, poets and writers.

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