x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

The Empty Quarter gallery in Dubai offers a space odyssey

Third Rock From the Sun is The Empty Quarter's exploration into how space has captivated humanity.

Preparation for the launching of the rocket Cedar 40 by students of the Haigazian College Rocket Society, Assad Jradi, Dbayeh, Lebanon, 1963, Collection: AIF/Assad Jradi. Courtesy Arab Image Foundation
Preparation for the launching of the rocket Cedar 40 by students of the Haigazian College Rocket Society, Assad Jradi, Dbayeh, Lebanon, 1963, Collection: AIF/Assad Jradi. Courtesy Arab Image Foundation

"How do you put a price on a dream?" These were Anousheh Ansari's words when asked about her desire to be the first Iranian in space and the fourth ever "space tourist", heading skyward on her own funds.

"I would go to space even if it was a one-way ticket," she said. "If it meant going and never returning, if it meant losing my life over it!"

Third Rock from the Sun is The Empty Quarter's exploration into how space has captivated humanity. The gallery posits this skyward yearning as essential - almost the ultimate expression of our capacity to dream.

It charts the evolution of this dream, however: space is shown first as an intangible muse, later a frontier of ideologies and then today accessible to a new cast of interstellar millionaires.

The work of the Belgian photographer Vincent Fournier forms the crux of this show. Fournier headed to a facility in Utah where scientists run tests for walking on Mars. In the grandeur of this scenery, tainted red by minerals in the rock and dusted with flecks of grey snow, Fournier's camera becomes complicit in the fiction of these experiments: with no manipulation of colour, merely capturing the landscape in a dreamlike light, the artist lets us believe this is the surface of Mars. We gaze across fantastical, otherworldly mountains, interrupted only by a lonesome "astronaut" in full suit and steamed-up helmet practising their zero-gravity walk.

"It's moving that there are those still trying to see the things we can't see," says Fournier. "As a child growing up in the 1970s, you think the future will be filled with rockets. There's nostalgia here for that."

This is a timely exhibition, opening only a few months after Nasa's space shuttle Atlantis returned to Earth, its final passage for the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, Abu Dhabi's forthcoming spaceport, home to Virgin Galactic and designed to take the wealthy to the stars, has gathered momentum over the past 12 months.

With this in mind, another of Fournier's images shows a weary-eyed cosmonaut, born and raised in Russia's Star City complex, whose job is now to prepare space tourists for their journey. Without access to the deeper parts of the facility, Fournier had to shoot the cosmonaut in his home, wearing a borrowed space suit, leaning against kitschy floral wallpaper.

"We live in an age of gadgets and video games. Often, the launch of a rocket goes unnoticed by the majority of us," says Elie Domit, the director of The Empty Quarter. "We wanted to bring back the magic of space flight, that whole dream of the 1950s."

In addition to Brian Eno's lunar-inspired record Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks reverberating through the gallery, Domit has included stills and video excerpts from the 1960 sci-fi B-movie 12 Go to the Moon (with its numerous gaffes being the subject of much derision today) and 2001: A Space Odyssey to show the now retro aesthetics of a "space age" that it was assumed we'd all be living in by now.

There's lots of additional material to browse through here, including a beautiful children's book, Premières Vacances Sur La Lune (First Vacation on the Moon), published in 1967, that uses boxy stage sets to imagine a boy holidaying in a subterranean moon hotel; as well as 19th-century stereographs of the moon and haunting images from the first attempt to map the lunar surface by the L'Observatoire de Paris between 1896 and 1910.

Lebanon's short-lived space programme is depicted in photographs rediscovered by the artists Khalil Joreige and Joana Hadjithomas. The images show the efforts of a group of visionary scientists in Beirut in the 1960s, building rockets painted red and white and adorned with a cedar tree before the image of such a missile had grisly connotations.

Angular, space station-like buildings are scattered across the landscape of the former Yugoslavia, designed by architects fed on the communist vision of a bright, classless future. Jan Kempenaers, a Dutch photographer, has captured the brutalist brilliance of these buildings, his images showing how melancholic and out of date they look today.

Third Rock from the Sun tells a story that's personal to anyone who has ever felt a rush of wonder at those first space journeys. It's a subtle meditation on how space exploration has changed from being the pursuit of heroes and national agendas, to the popular - accessible, at least for now - to those with cash. At a time when political change is fired in the very public kiln of social networking, rather than the raised fist of a revolutionary leader, this charted evolution is also pertinent.

But recession has put building rockets at the bottom of the to-do list for most countries, and conflicts continue that those dreamers of the 1950s and 1960s thought would have disappeared in our space age time - could the stars feel any farther away?

 

Third Rock from the Sun continues at The Empty Quarter, DIFC, until January 31

 

clord@thenational.ae