The Convergence of Art and Space
"My objectives are to push drawing beyond the limits of the small-scale, manageable sheet of paper"
The Bayeux Tapestry is an embroidered cloth nearly 70 metres long and 50 centimetres tall, which depicts the events leading up to the Norman conquest of England in 1066, during which William the Conqueror defeated Harold II of England in the Battle of Hastings.
It’s an extraordinary piece of art and craftsmanship, chronicling the story of this era of history in dozens of scenes, visually, like an early graphic novel on a monumental scale.
Look at its detail carefully enough and you’ll see the stitching ‘Isti mirant stella’ (which translates as ‘They marvel at the star’) sewn alongside a star flaming across the sky. This is almost certainly Halley’s Comet: it is the only comet visible to the naked eye from Earth and appears only once in the life of an average human. First recorded around 240 BC, its appearances have been noted by astronomers regularly ever since and it was definitely visible from Earth during 1066.
Directly inspired by two converging yet distinct trains of thought, firstly of the Bayeux Tapestry and the unknown artists who depicted Halley’s Comet nearly a millennium ago, and secondly of a belief in the enrichment of knowledge and human activity when science and art converge, contemporary artist Aleksandra Mir began a colossal undertaking in 2015 called Space Tapestry. Like the tapestry before it (which is actually an embroidery, rather than a true tapestry), this new work also presents an episodic narrative, only for today’s world the story is the changes in our understanding of the sky above and the effects of the wider universe on our daily lives, rather than the politics and happenings on the necessarily more local landscape within which our predecessors lived.
The Space Tapestry’s development has been informed by current debates, recorded events, scientific discoveries, technological innovations and predictions of an imagined future – ideas that have an impact on all of our lives. The latest chapters of this piece, ‘Earth Observation & Human Spaceflight,’ now fill Modern Art Oxford and will be on show until 12th November. Walk into the Piper Gallery and you’ll find that space, and its possibilities and conundrums, surround you: the large-scale, hand-drawn monochrome wall-hanging is an ‘immersive’ piece of art which, in its entirety, measures 200 metres long, and it’s therefore too large to be seen in one single venue. (Tate Liverpool are currently hosting another sequence.)
The graphic and textual content of the Oxford piece of Space Tapestry considers the evolution of advanced technology in relation to our daily lives, and to our futures. Produced by Mir in her Hackney studio with the help of a team of 25 young illustrators, all of whom contribute to the thousands of man-hours the total piece requires and whose own styles and personalities are embodied within it, the work is a rich and striking repertoire of lines, patterns and tones.
Although inspired by the needlework of the Bayeux Tapestry, this work is very much of the 21st century and is drawn on synthetic canvas with black Sharpie marker pens. Mir describes these as a ‘fast, democratic and unpretentious’ medium. ‘Their use reflects the way and speed with which people live today,’ she explains, describing how this popular new drawing tool offers a tremendous freedom to explore and refine the unexpected into fine art in the way that the development of readymixed paints in tubes gave the impressionists new opportunities and direction in the 18th century. ‘My objectives,’ she says, ‘are to push drawing beyond the limits of the small-scale, manageable sheet of paper into a large unruly reality; simultaneously a stage set, a choreographed dance and an improvisational performance act.’
Oxfordshire’s Jay Fox-Davies is another artist whose work reflects upon the influence of space on society and the changing human experience. Jay’s father gave her a present of an encyclopaedia of art when she was eight and it is to this, and him, that she attributes her life-long fascination with the visual arts. She also describes how she has been a science fiction fan since she was a child, living through the exciting time when space travel first became a reality. ‘I am now delighting in the resurgence of interest and growing investment in the ‘space’ of which our planet Earth is less than an infinitesimal speck,’ she continues. ‘Harwell, where I live, is the home of Rutherford Appleton Laboratories which make a major contribution to the UK Space Agency and with such an everyday presence, it is no surprise that my thoughts turned outwards to our universe and a conceptual exploration of that final frontier!’
Jay’s interest in the space exploration research at Harwell, the recent discovery of Earth-like planets, and a visit to the University of Hertfordshire’s Bayfordbury Observatory a few years ago, have all influenced her art. Her latest series is called ‘Different World – Different Rules’. Like Aleksandra Mir, she too uses a combination of old and more modern media and current technology, mixing watercolour, acrylic painting and lively ink stippling, using an automatic stippling pen. Her paintings tend towards the simple and yet contrastingly intricate, although at first glance you might think them artist prints.
‘The current political and cultural changes within our own world are creating a new planet Earth. It is not only in outer space that there is a different world to explore. It remains to be seen what different rules will apply and what part space research, exploration and related emerging materials and technologies, will contribute to the making of these new rules,’ she ponders.
Jay’s pictures combine the unknown possibilities of space with classic art of the past: she considers how Hokusai, a 19th century Japanese artist, most famed for his iconic ‘Great Wave’ woodblock print (which can be seen in the British Museum until 13 August), would have responded to landscapes and different skies of such planets.
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