Earlier this year, astronomy and art met amongst the picturesque scenery of Venice, Italy, in the form of Our Place in Space, an art & science exhibition inspired by the iconic images and ground-breaking discoveries of the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope.
The exhibition opened on 1 February 2017 in the Istituto Veneto di Scienze, Lettere ed Arti, Palazzo Cavalli Franchetti, on the banks of the Grand Canal, and was shown there until 17 April. During that period it was visited by nearly 30,000 people.
Our Place in Space is a travelling exhibition, and it is now moving to the city of Chiavenna, in northern Italy. The show will be hosted from 13 May until 20 August 2017 at the Convento dei Cappuccini, Piazza Bertacchi. There will be more opportunities to visit Our Place in Space during this year and next at other locations in Europe.
We’ve talked with the two curators of the exhibition, ESA/Hubble project scientist Antonella Nota and art historian Anna Caterina Bellati, about the design and development of the show, the cross-talk between art and science in the process, and the public response.
Q: How did the idea of Our Place in Space come about?
Antonella Nota: It all started with a chance encounter, about three years ago, between myself and Anna Caterina, who is not only an extraordinary art historian but also has a strong passion for astronomy. The encounter was significant and timely, and we decided to embark on this adventure to explore the fundamental questions of astronomy through beauty: on one hand, the beauty delivered by the stunning images of Hubble, and on the other hand, the timeless beauty of art.
Anna Caterina Bellati: I have always been deeply interested in astronomy, and have done research – from an art historian’s perspective – on Camille Flammarion, Giovanni Virginio Schiaparelli, and the debate about “canali” on Mars in the late nineteenth century. I had been longing for a new opportunity to explore the connection between art and the sky, and this exhibition was the perfect occasion.
Q: How did it evolve from idea to practice?
AN: It’s been a long journey! We first had to look for support and a venue, and eventually obtained sponsorship from the European Space Agency. ESA is the main organiser of the exhibition in collaboration with NASA, the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI), and Bellati Editore.
As for the venue, I had already worked with the Istituto Veneto di Scienze, Lettere ed Arti for another project in 2010: The Hubble Space Telescope: Twenty Years at the Frontier of Science, a month-long exhibition of Hubble photos and tools used by astronauts during the last refurbishing mission. This exhibit was held in the historic Palazzo Loredan, also in Venice. The people at the institution had very good memories of the earlier exhibition and of its public success: astronomy is certainly fascinating and appealing to the public! So they were very welcoming and offered us an even more prestigious location, the splendid Palazzo Cavalli Franchetti, at zero cost.
ACB: The venue is an historic Venetian palace with remarkable decoration, from elaborate chandeliers to rich fabric on the walls. It is already quite “saturated” with art and history and it was challenging to fill such a space with even more beauty, but I think we found the right formula for the event. The visitors appreciate it, too: they said the exhibition really works well in this context.
Q: How did you select the content, from the Hubble images to the artwork?
AN: We decided to explore the question of why we, as humans, feel an urge to leave the boundaries of our home planet, Earth, in order to explore the immensity of the cosmos. With this fundamental theme in mind, we selected the Hubble images mainly based on their beauty and potential to inspire awe. We picked a number of iconic cosmic objects: from planets in our Solar System, nebulae and stellar clusters – both in our Galaxy, the Milky Way, and beyond – to nearby galaxies and far away ones, at the edge of the observable Universe.
Given the magnificent character of the location, we printed the Hubble images in very large format on metal, to enhance the wow-factor. We didn’t take into account, at the time, that metal would be heavy, so it really wasn’t straightforward to hang the images on the brocade-covered walls! Fortunately the technical team was amazing and they managed to find a solution.
ACB: Once we had selected the scientific topics and images, I identified about 30 artists that would resonate well with the exhibition theme; the names came from a database of 281 Italian visual artists with whom I’ve worked over the years. Then, a specially appointed scientific committee, including ourselves as curators but also with astronomers and public outreach officers , narrowed down the list to ten artists. We paired each artist with a specific topic within the exhibition: planets, star-forming clouds, galaxies, etc. Some of the artists were invited to exhibit an existing work of theirs, while others were prompted to create one or more dedicated art pieces specifically for the exhibition. Of course, they were all eager to participate and embraced their assigned topic with enthusiasm. It was great to see how they went back to the books and learnt the subject to understand it in detail.
Q: Can you give us a short, virtual tour through the exhibition?
AN: The exhibition starts from the here and now: in Venice. This is where the journey begins. So, in the first room, there is a piece by artist Antonio Abbatepaolo, Underwater love.
It’s the skeleton of an antique gondola, the well known vessel and symbol of Venice, which exceptionally for our exhibition becomes a virtual carrier to the infinity of outer space.
In the same room, a mesmerizing video, shown on a giant screen, starts from Venice and zooms out to the early phases in the Universe, providing a preview of the exciting views that will be shown in the rest of the exhibit. Visitors love it: they stand there and look at it looping over and over!
ACB: The exhibition then develops in a circular pattern, moving away from our planet. We first encounter other planets from our Solar System as imaged by Hubble: Mars, Jupiter, Saturn. Lying on the ground before these images are three spheres encrusted with mosaics of Murano glass: Pianeti oculari (Ocular planets), an interpretation of our place in the Solar System by artist Maraluisa Tadei.
There are also two impressions of exoplanets, worlds beyond our Solar System where perhaps other life forms could exist. Two paintings by artist Mario Paschetta portray two such hypothetical planets: Di rocce e di fuoco (Rocks and fire), with green and red hues, evoking a hospitable environment, and Di acqua e di ghiaccio (Water and ice), with blue and silvery shades under a dark sky, suggestive of a hostile world where life seems to have no place. This last painting has a peculiarity: we suggested to the artist to include tiny fragments of the solar arrays that once flew on board Hubble in the paint – a sign of a human artefact, perhaps a spaceship, that crashed on the distant worlds.
AN: The solar arrays were part of ESA’s contribution to the Hubble Space Telescope. Operating in the harsh conditions of space, the arrays had to be replaced twice. Fortunately, Hubble had been designed so that it could be upgraded in orbit by astronauts on servicing missions. The first set of solar arrays were brought back to Earth with the Space Shuttle Endeavour in 1993, and the second set with the Columbia in 2002. Two panels from Hubble’s solar arrays that flew from 1990 to 1993 are also shown as part of the exhibition.
After the planets, the exhibition journey continues with stellar clusters like Westerlund 2, the iconic ‘Pillars of Creation’ in the open star cluster M16, and the ‘Mystic Mountain’, a cloud of gas and dust in the star-forming complex of the Carina Nebula.
Here, artist Dania Zanotto has worked with the themes of these images – stellar birth, life and death – in human terms, creating an installation that uses veils, textured tables, and images of human catastrophes to recreate the cycle of human life in parallel
ACB: Why do we want to explore? This is the question permeating the following room, where we showed a huge image – 7m by 3m – of an astronaut on a servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope. On the opposite side hangs a polyptych by artist Paola Giordano. She was inspired by the work of the astronauts servicing Hubble to recreate her own Universe: from the Big Bang to stars and galaxies, as well as a DNA helix, suggestive of the presence of humanity in space.
In the same room is also artist Marco Bolognesi’s contribution: a large spaceship made of vintage toys. And it makes noises, too!
This calls for the curiosity of the visitors, who look inside the installation to find a video of the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope, linking back to the 1:10 scale model of the satellite that stands at the entrance of the exhibition.
AN: Beyond the Milky Way, the exhibit proceeds to our galactic neighbour: Andromeda. Artist Mario Vespasiani provides an almost pointillistic view of a field rich of stars.
As we move further away, we encounter a beautiful image of the Pinwheel galaxy, M101, which is also featured in the entrance video. Alessandro Spadari has decomposed its light to create two complementary gigantic paintings: one is a disc of darkness, the other of bright light.
We move further away to groups of interacting galaxies, like the famous Antennae, or the Whirlpool galaxy, M51, which is slowly merging with its companion NGC 5195, or the ‘Rose of galaxies’, Arp 273. These were interpreted by artist Sara Teresano as a series of alabaster sculptures, which resemble the colliding galaxies but also call to mind primordial sponges, vegetable hulls… in a word: life.
ACB: There is also a room where visitors can sit and watch a series of videos about Hubble’s history, from its launch to its various servicing missions, provided by ESA/Hubble with an Italian commentary and English subtitles. These proved very popular with visitors of all nationalities, who are really passionate about getting a seat and watching them all!
AN: The last room is dedicated to the very distant Universe, with six pictures from Hubble’s Frontier Fields that show faraway galaxies whose light is being deflected by foreground galaxies.
These object are so remote that nobody, nothing can ever go there, just our human mind. They are almost at the edge where space and time ends – or, actually, where they begin. This is the essence of exploration, and it was rendered by the installation Intuizione (Brains) by artist Maraluisa Tadei, showing a series of metal brains suspended in a liquid inside crystal cases that hang from the ceiling.
ACB: Finally, the circular exhibition ends where it started: we are back to Venice. At the exit, the visitors find again the scale model of Hubble, the machine that has made this extraterrestrial journey possible.
In front of the palace, they also find the sculpture Apocalypse, created by artist Ettore Greco to demonstrate the apocalyptic change that took place in the second half of the 16th century, when the heliocentric model overturned the geocentric one.
Q: What have been the public reactions to the exhibition?
AN: The public love it! We had 200 visitors on the first day, 7000 in February, and 29,500 after two and half months. We arranged a visitor book to collect feedback, and the comments – in so many different languages – are incredibly touching. Venice is a pulsating hub with millions of visitors every year from all corners of the world, but there are also many other events going on in town at this time of the year, so we were really surprised with such an overwhelming success. There is definitely a desire in the public for something beautiful that fascinates and makes people think at the same time.
ACB: It is refreshing to observe the faces of visitors: whether they look at the images, the artwork, the explanatory text or the details of the palace, they are all so embedded in the exhibit that they become part of it. Some take photographs, other read the flyers with descriptions and take them along: independent of their cultural background, age, national origin, etc. they are all trying to grab something and take it back home. This is heart-warming.
AN: It is worth mentioning that the entrance is free. This is something that is very important to us: the citizens have already paid for space science research through their taxes, so this is a chance to give something back to the community. One of the comments in the visitor book was very interesting – it said: “the amazing is free!”
ACB: An exhibition is a democratic way to get people closer to art and science. Beauty has an innate power to communicate: everyone can observe and appreciate it while feeling a part of it rather than an outsider. I was astonished with the reaction of the youngest visitors – there have been many schools visiting over the past two months. The young kids really get this exhibition, sometimes even more so than the older generations. There is something about it that speaks to them.
Q: What else do you have in store for the future?
AN: Venice is a great starting point because of its many visitors from all over the world, but this is a travelling exhibition, so for those who could not make it before 17 April there will be more opportunities to visit Our Place in Space. From May to August, we will show the exhibit in Chiavenna, a small town in the Alpine Valchiavenna region, in the north of Italy. There might be some other shows later this year, then in the (northern) spring of 2018 we will be in the ESO Supernova Planetarium & Visitor Centre in Garching near Munich, Germany, and then in Vienna, Austria, for the General Assembly of the International Astronomical Union in August 2018.
ACB: We are also planning to broaden the cultural scope of the exhibition. Thus far, we have involved Italian artists, but in Vienna we will show new artwork, created by Austrian artists in response to the same images and scientific topics, and we are looking forward to starting similar collaborations with the local artistic communities of many other countries. Eventually, it will be exciting to look back at the impact of Hubble and its science on culture and society on a global scale.
 The exhibition executive committee consists of Ken Carpenter (NASA HST), Lars Lindberg Christensen (ESO), Carol Christian (STScI), Roger Davies (University of Oxford, UK), Mathias Jäger (ESA/Hubble) and Hussein Jirdeh (STScI).
Claudia Mignone interviewed Antonella Nota and Anna Caterina Bellati for the art&science@ESA blog in February 2017. The interview has been edited later to include further details such as, for example, the total number of visitors.