How James Webb’s deep field images reminded me that the division between science and art is artificial

The first task I give photography students is to create a starscape. To do this, I ask them to sweep the floor under them, collect the dust and dirt in a paper bag, and then sprinkle it on a sheet of 8×10 inch photo paper. Then, using the photo enlarger, expose the detritus-covered paper to light.

After removing dust and dirt, the paper is immersed in a bath of chemical developer.

In less than two minutes, an image of a universe teeming with galaxies slowly emerged.

I love when the dark room fills with the sound of their amazement the moment they realize the dust beneath their feet is becoming a scene of scientific wonder.

I was reminded of this analog exercise when NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope shared the first deep-field images. The public expression of wonder is not unlike that of my students in the darkroom.

But unlike our makeshift starscapes, the Deep Field images capture an actual galaxy cluster, “the deepest, most distinct infrared view of the universe yet.”

This imaging precision will help scientists solve the mysteries of our solar system and our place in it.

But they will also inspire ongoing experimentation by artists who engage with the subject of space, the universe and our fragile place within it.

Creating the art of space

Images of space provide considerable visual pleasure. I listen to scientists passionately describe the information stored in their rich colors and amorphous forms, what the highlights and shadows are, and what lies in the deep black that is mottled and dotted.

The mysteries of the universe are the subject of science and imagination.

Throughout history, artists have imagined and created proxy universes: constructions that are lyrical and speculative, alternate worlds that stand in for what we imagine, hope and fear are “out there.”

The Stefan quintet image from the James Webb Space Telescope. NASA/STScI, CC BY-SA

There are photo-real drawings and paintings by Vija Celmins. The night sky painstakingly painted or hand painted with exceptional detail and precision.

There are photographs by David Stevenson that read like lyrical sky paintings, reminding us that we are on a moving planet. Yosuke Takeda’s ambiguous starbursts of color and light. Thomas Ruff’s sensual star photographs, made by closely cropping the details of existing scientific images that he purchased after failing to capture the cosmos with his own camera.

There’s also the incredible work of Blue Mountains-based duo Haines & Hinterding, where polka dots become stars, black pigment the night sky, bleeding colored ink a gas formation. They make the rocks hum and use the sun’s rays so we can hear and smell their energy.

These works of art highlight the creative drive to draw from science for the purposes of art. The division between science and art is artificial.

Pictures of our imagination

The Webb Telescope shows science’s ability to provide us with images that are aesthetically imaginative, expressive, and technically accomplished, but—oddly—they don’t make me feel anything.

Science tells me that these shapes are galaxies and stars billions of years old, but they are not sinking. Instead, I see a fabulously constructed landscape like James Nasmyth’s famous 1874 images of the moon.

In my mind’s eye, I picture Webb’s images as made of fairy lights, colored gels, mirrors, black cloth, filters and Photoshop.

A planetary nebula as seen by the Webb Telescope. NASA/STScI, CC BY-SA

Art’s surrogates invade my psyche. When I look at the deep field and the planetary nebula, I remember that even these “objective” machine-made images are constructed. Rays of Light, Holes and Gases are artistic experiments in photographic abstraction, exploring what lies beyond sight.

Imaging technology always transforms what is “out there” and how we see it is determined by what is “here”: our own subjectivity; what we bring of ourselves and our lives to the reading of the image.

A telescope is a photographer crawling through space, making more of the invisible visible. Giving artists more references for appropriation, imagination and also criticism.

While scientists see structure and detail, artists see aesthetic and performative possibilities for asking pressing questions that concern the politics of space and place.

Art in space

Webb’s images present a new opportunity to reflect on the work of American artist Trevor Paglen, who sent the world’s first work of art into space.

Paglen’s work examines the political geography that is space and the ways in which governments, aided by science, use space for mass surveillance and data collection.

The deepest and sharpest infrared image of the early universe ever taken. NASA/STScI, CC BY-SA

He created a 30-meter diamond-shaped balloon called the Orbital Reflector, which was supposed to open into a huge reflective balloon and be visible from Earth as a bright star. It was launched into space on a satellite, but engineers were unable to complete the sculpture’s deployment due to the unexpected government shutdown.

Paglen’s works have been criticized by scholars.

Unlike astronomers, he was not trying to unravel the mystery of the universe or our place in it. He asked: is space a place for art? Who owns the space and who is the space for?

Space is readily available to government, military, commercial and scientific interests. Earth remains a place for art for now.


About the author: Cherin Fahd is Associate Professor of Visual Communication in the School of Design at the University of Technology Sydney. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. This article was originally published on The conversation and is republished under a Creative Commons license.

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