(Published - 16 January 2019)
The relationship between humanity and the heavens can be explored from multiple perspectives - from the scientific to the mythical to the fantastical. And that’s what Chapter One of Hemelliggaam or The Attempt To Be Here Now, is all about.
At the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT) - the largest single optical telescope in the southern hemisphere and among the largest in the world - hardworking astronomers look at the stars under shifting light spectra and uncover mysteries.
In traditional Xhosa-speaking communities, it is believed that when somebody dies they become an ancestor, wandering among the stars and guarding us from evil spirits, says Temba Matomela - an educator and expert on indigenous astronomy.
So when you see a shooting star coming down you are actually seeing a bad ancestor being kicked out of the celestial sphere - a bad omen.
In Jan Rabie’s sci-fi novel Die Hemelblom (“The Sky Flower”), the alien Galactic Council sends "sky flowers" to the hopelessly polluted and exploited Earth, which will wither as soon as they cover the whole planet, leaving a clean uninhabited world - an early warning about the dangers of pollution.
All these perspectives and more are captured in Chapter One of Hemelliggaam, an audio and visual exploration of the existential aspects of the human-environment-astronomy relationship in all its many forms. Created by artists Tommaso Fiscaletti and Nic Grobler and curated by Filippo Maggia, it won the 2018 Contemporary African Photography Prize, and is now open to visit in Sutherland.
“Something archaic radiates from the local community in connection with their science and technology needs,” says artist Nic Grobler. “This project is exploring this concept through looking at forms of awareness that are already active and cultivating more awareness through conversations, participation and reflection.”
“This mix of contents/visions/information is a way to discover some interesting aspects about the areas we are working on,” says Tommaso Fiscaletti. “The project is open to explore possible connections between different things. What is really important for us is to create something with no limitations in terms of creative development, that's moving between physical things to the most open imagination.”
The project has been coordinated with the help of Dr Lucia Marchetti and Dr Mattia Vaccari from the University of the Western Cape (UWC). Their role is mainly about liaising with the NRF and the scientific community, providing the artists with connections with the observatories - as well as giving them the astronomer’s perspective on their work.
“This project is forged by both the visionary eyes of Tommaso and Nic, and our more technical knowledge, which is used as input and inspiration by the two artists to do their “magic” pictures and video of the world around us, and to put it in connection with the broader Universe,” explains Dr Marchetti.
“Hemelliggaam represents a unique opportunity for us, as professional astronomers, to engage in conversations around the themes of astronomy and space science with the broader public and from the most diverse perspectives.”
The result is a unique collection of visual material that prompts the casual observer to reflect on the most intimate ideas: that we live on one planet among many; that the story of our Planet is both the story of the natural elements and of the humans living on it; and much more.
Being Here Now - And Seeing The Stars
The project had its first exhibition in 2018 between the Iziko South African Museum & the Company’s Garden. The Outdoor exhibition has also been installed in the garden of the South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO). In December, the exhibition moved to Sutherland and it is now installed and open to visit in two different locations: in the garden of the newly opened Sutherland Planetarium (the garden is open to everyone and is free of charge to visit) and inside of the visitor centre at the SAAO site.
“When considering other worlds out there with all the extreme conditions that are observed, we realise how relative our experience is of the Universe - in relation to time and even the scale of other bodies in the universe,” says Grobler.
The project explores many different locations around South Africa, and represents an opportunity to discover the land through a very unique lens. Everything is in the eyes - and hands/minds/hearts - of the observers to decide.
“‘The Attempt To Be Here Now’ can be interpreted in different ways, but to us it is a title that refers to the human condition in relation to the rest of the universe - where most of us are just trying to be something while we are alive at this point in time,” notes Fiscaletti. “We have the desire to feel fully conscious, curious and to be observant - to be here now.”
The project is still in progress, and a Chapter Two is currently being produced, incorporating new material.
“The exhibition offers an intimate view of South Africa and South Africans,” Dr Vaccari notes. “It dwells on the relation between technology and tradition, and between ancient beliefs and modern science, and I trust it will be very rewarding for the curious visitor who happens to be in Sutherland over the summer.”
The “Hemelliggaam or The Attempt To Be Here Now” exhibition will stay in Sutherland during January 2019 (the closing date will be announced - watch this space). Those who aren’t able to see it in Sutherland can also visit the web site hemelliggaam.com and look forward to the final exhibition, which will take place in Cape Town sometime in 2020.