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30 June 2020
Hemelliggaam or The Attempt To Be Here Now - Chapter Two South Africa’s Space Celebration Goes Virtual

(Published - 30 June 2020)

“The relationship between humanity and the heavens can be explored from multiple perspectives – from the scientific to the mythical to the fantastical,” says artist Nic Grobler. “And that’s what Hemelliggaam or The Attempt To Be Here Now is all about.”

Hemelliggaam (Heavenly Body), a project by Tommaso Fiscaletti and Nic Grobler, is a visual/audio exploration and celebration of the existential aspects of the human-environment-astronomy relationship – moving constantly between the reality of important scientific sites and the fiction of local science fiction literature. 

The project, curated by Filippo Maggia, with a complete presentation of three chapters already scheduled, is now redefined due to the pandemic and presents Chapter Two in a virtual setting, for all to enjoy: 

“Hemelliggaam is exploring existential aspects of the relationship between humans, the environment and astronomy,” fellow artist Tommaso Fiscaletti says. “We are trying to look at the earth as the heavenly bodies are here, around us. The upside-down landscapes in the second chapter are like the perfect description of this feeling. The Karoo landscape becomes our sky.”

With the support of the National Research Foundation, the Institute of Italian Culture in Pretoria, the Italian Consulate in Cape Town and the University of the Western Cape (UWC) (with scientific advice from UWC’s Prof Mattia Vaccari and UCT’s Dr Lucia Marchetti), Grobler and Fiscaletti have spent years moving between important scientific sites such as the South African Large Telescope in Sutherland and the Square Kilometre Array in Carnarvon. From modern scientific sites to ancient meteor craters, and places that have a connection with scenes or characters from science fiction books. Along the way, they recorded sounds and images of characters, places, and more.

“What’s been 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,” says Grobler. “This shift between these two different levels is something related to human nature. You may not know the story behind every picture or video, but they can still look familiar, in a way – because we approach many of the main existential human feelings/elements.”

“The project explores many different locations around South Africa which can be both perceived as abstract locations on Earth, disconnected from any specific time or geographic location, as well as a familiar environment for any South African or occasional tourist,” Dr Marchetti adds. “Therefore it also represents an opportunity to discover the land – or rediscover the land –  through a very unique lens. Everything is in the hands/eyes/minds/hearts of the observers.”

“The exhibition offers an intimate view of South Africa and South Africans,” Prof Vaccari notes. “It dwells on the relation between technology and tradition, and between ancient beliefs and modern science, and it links our land and our lives to the skies and the stars. I trust it will be very rewarding for the curious visitor.”

Astronomy in the twenty-first century is very big science  – projects like the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) employ powerful instruments, huge collaborations and massive teams to uncover the secrets of the Universe. But humanity’s relationship to the skies isn’t limited to these high-tech endeavours – as Hemelliggaam or The Attempt To Be Here Now is showing. 

 “Astronomy is just an expression of our pure curiosity about the unknowns of the Universe in which we belong,” says Dr Marchetti. “Whether it lies dormant or whether we vocally express it, it’s an essential part of every human being – always there, just waiting for an occasion to be fulfilled.  “Hemelliggaam” is one of those occasions.”

Being Here Now, Wherever You May Be

Chapter One of the audio-visual project has been exhibited at the Iziko South African Museum and Company's Garden, Cape Town, in 2018, moving then to Sutherland and Carnarvon.

In the same year, the artists, with Chapter One, were among the winners of the Contemporary African Photography Prize, which has enabled them to present the work in Basel (Switzerland), as well as a few other festivals between Europe and Africa. The artists are currently showing a preview of Chapter Two at Fondazione OELLE, Catania (Italy) as part of the group show "Da Guarene all' Etna 2019, Boiling Projects" (started at Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, Guarene, Italy).

In Chapter Two, the project accentuates the reflection on the human attempt to exist through time and matter, bringing these elements back, now in an even more articulated way, again with reference to Afrikaans science fiction novels. The two main books cited in this chapter, Swart Ster oor die Karoo (1957) by Jan Rabie, and Loeloeraai (1923) by CJ Langenhoven, presents worlds to preserve and aliens to relate to, it resonates in the present and infects our interpretation of reality. (Fiscaletti, Grobler)

“We realised that there is a deep cultural history and incredible discoveries in the astronomical heritage we have in South Africa – so it made a lot of sense for us to learn and explore more of it,” notes Grobler. “It’s definitely an experiential project, in that sense.”

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 Earth is both the story of the natural elements and of the humans living on it; and much more.

“We are not astronomers or astrophysicists, but we share a deep curiosity around everyone’s consciousness in being part of or at least being attached to something we call a celestial body –  the Earth,” Fiscaletti remarks. “The understanding or experience of the rest of space can be something that deeply affects someone on an existential level – the universe, our galaxy, solar system and planet is after all, relatively speaking, also our home.”  

The “Hemelliggaam or The Attempt To Be Here Now - Chapter 2” exhibition will be running online from 28 May 2020 to 28 July 2020. The complete project will be on view online – and if conditions allow, in a physical exhibition in South Africa and abroad – later this year.