by Rebecca Diederichs
Before 1924, it was assumed that ours was the only galaxy. We drifted in an orderly fashion along a well-worn route amidst a cosmic flurry and, although frightening in its vastness, there was some comfort in its relative familiarity. Then, in the year of 1924, American astronomer Edwin Hubble disrupted that calm reserve. By comparing the luminosity of stars nearby with those so far away they appeared fixed, he determined that there might be at least nine other galaxies. Astronomers wondered about stars in these newfound galaxies. They had already observed that stars emitted coloured light but now it seemed the colour was significant. Red meant that stars were travelling away from us, while blue were advancing towards us. So many stars and of them none as fixed as they seemed to be when we looked at them. Suddenly that comforting familiarity was challenged. In fact, the galaxies were expanding and contracting, as we watched.
It is rare to find a clear view of the stars in the city. No surprise there in that statement - it’s practically an urban slogan. What is surprising is our determination to look up in the hopes that the murk will miraculously disappear and the streets fill with celestial light. One day in August 2004 the power cut out across the Eastern seaboard. I was up north at a cottage, so missed out on the experience of a city gone quiet and dark. But even in cottage country, as the transformers shut down, the noise of electricity and artificial light rang in my ears. The sudden quiet became infinite. As day slipped away into night the lake blackened, the sky grew gigantic and all we wanted to do was keep on looking up.
Yael Brotman’s print installation Black and White Seeking Azure is about curiosity, exploration, examination and looking up. Two grids of etchings constitute two women peering upwards. Suspended between them is an azure-blue sky. Another grid of copper etching plates, used for creating her prints, complete the installation. One of the women wears glasses. With her brow furrowed, her eyes squinting against the light, she concentrates. A replicated portion of her brow is positioned alongside its twin, emphasizing her focus, her wonderment. A tattoo of holes outlines each profile. Brotman has described these points as allusions to both the past: a reference to the puncture points used to transfer medieval cartoon drawings onto plaster walls, and the present: voluntary and involuntary marks inflicted on the body. The systematic mark making describes the past as a correlation of scientific exploration and the age-old patterns for seeking answers; the present a narrative of one’s physical psyche. The colour of the tracery on the women’s faces is the same azure-blue of the sky; constellations form, bearing witness to the wonders of looking. The copper etching plates compliment the printed works. Severed from their logical arrangement they become abstract renderings that simultaneously elude and absorb interpretation. Evidence of her process, they read as a metaphor for considering the movement of time. They also visually pulse like eerie nebulae in far-off galaxies. Brotman offers these physical matrices as templates for the limitless exploration of the infinite sky and the boundaries of space.
And what of those red stars racing away and the blue-shifted stars advancing towards us? “Endlessness is certainly appealing.” This is Laurie Anderson’s reference to the prospect of writing an epic poem, but I deliberately grab this quote because it opposes what we most often feel: endlessness can be terrifying. Laying down on a damp old dock and staring upwards makes your head spin. Not just because of optics but because you can’t ever fully grasp the edges of that vast space above you. What if we could poke our fingers through the holes burned into the sky by each star? Would we be able to describe what’s on the other side: the heat of the stars approaching? Or perhaps there would only be a chill lingering from those moving away. Brotman’s two women, with their inquiring, concentrating expressions look to the azure-blue sky and there is comfort in their determination to keep on looking, up.
Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time, (Bantam Books, 1996) 38.
“Laurie Anderson,” UH Hilo Performing Arts Center, 2006, University of Hawaii. November 3, 2006.