At Penn State Abington Gallery
Through Dec 18, 2015
By Christa DiMarco
I have waited over a year to experience Philadelphia-based artist Jaime Alvarez’s (1979- ) Farthest from the Earth (2014) as it was initially set for exhibit in the Force Field Project, an art-event abruptly canceled in summer 2014. I visited with Alvarez that summer in his Fishtown studio where he shared the work he has completed since 2001: several photographic series in which he explored the industrial landscape, borders, and earthly materials. As the inaugural installation at the new Penn State Abington Art Gallery, Farthest from the Earth drew my curiosity as both the work and the gallery made their respective debuts.
Upon entrance into the dimly lit space, I was met with a large-scale bed of florescent lights, a bit larger than an area rug and positioned in the center of the gallery’s floor. The lights emit a warm, orange-yellow glow that reminded me of the sun in Claude Monet’s Impression, Sunrise (1872)—intense yet soft, saturated yet diffuse. Hanging about three-feet above the light-bed, a small-scale model (about palm-size) of NASA’s Voyager I probe subtly rotates.
Three silkscreened images on anodized-aluminum plates hang on the back wall. The three plates depict Voyager I’s communicatory modes. Family Portrait—Abstract shows a panoramic photograph of the planets that Alvarez reduced to black squares. Pulsar Map shows a charted course of pulsar codes to our solar system the probe carries. And Sound Waves: Dense Plasma or Ionized Gas Vibrating in Interstellar Space is a graphic recording of sound waves made from the boundary of our solar system. With black stark shapes on what seems like gold-metal surfaces, the imagery echoes the light-bed’s hue and references the twelve-inch gold-plated phonograph record attached to the probe. Should intelligent life find Voyager I, the phonograph can convey what life is like on Earth.
A photographer, Alvarez paid homage to another. Launched in September 1977, Voyager I’s mission is to collect data—images and sounds—on its way to interstellar space, beyond our solar system and into the greater Milky Way Galaxy. In February 1990, Voyager I photographed the planets. Known as the “Pale Blue Dot” images, they show the Earth as a tiny light-enhanced spec, conveying how far the probe was and how small our home is from a distant vantage point. Having traveled beyond the sun’s magnetic field in August 2012, Voyager I is now in interstellar space and is the farthest human-made object from the Earth.
Through the light-bed, Alvarez referenced a NASA cleanroom in which the probe was built. The yellow lights are sensitive to photographic equipment, such as that included in Voyager I. In a lab, the lights hang from a ceiling. In Farthest from the Earth, Alvarez placed the lights on the floor and inverted the frame of reference. In so doing, the artist highlighted our position on a rotating planet and the relationship between our home and the probe, which is more than 20 billion kilometers away. What we know of Voyager’s I mission comes to us through its pictures and sound recordings—two modes of media that generate visuals through a man-made mechanism.
In his earlier work, Alvarez similarly explored the relationship between his camera and manufactured light. Soon after finishing graduate school, he began a series, Institutions (2001-2005), for which he shot school buildings at night. The building’s lights were sometimes left on. Void of people, the images convey the strong reductive formal elements of perfunctory architecture—long horizontal lines and grids of windows—pierced with florescent lights. “The ambience of the light,” he noted, “becomes physical and lives inside the building.” The colors we typically see at night “are all man-made or we would only see things by moonlight.” In Institutions, Alvarez focused on “the evidence” of people—lights—rather than an action. To him, “whatever construction man has made, influences the way we see things.”
Artists James Turrell and Olafur Eliasson have considered how we construct our reality based on illusory notions of color and the spatial relationship between our bodies and the landscape. For Turrell and Eliasson, subjective associations shape how we understand what we observe, and they respectively focus on the experience of seeing or sensing, rather than on an object. In Alvarez’s work, viewing becomes relative to the scale of the universe as he highlighted the miniscule vantage point from which we gaze. Alvarez returned to the object–Voyager I—and disrupted the myopic exploration of culturally relative vision.
In relation to Voyager I, our perspective becomes evermore finite as the probe sends evidence of its journey from the far reaches of the solar system and beyond. We are bound not just by the physical and cultural act of seeing or sensing, but also by how we consider our place in the world, one that is and will be reimagined through the probe’s documentation. In Sound Waves, for instance, Voyager I depicted the moment the probe transitioned into an interstellar environment in bold shapes, an indirect representation mediated through the probe and an abstract symbol our senses can process. In an uncharted place where we are physically unable to transmit information, the probe acts an extension of our senses, and we depend on its visual references to convey a place we can only imagine.
Within Farthest from the Earth, the florescent lights directly acknowledge the manufactured space of the lab but are also a metaphor for how we understand what we see. Alvarez underscored that no matter how we reconsider visual perception, observations will be translated through a human-invented simulation that facilitates our awareness. Standing above the light-bed, we can acknowledge that we explicitly participate in the literal construction of the images that define our world. Light here is not atmospheric, but a reminder that perceiving our environment is dependent on an object. When we consider the illusions we develop to craft a narrative of our Earth, we recognize the limitations of sight and sound. In this way, Farthest from the Earth positions us as makers of the somewhat fictional world we frame to explain an infinite realm.
At the Penn State Abington Gallery, there will be a closing reception for Farthest from the Earth on Friday, December 11th from 6:00 – 8:00 pm, and Alvarez will be in attendance.
I had the chance to speak with the new Gallery Director, H. John Thompson, a Lecturer of Art at Penn State, Abington. The vision for the gallery, he noted, is to expose students and the public to emerging Philadelphia-based practitioners, though we can expect to see other artists represented, too.
Providing an inter-disciplinary dialog may be one of the greatest strengths of a university, and, in a gallery setting, cross-disciplinary discussion can provide a riveting context and deepen our understanding. In connection with Farthest from the Earth, for instance, Alvarez presented on his work and Dr. Ann Schmiedekamp, professor of physics and NASA Solar System Ambassador, addressed the scientific innovations on which the artist’s installation depends.
For more information on Penn State Abington Art Gallery, contact Thompson: email@example.com.
Christa recently earned a Ph.D. at Temple University, Tyler School of Art, for her dissertation Painting in Paris: Vincent van Gogh, 1886-1888. She is also an assistant professor at the University of the Arts, where she teaches writing and art history.