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Spaceflights of Fancy

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With Richard Branson offering $200,000 orbits from southern New Mexico, a celebration of zero gravity seems more than a sci-fi fantasy.

Nearly 50 years after NASA sent astronauts into space and put Neil Armstrong on the moon, contemporary artists continue to look to the galaxies for imagery and inspiration. They’re re-enacting planetary landings, replicating astronaut gear, even training with NASA. Last spring, New York’s Park Avenue Armory staged “Space Program 2.0: Mars,” filling the 55,000-square-foot hall with a re-enactment of a trip to Mars.

“It’s not fiction anymore,” Harwood Museum of Art curator Jina Brenneman said. “It’s becoming fact.”

If you go
WHAT: “Machine Wilderness (In Zero Gravity)
WHERE: Harwood Museum of Art, 238 Ledoux St., Taos
WHEN: Through Jan. 27, 2013. Open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday; from noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. Closed Monday.
COST: $10/adults; $8/seniors (65+) and students. Children 12 and under free.
CONTACT: 575-758-9826 or www.harwoodmuseum.org

“Machine Wilderness (In Zero Gravity)” explores that truth at the Harwood Museum of Art in Taos. The show encompasses three exhibitions, partially inspired by the 18th International Symposium on Electronic Art in Albuquerque this fall. The exhibits consider artists’ use of technology in space, fueled by its eventual colonization. Their work ranges from spoof to inspired, populated with aliens and spaceships. There’s even a consideration of zero-gravity tap-dancing.

For Brenneman, the exploration is anything but apocalyptic. “Mad Max” fans need not attend.

“It’s not about going to the moon; it’s about hope,” she said.

The show is divided into a trio of exhibitions: “Falling Without Fear,” “Curiosity: From the Faraway Nearby” and “Charles Luna.” Some artists cross over from one category to the other.

“Falling Without Fear” showcases the work of artists using digital media such as looped videos and 3-D graphics.

Jeff T. Alu already produces graphics and animation for clients ranging from NASA to Hasbro.

“He has been hired by some of the companies to do animated films in space,” Brenneman said.

“The work in ‘Curiosity’ is all iPhone,” she explained. “The work in ‘Falling’ is all digital. They’re animation. He has his hands in both low- and high-tech.”

One shows a hotel designed for space travel; another the formation of a planet, then a solar system.

Folk musician/composer Paul Elwood germinated the music accompanying the exhibit while contemplating movement in outer space.

“If you were going to tap dance in outer space, how would you make a sound?” Brenneman said he asked. “The answer is Velcro.”

He reasoned the sounds would occur when lifting the feet from the floor, rather than striking the floor.

The percussive music features the composer bowing a banjo like he would a violin. Elwood videotaped University of Iowa students rehearsing the piece.

“When I saw it I thought, ‘You couldn’t go to a Star Trek convention and see anything dorkier than this,’ ” Brenneman said.

The exhibit “Curiosity: From the Faraway Nearby” features photographs taken using everything from iPhones to Polaroids.

The Albuquerque-born and -raised Connie Samaras moved to Los Angeles, then returned home to photograph New Mexico’s spaceports and their appendaged buildings and runways. Her work touches on the implications of space travel as that exploration moves away from the government toward private enterprise. New Mexico is the world’s first hub for sending ordinary travelers into the stratosphere.

And then there are the speculative landscapes of Denver’s Joe Clower, aka “El Disco.” During the 1970s, Clower drove around northern New Mexico and southern Colorado carrying a model spaceship dangling from a fishing pole with his buddies and a lot of beer.

“They passed the fishing pole with the model over the landscape,” Brenneman said.

The results looked like landscapes with silver discs soaring across the sky.

“The UFO people went nuts because they thought they were real.”

All joking aside, the masquerades make clear a subconscious desire to explore the spangled expanse we call space.

While “Star Trek” and “Star Wars” may stand as galactic touchstones for older viewers, younger visitors need no such prompting.

“For them, it’s part of their language,” Brenneman said. “It’s not a comic book anymore.”

In fact, there is already art in space.

French choreographer Kitsou Dubois received a government grant taking her to Houston and NASA.

In 1990, she began participating in parabolic flights.

She used that experience of weightlessness to choreograph movement in space. She works with dancers in water, parabolic flights and in virtual reality set-ups.

“She has danced her whole life in zero gravity,” Brenneman said. “They go up in a plane. You see them on the ground. Then you see (the plane) drop and they’re flying and dancing. It’s so gorgeous and ethereal.”

It all shows a healthy disregard for the seemingly impossible.

“Fear of Falling” flatscreens show Taos artist Christina Sporrong dangling from the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge, as well as other high-altitude performances.

“She’s a welder,” Brenneman explained. “She’s also an aerial dancer and an acrobat.”

It was the work of Colorado artist Charles Luna who summed up the exhibition theme for Brenneman. She discovered his paintings while she was judging work for the Colorado State Fair.

The unsettling portraits show a figure with its head replaced by a TV screen, surrounded by a high desert landscape.

“It was machine wilderness in the way I wanted to see machine wilderness,” she said. “It’s how our culture’s changing.”

Brenneman hatched “Machine Wilderness” after stumbling upon a link to London’s Tate Modern called “Tate in Space.” The Tate has declared outer space to be its next outpost in the form of a docking module at the International Space Station.

“I thought it was an artist’s project,” Brenneman said. “But it was a funded department. I called the curator and she said, ‘This is not a joke.’ They’re talking about preserving (art) at zero gravity.”

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