Saturday, March 9, 2013

Our Blue Marble

Kazimir Malevich's Black Square 1915
An example of Abstract Art, specifically from the Suprematism movement. It can easily be called the most extreme example of artistic abstraction.

Recently, I was trying to convey the meaning, or at least the relevance of the Black Square to my high school art students. Most people don't understand abstract art, and that's part of what it is,if you want to see it that way - another esoteric tool used by the elite to alienate a people from their own culture. But I like to see art, any art, as simply a reflection of a time and of the mind of a people at a particular time in history. Art is a kind of coping mechanism for society; the society as a whole will call a thing Art if it serves that purpose - to help us to cope with a world we do not understand. Needless to say, as anyone who would try to explain abstract art to group of high school students in a single 45-minute presentation, I was successful only in getting them upset enough to debate with me for 45 mintutes about the ridiculousness of the Black Square.

The Blue Marble is a famous photograph of the Earth, taken on December 7, 1972, by the crew of the Apollo 17 spacecraft. The photograph was taken about 5 hours and 6 minutes after launch of the Apollo 17 mission. To the astronauts, Earth had the appearance and size of a glass marble, hence the name.

The Apollo 17 image, however, released during a surge in environmental activism during the 1970s, was acclaimed by the wide public as a depiction of Earth's frailty, vulnerability, and isolation amid the vast expanse of space. NASA archivist Mike Gentry has speculated that The Blue Marble is the most widely distributed image in human history. [link]

Later that night, I thought to myself about the Blue Marble, or rather what I call the Blue Marble Syndrome. I was born in 1980, and so for me, I never lived in a world where man had -not- been to outerspace. This achievement had already taken place well before I was born, and so it never hit me; it was always there. From what I understand through reading history, this image changed not only the lives of the countless individuals who saw it for the first time, but it changed the consciousness of an entire society (as mentioned in the caption above). And I made the parallel - my students couldn't feel the true impact, the true relevance of the Black Square, because they weren't around for its inception.

The next day, I tried explaining this to them. No use. (Back to the more concrete and perhaps practical exercise of distinguishing the difference between representationality and non-representationality in visually-informed art).

And then it happened. Granted, I had been following Curiosity. I stayed up that night like a little kid in utter amazement, but almost a bit moreso at the fact that the entire world was watching along with me, all of us, with the entire crew at NASA, in real time (and at the implications of that superimposed on the idea of the timelag between here and Mars) feeling the same every bit of anxiety, both the good kind and the bad kind, as everyone else. It landed, and it was over. Some months later, I was scrolling through some feeds, and I came across this picture (below), and it stopped me dead in my tracks, and I literally could not take my eyes off of it for a good five minutes; in a very real way, it transported me to another world (superimposed on the fact that it -is- another world I'm looking at) and it took away from me, for those moments, my own thoughts.

I still can't get over it. Neither the image, nor its implications, nor the experience it forced upon me.

Curiosity Self Portrait on Mars February 2013 Image Credit:NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
Taken in the Yellowknife Bay region of Mars' Gale Crater, the panoramic image was stitched together by NASA from a series of 130 images created in the first week of February by the rover's 34-millimeter Mast camera and Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI). [The MAHLI frames used to create Curiosity's self-portrait exclude sections that show the arm itself and so MAHLI and the robotic arm are not seen.] 

As I'm sure any student of history and art and culture is wont to do, I have spent many daydream-hours lamenting over why I am alive now and not then. Why couldn't I hear Jimi Hendrix turn his guitar into a human-robot voice. Why couldn't I hear Neil Armstrong speak to us from a place that is not Earth. And why couldn't I see that picture of my own planet and feel the same sense of fragility, of isolation, and all the myriad emotions and thoughts that came with it.

It's not that I will no longer lament over being alive today and not yesterday. But I have certainly found comfort in this: Everyone of us, eventually, will be given our own Blue Marble.

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