When the objective becomes subjective

They are simply ‘ordinary’ HD satellite images, produced for the purposes of science without any artistic intent. Yet the title of the exhibition – The Earth as a Work of Art – is not in the least surprising. How would we judge these ‘works’if they bore an artist’s signature? Ralph Dekoninck, an art historian at Belgium’s National Scientific Research Fund, shares his thoughts on the aesthetic value of new images of reality produced by science.

Folk Toy Object (1969) - © SABAM Belgium 2007 Victor Vasarely
Folk Toy Object (1969)
© SABAM Belgium 2007
Victor Vasarely is the undisputed father of “Op art”, kinetic art or optical art, an artistic movement which explores the eye’s fallibility when it comes to optical illusions. Here, a new relationship is set up between the viewer and the artwork, provoking the active participation of the onlooker. In stimulating visual acuity for improved understanding, perhaps art is only a step away from science…
Satellite image of farming in Kansas, United States. Satellite image of farming in Kansas, United States.

As an art historian, what is your initial reaction to these satellite photos?

As a simple observer, one cannot but be fascinated by the beauty of these images. Or, more precisely, by their fantastic appearance that causes us to forget that they are photographs. The first reaction is to think of abstract paintings. But the informed observer can wonder about the effects of this transfer of images originating in a scientific context to the world of art. These pictures were not composed with any aesthetic intent. Yet is it not possible to approach them without thinking of their purpose and to appreciate them purely for their form and colour? Whatever the case, the fact of exhibiting them in a different context inevitably changes the way they are perceived. Placing the same object in an environment that is not its own transforms the way it is perceived. The surrealists were well aware of this.

To what extent can we speak of “The Earth as a work of art” ?

Such an aesthetic appreciation stems directly from our Western visual culture, one that has become accustomed to abstraction. Images such as these would certainly not have held the attention of observers in the 18th century. The way in which we approach the reality around us is not as ancient as is generally believed. Although since the beginnings of the modern era it has been customary to recognise in nature the mark of the Divine creator, who is often, in fact, compared to a painter whose work is the visible world.

On the other hand, the way of regarding nature disinterestedly to contemplate its beauty is the result of landscape painting as it flourished in the 19th century. It was then that painters started to take their easels out into the countryside to paint, instead of recreating nature from the confines of their studio. Since the impressionists, who were interested exclusively in the effects of light, our relationship to the world we see around us has changed considerably. We often perceive and appreciate nature like a painting.

Can the exact sciences be ‘abstract’?

The 20th century opened us up to worlds we couldn’t see before. The infinitely big and the infinitely small, imperceptible to the naked eye, were revealed to us by techniques of scientific observation. Lacking familiar reference points, this world appears abstract to us, as it does not match reality as we usually perceive it. In granting us access to the ‘invisible’ in this way, the sciences have become more fascinating, acquiring an almost magical power that, in a sense, recreates an enchantment with the world we thought we knew so well.

How can science and art be mutually inspiring?

Science and modern art were born almost hand in hand, as they date back to the Renaissance, and most artists of that time were also learned men and inventors. The prime example is, of course, Leonardo da Vinci. At that time science, like art, was a matter of invention, in the original sense of the term, that is, the discovery of a pre-existing truth. Given this common root, it is normal for these two fields to have remained in continuous communication.

Yet, in the collective imagination, science and art are also separated as one embodies objectivity while the other is presented as being in the realms of subjectivity. The most recent scientific discoveries, especially in the field of astrophysics, give us access to unknown worlds while at the same time helping to create a new imaginary world, one assimilated by certain contemporary artists. On the other hand, men of science can take inspiration from the artistic imagination to think the unthinkable. In this sense, it is true to speak of mutual inspiration.