The Life Cycle of Celestial Objects Pts. 1 & 2 at McIntosh Gallery, London

By Kim Neudorf

Just outside the steps of McIntosh Gallery, a satellite has collided with a parked car. Having apparently just crashed to earth, the satellite’s impact is both convincing and comical. This artwork by Brandon Vickerd sets the tone for the gallery’s two-part group exhibition The Life Cycle of Celestial Objects Pts. 1 & 2, curated by Helen Gregory and Joel Ong. Catching the attention of passing students who frequently ask, “Is it art?”, Vickerd’s creation, complete with jokey license plate ANXS 129, resembles something out of a film set. Presuming a vague, shared anxiety around delinquent artifacts of space exploration (also known as “space junk”), the work delivers such anxiety through a distinctly flattening visual punchline.

Brandon Vickerd, Alouette, 2018, stainless steel, Ford Focus, LED light, electronics (installed in front of McIntosh Gallery)

Considering the legacy of past and present space exploration as well as questions of access, inclusion, and participatory modes of knowledge, Gregory and Ong address the future of such rogue artifacts with more nuance inside the gallery proper. In the east gallery, Ong’s installation includes a display of objects related to community engagement events such as the recent Stratos balloon launch by the Canadian Space Agency. This project emerged from Ong’s collaboration with York University’s Nanosatellite Lab run by Regina Lee. As a way to build awareness around “space junk congestion issues,” the team held presentations in March at the Ontario Science Centre, where they asked groups of kids: “What message would you send to space?” Engraved on the surfaces of the payloads then launched into orbit by the Nanosatellite Research Lab, the ornately tiny questions, exclamations, drawings, and jokes can be viewed in depth via a magnifying glass or accessed by a QR code. The openness and vulnerability of these messages underlines the contradictions within our earliest and often enduring relationships to space exploration, when conceptions of space were more abstract and emotionally charged.

P.S. Love to Space, 2023, engraved interface plate (STRATOS Balloon Mission, August 2023) (on loan from the York University Nanosatellite Research Laboratory)

Ong’s installation also includes video interviews with scientists and engineers asked to speak about personal motivations behind their research as well as thoughts on what a participatory model of space exploration might look like. Part of this discussion includes the difficulty non-scientists might have in both accessing and utilizing scientific data such as, in the instance of Western University’s Cronyn Observatory, meteor research, the chemical makeup of the universe, or moon eclipse frequency. Knowing how to test, let alone approach, such data often relies on sharing information with more artistic than scientific appeal. This broad appeal can be more accessible aesthetically, while often remaining largely inaccessible in practice. In an interactive wall installation by Ong with Luca Cherpillod, Grace Grothaus, Kieran Maraj, and the Nanosatellite Research Laboratory, night sky constellations and blinking circuit boards from decommissioned satellites accompany a pre-recorded feedback loop of data fed through a “sonification” process and digital visualizer. While visitors are encouraged to interact with LED lights which animate the circuit boards, any live interaction has no effect upon the data feed, sound, or visualizer, which lessens the work’s participatory impact.

Luca Cherpillod, Grace Grothaus, Kieran Maraj, and Joel Ong with the Nanosatellite Research Laboratory, Circuit Board Graveyard, 2023, decommissioned satellite PCBs, dynamic visualization, RSO data sonification

In the west gallery, Gregory has chosen artists whose practices respond to the legacy of space exploration as well as to who, historically, has had access to its various forms of knowledge. This part of the exhibition raises the questions, “Who is this knowledge meant for, and who is left out of its broad, universalizing narratives of wonder and mystery?” On a monitor embedded in a makeshift antique television set, Nurielle Stern and Nancy Jo Cullen’s accumulation of historical space exploration headlines on microfiche are overlayed by the audio and text of a poem by Cullen that speaks of the “ordinary orbit” of “the cliché moon, diminished by electric streetlights.” The noise of sensational headlines contrasts with the poem’s slowed, heightened pacing, which makes it feel like you’re waiting for a message from the beyond. The flat affect of information overload is played up in Bettina Forget’s AI-generated space explorer visuals, which melt fluidly and creepily into constantly shifting, inwardly looping puddles of imagery. Another kind of view within a view appears in the reflective helmet of Jesse Tungilik’s space suit reimagined in marbled sealskin and intricately beaded ID patches; while the helmet’s orb-like shape reflects all, it also reveals nothing, deflecting a kind of easy, presumed (universal) relatability, and foregrounding what it means to embody a suit for exploring the cosmos outside of Western conceptions of space travel.

Jesse Tungilik, Sealskin Spacesuit, 2019-2020, mixed media (on loan from Indigenous Art Collection, Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada)

While works such as Janet Jones’ colorful photographic compositions and Bettina Forget’s painted renderings of the literal surface of the moon seem to take a much more formal and detached approach to the exhibition’s broader themes, alternate pathways and delivery systems of knowledge are explored with more complexity in works by BUSH Gallery (Gabrielle L’Hirondelle Hill, Peter Morin, Tania Willard), Shuvinai Ashoona, and Camille Turner. BUSH Gallery’s deer hide and wood drum illuminates the words, “Sounds of the Earth,” suggesting a form of knowledge accessed not through space tech designed for scientific data, but technology for and by human and non-human collaborators. Ashoona’s large drawing imagines an ecosystem of earth(s) as a living source of knowledge in direct communication with both physical and spiritual ways of being. In Turner’s short video, a present-day Black activist named Gloria Smith is encountered in the far future by two “Afronauts” or space-time travelers, whose astonishment is double fold – how did Smith arrive so far into the future, and thereby how did we, implicated through Smith’s viewpoint, arrive with her? Turner’s playful world-building, while utilizing the often more flexible genre of sci-fi and space travel to envision possible futurities, also considers the ultimate paradox of time travel: would Smith still exist if she altered the conditions and events of the past? Works such as BUSH Gallery’s, Ashoona’s, and Turner’s bring the question of the celestial – or as Gregory asked in an accompanying text, “Have we ourselves become celestial?” – back down to earth, where the edges of the celestial in, around, and of us can be more than the question of what we might become, and can include what we already are as well as who is included in that becoming.

The Life Cycle of Celestial Objects Pts. 1 & 2 continues until December 9.
McIntosh Gallery:
The gallery is not accessible.

Kim Neudorf is an artist and writer based in London (ON). Their writing and paintings have appeared most recently at Embassy Cultural House, London, ON; Support project space, London, ON; McIntosh Gallery, London, ON; DNA Gallery, London, ON; Paul Petro, Toronto; Franz Kaka, Toronto; Forest City Gallery, London, ON; Modern Fuel Artist-Run Centre, Kingston; Evans Contemporary Gallery, Peterborough; and Susan Hobbs Gallery, Toronto. Instagram: @kimneudorf