"Liftoff, from The Apollo Prophecies" by Richard Selesnick… (unknown )
The fist-sized rocks looked completely pedestrian, like something one might find in the backyard. The only hint that they might be exceptional was their location in a gallery at Pasadena's Art Center College of Design, resting on pedestals inside individual display cases.
In fact, the rocks are anything but ordinary — they're borrowed from the UCLA Meteorite Collection.
The university had wanted to loan fancier-looking specimens, but curator Stephen Nowlin deliberately chose the least impressive space debris he could find.
"I wanted to show that the stuff that comes from space looks just like the stuff you kick around on a hike," he said.
It's a typical juxtaposition for the "Worlds" exhibit, now on view at the Alyce de Roulet Williamson Gallery. The installation combines art, historical documents and visualizations of scientific data in an attempt to ponder how scientific knowledge, and the lack of it, shape humans' understanding of the world around them.
"We have an Earth focus. This show is about reinvestigating that perspective," Nowlin said. "It's a space object we live on."
To that end, Nowlin has hung black-and-white photos of run-of-the-mill stones, magnified so that they look like imposing boulders.
Nearby, reproductions of pages from early scientific works, many from the rare books collection of the Huntington Library, remind visitors how earlier generations interpreted what they could see of the heavens. An illuminated manuscript from 1568 places the Earth in the center of the universe; an engraving from Nicolaus Copernicus' "De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium" of 1566 depicts the sun at the center of the cosmos.
That art was science. Elsewhere in the exhibit, science becomes art.
For instance, Jonathan Cecil's 2010 "Basrah Zoom" manipulates Earth satellite imagery to create a portrait of our planet that looks decidedly extraterrestrial, with streets and other man-made features morphed into the craggy pits and protrusions of an asteroid.
New York artists Richard Selesnick and Nicholas Kahn turn space-themed imagery into surreal science fiction in their piece "Liftoff, from the Apollo Prophecies." Completed in 2006, the mixed-media projection imagines a system of travel between the Earth and the moon where rocket capsules grow from the lunar surface and space-suited elephants and monkeys wander about.
"The details in that piece mess with your sensibility of what's real and what's imagined," said Daniel Lewis, Dibner senior curator of the history of science and technology at the Huntington. "That's what art is — it looks like something real, but it's constructed."
In another room, portraits of real moons generated from photos by various NASA craft are displayed on a long wall. Earth's moon is subtly tucked toward the middle of the series, among Mars' Phobos, Saturn's Enceladus and Jupiter's Io.
"I wanted to equalize it," Nowlin said.
Shows like "Worlds" fit well with the Art Center's mission, Nowlin said. The school trains industrial, transportation, graphic and other designers — workers who innovate "at the boundary of art and science," he said.
Nowlin has been curating shows that superimpose the two disciplines for about 15 years, often working with local scientific institutions. In 2003, he and scientists from Caltech collaborated with artists on an exhibition that explored neuroscience.
A few years later, the Williamson Gallery jointly presented an exhibit with Caltech's Spitzer Science Center. That show invited artists to create visual works using infrared data, which can't be seen by the naked eye, collected from the Spitzer Space Telescope.
A major goal of all the gallery's work, Nowlin said, is to focus on the emotional connection people make with science. "That could come back to benefit science" by stoking public interest, support and funding, he said.
It can also create a moving experience, he added.
During opening night at "Worlds," opera singers performed arias in front of "Black Rain," a wall-sized video installation by a collaboration called Semiconductor that features real footage captured by a NASA probe as it traveled around the sun.
"It was goose bumps," Nowlin said. "Everybody was sort of stunned."
Thousands of stars tumbled slowly down the wall, punctuated by an occasional glowing planet or burst of reflected sunlight, as the two women sang.
"Worlds" is on display through Jan. 29, but will be closed for the holidays from Dec. 22 through Jan. 2. Admission and parking are free.