The Anthology of Interplanetary Folk Art
The twin Voyager space probes were launched by NASA between August and September 1977. Almost forty years later, their instruments are still providing data to scientists here on Earth, though they may not include any members of the original team, and how useful the data will prove is open to debate. Having traveled beyond the rings and moon of Saturn, the probes should continue their mission in interstellar space for another seven or eight years, until about 2025, at which time nearly a half century will have passed. The Voyager probes are the oldest man-made objects sent furthest from the Earth. Yet considering the age of the universe—the Big Bang is thought to have occurred about 14 billion years ago—a half century only sounds like a long time to mere mortals. Even a centenarian, someone who lives to 100, is embryonic, comparatively speaking. One year in the life of the universe is equal to about 1/100th of a second, so whenever you blink you miss much more than you may have thought. But no matter. There's always more to see, more to experience. Imagine a Voyager probe, its power generated by plutonium and thus destined for radioactive decay, not so many years from now, its radio signal fading, endlessly adrift, a mini-Chernobyl afloat in the vastness of deep space, buoyed by the quasi-infinities of thought and perception, deadly space-junk far above our heads, out of sight, not entirely out of mind.
A half century. This is also not particularly long when you consider some of the oldest sculpture created on the planet: the Venus of Hohle Fels and the Lion Man of Hohlenstein-Stadel. Dating from 35,000 to 40,000 years ago, these are the earliest representations of humans, or of human-like figures that we know of; carved from the tusk of mammoths, from ivory, an entirely non-threatening material compared to plutonium. Although disagreement continues where the gender of the Lion Man is concerned, in pairing them we may yet recognize the Venus and the Lion Man as a couple, perhaps more representative of the beginnings of life on earth, and by extension of art, than the stylized line drawing that accompanied the Voyager space probes. The NASA couple is clearly male-female and white, the woman visibly pregnant, designating her ideal primary function: to reproduce, to carry forth the species. With the gender of the Lion Man in doubt, claimed by some as male, by others female, we might identify this as possibly the earliest representation of a transitional body, in which case, although 40,000 years old, a prehistoric figure resonates that much more deeply for our time. And the Venus, also descended from the Ice Age, may appear that much more resonant than the Venus de Milo, whose cold classicism alienates it from the very earthly-womb that connects us, if not directly to the caves in Germany where those carvings were discovered, than to a place inside the ground—and not a marble quarry—in which prehistoric life found shelter, where art was first created and emerged. Art, we can see, was an underground activity from the start—the cave as studio/gallery—and yet it was a communal endeavor, meant to be shared; pictures painted and drawn, imbued with meaning, visual language predating the spoken and written word, possessing a power to communicate that reverberates still, a fulcrum between futures and pasts.
Art works are space probes of a sort. To understand them in this way is, on the one hand, to test our tolerance for what may be accepted as such, while on the other to marvel at art's heightened capacity to retrieve, translate, and transmit information beyond itself, far beyond the moment in which it was made. Works of art may thus be thought to store data for future retrieval, to aid us in imagining what came before—to possibly confound a given narrative—as well as what's to come, and in this we envision a reciprocal elasticity. READ MORE
A writer and curator based in New York, Bob Nickas has organized over 100 exhibitions since 1984. He was Curatorial Advisor at P.S.1/MoMA in New York between 2004-07, where his exhibitions include Lee Lozano: Drawn From Life; William Gedney—Christopher Wool: Into the Night; Stephen Shore: American Surfaces; and Wolfgang Tillmans: Freedom From The Known. Books include Painting Abstraction: New Elements In Abstract Painting, Catalog Of the Exhibition, and three collections of his writing and interviews: Theft Is Vision, Live Free or Die and The Dept. of Corrections. A new collection, Komp-Laint Dept., is forthcoming from Karma.
image: Josh Tonsfeldt, Monkey, Elephanta Island, 2017