When astronauts first went into space, they were focused on the moon, but seeing the earth from above proved to be profound. Named the “overview effect”, the change of perspective gives rise to feelings of protection. Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the first man to enter space, recalled: “I saw how beautiful our planet is. Humans, let us preserve and enhance this beauty, not destroy it.” It was the same for Apollo 11 pilot Michael Collins: “I had a feeling it’s small, it’s shiny, it’s beautiful, it’s home and it’s fragile.”
Right now, you may be forgiven for thinking that everyone has to get up above the atmosphere and take a good look. That said, I’m not sure the vision of the earth from above has inspired thoughtful performances by the likes of Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson. But if you are not a billionaire with galactic ambitions, you can always go to Cork, where Luke Jerram’s Gaia, a 7 meter long sculpture of the earth, is installed for the Midsummer Festival.
Named after the ancient Greek personification of the earth, the sculpture shows a replica created with images (including clouds) from Nasa. Jerram is a good hand at astral bodies and his Mars will also arrive on this island and appear in Galway in July. It’s a nice conjunction because Mars in some places is the next target to destroy, when we’re done destroying our home planet.
Like Olafur Eliasson, Anish Kapoor and the late Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Jerram is an artist who makes works on a scale that may end up as a spectacle – but fortunately does not. Still, you often wait for the onslaught of selfie takers to subside before you can have a quiet moment to see how you feel about them. Described as “probably the most famous artist you’ve never heard of”, Jerram did not grow up with an artistic background – except to the extent that his mother would omit crayons and paper, to amuse him if he woke up early.
His father was a milkman and his mother a teacher. I was born and raised in a small village in Stroud, north of Bristol. I remember seeing my first show. It was in Tate Liverpool. “Offered a choice on a school trip, between watching Liverpool play football or going to an exhibition, the then teenager chose art.” I went to the gallery. I was about 17 and saw a Giacometti exhibition. Giacometti sculptures are something “, he continues smiling but serious. “From the side, they are ordinary, and then you walk around and realize that they are just so narrow,” he holds up clenched fingers. “I thought there was something really interesting about the optical illusion of it all. Still,” he pauses, “it’s a shame I missed going to football …”
I wonder if Jerram has anything against the selfie brigade, which stands in the way of potentially profoundly strange encounters. “People want to document for a moment,” he says. We connect via Zoom, although I do not get to see the usual chaos and productive mess on an artist’s workspace. Instead, he is in a pure white office, a photograph of Gaia, installed over water, on the wall behind. He is similarly guarded himself, tactful and measured, and very charming in that self-ironic way that can be typically English. But I understand that he would never give away something unintentional.
“They come in and take a lot of pictures,” he says. “But then they will sit and ponder and look at other people and talk to each other about what they see.” He’s right. I usually do the same. It’s easy to get holier than you about the selfie bully, but when I look through my own photos, there’s more than enough of me standing in front of things. Size seems to have an effect. If it’s a small work of art, I have a picture of it. If it’s huge, it’s probably going to be one of me. Maybe that’s one of the ways we understand enormity. If so, Jerram is in on something with his scaled-down planets. Jerram agrees. “These works of art, they leave room for the public to look at themselves in relation to it, so the public is almost a part of the work of art, they are a part of the ingredients of the experience.”
Another ingredient is context. Four years ago, I was disappointed at the Jerrams Museum of the Moon in Galway. After a whirlwind opening night, as it hung, like a heavenly visit, out in the elements on Shop Street, it continued to lurk in a corner of the Human Biology Building at NUI Galway, like a little planet child in the naughty corner. It was nobody’s fault. It is a risk all festivals take when programming large-scale experimental works. “It’s a bit of that,” Jerram agrees, singing. “It’s hard to control some of the elements. Things like putting out street lights, crazy weather.” He remembers another place where the moon was struck by lightning, a version that went to the United States came back full of holes, someone had tried to shoot the moon.
Expect bigger things this time around, as the Galway International Arts Festival will feature Mars in the atmospheric courtyard of Persse’s Distillery on Nun’s Island, while Gaia will be at St Colman’s Cathedral, Cobh. Each will be accompanied by specially ordered soundscapes. Artists differ in how they hope, or expect their work to be received in public. Some can be quite didactic about meaning and interpretation. Others, on the opposite end, claim that once they have sent a piece out into the world, what happens next is entirely in the hands and consciousness of the audience.
How big an agenda does Jerram have for how his work is seen and understood? Mars was commissioned by the British Space Agency, so there is an obvious element of inspiring scientific imagination. “There has to be an open interpretation to some degree,” he says. “The difficulty I have is when someone wants to communicate an agenda that I’m not hungry for.” He describes an installation of the Museum of the Moon in Bath Abbey, where an interpretive panel, as he puts it, was “full of falsehoods and inaccuracies,” focusing the installation on God and religion. He had the panel taken down.
One reason why Jerram’s name is not as well known as the works he does, is that his production is very eclectic. Contracted by his vast interest in perception that stems from his own experiences of being color-blind: in world science and physics, which encompasses everything from the environment, to the science of sleep, to virology; and in what happens when people are brought together by art; it’s hard to pinpoint what a Luke Jerram work looks like. It is often an idea that is so good that one wonders why no one had done it before. Street piano that now appears at festivals, train stations and squares? The idea was originally his, from Play Me, I’m Yours, which has been touring internationally since 2008.
Then there was the Sky Orchestra, where musicians played in an ultra Covid-safe way, in hot air balloons, gliding overhead. The Sky Orchestra originated as a project in 2011 to explore how sound affects sleep, and was four years before Max Richter’s epic sleep music. So you could say they are foresighted and large-scale, and yet he made an engagement ring that has the sound of the proposal etched on it, which can be played via a miniature turntable. He also made, on commission, a glass copy of the coronavirus, just months before the pandemic struck. “It was a little crazy,” he says. “I realized the importance of it and invited the press to come and take pictures. I thought it would be useful for them to communicate what these things actually look like. ” Editions were sold, which raised money for Médecins Sans Frontières.
Perhaps the connection is that Jerram, like so many of us, has a mind that dreams of ideas, and yet he differs in that he then proceeds to make them a reality. He also places his ideas in the realm of art, which is another way of saying that he likes that they are open, explored for their ideas and received as objects. He talks enthusiastically about the idea of ”unexpected results”. Some works of art, such as the engagement ring of his fiancée, now his wife, are personal projects. Others are the result of approaches, such as from the Space Agency. He is currently working with the English National Opera and has just returned from Uganda, where he has been working on a fashion project to help spread the word about immunization.
“I put together proposals and documents and often come up with 10 ideas at the same time. And then they will say “We will have it, because this is rubbish …” And then I will stop with all these ideas about projects that I am waiting to deliver. “Ideas come to him visually, rather than in words, and he mocks them into photographs. He holds a fan of them towards the Zoom camera, and I’m captivated by the enormous potential for wonder and the leap of imagination he seizes. He points one out. “There is a project called Sky Walk. I like the idea of rope bridges over rooftops, one kilometer of rope bridges to open up and enjoy all the hidden architecture of a city. ”
Someone, somewhere, order it.
Luke Jerram’s Gaia is at St Colman’s Cathedral, Cobh, from June 15-26, as part of the Cork Midsummer Festival. March will be at the Persses Distillery Yard, Nun’s Island, Galway, from July 14-17 as part of the Galway International Arts Festival. Admission to both is free. corkmidsummer.com, giaf.ie, lukejerram.com
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