“The surface is fine and powdery. I can kick it up loosely with my toe. It does adhere in fine layers, like powdered charcoal, to the sole and sides of my boots. I only go in a small fraction of an inch, maybe an eighth of an inch, but I can see the footprints of my boots and the treads in the fine, sandy particles.” — Neil Armstrong, 1969
“I described the moon shot once as a very expensive non-site…To an extent I thought that after they got to the moon there was a strange demoralization that set in that they didn’t discover little green men, or something.” — Robert Smithson, 1972
Various Small Fires presents LIFE: ON THE MOON, a group exhibition tracing the immediate influence and lasting significance of the epochal July 20, 1969 moon landing on the early development of Land Art, represented by Robert Smithson and Michelle Stuart, in dialogue with recent works by Christopher Badger, Trevor Paglen, Katie Paterson, and Tavares Strachan.
In August 1969, LIFE Magazine published dozens of full-page stills from films of the moon’s surface shot by Neil Armstrong in an issue titled “LIFE: On The Moon.” The colonization and documentation of the moon’s previously mysterious lunar landscape revealed it to be a desolate “non-site”, while also forever shifting perception of fundamental landscape concepts such as scale, distance, accessibility, and jurisdiction.
Concurrently with the military-industrial “space race” leading up to the moon landing, American artists began to experiment outside of traditional studio practice, intervening at a terrestrial scale to initiate the Land Art movement. Michelle Stuart, an early member of this movement, produced a series of haunting mixed media meditations on paper in 1969 including Magnetic Forces, exhibited here for the first time, that subtly critique the techno-scientific mandate to strip the moon of its mystery. Fellow Land Art progenitor Robert Smithson’s rarely noted lunar influence is illustrated by his 1972 Lake Edge Crescent proposal to transform a depleted Midwestern strip mine “non-site” into a crescent-marked earthwork resembling the moon’s barren surface.
A selection of recent works further engages the moon’s paradoxical post-landing status as a familiar yet inaccessible site/non-site. Christopher Badger’s Lunar Mirrors are polished reliefs of high-resolution NASA lunar topographical data rendered as glamorous abstractions. Badger also presents a towering 30-foot model of a lunar spire, which was commonly hypothesized to populate the moon’s surface by 19th century European astronomers misled by crater shadows. Katie Paterson’s Second Moon playfully addresses the moon’s out-of-reach familiarity by sending an actual crated moon rock into “orbit” around the Earth via UPS, which will make occasional stops during the exhibition to an otherwise empty pedestal at Various Small Fires, tracked via a networked touchscreen console.
Trevor Paglen uses espionage techniques to portray the military-surveillance complex’s landscape and skyscape interventions hidden in plain site, as in Dead Military Navigation Satellite (Cosmos 985) Near the Disk of the Moon, in which a defunct top secret satellite floats for eternity as an artificial second moon. In Standing Alone, which debuted at his 2013 Venice Biennale Bahamas Pavilion, Tavares Strachan plants a flag on the North Pole in proxy of a lunar landing, as a poignant post-colonial gesture.