The Art Inspired By The Webb Telescope

In the film “2001: A Space Odyssey,” an astronaut travels through a seeming tunnel of light. (In the novelization, he radios to mission control: “The thing’s hollow—it goes on forever—and—oh my God!—it’s full of stars!”) Earlier this summer, Artechouse, an organization producing immersive, technology-based art, started offering a science-backed version of a similar trip at its New York venue. The show, titled “Beyond the Light,” is a looping twenty-six-minute journey through space and other realms inspired by images from the James Webb Space Telescope (J.W.S.T.). Artechouse began talks with NASA about a show in 2018, and started pulling this one together earlier this year, after the first images captured by J.W.S.T. were released to the public last July.

There’s a long tradition of art about the stars. More than sixteen thousand years ago, cave explorers in what’s now Lascaux, France, painted animals that are believed to represent the constellations. A few hundred miles away and many centuries later—near Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, in 1889—Vincent van Gogh made “The Starry Night,” a swirling blur of color looming over a village. “I’m sure people have been painting the heavens for as long as they’ve been looking at them,” Maggie Masetti, the NASA social-media lead for the J.W.S.T. mission, told me. “Beyond the Light” is high-tech—video is projected on three walls and the floor of a vast room, while a powerful sound system thrums—but it’s also connected to traditional astro-art in the way it’s largely abstract and impressionistic (sometimes even Cubist). Although the show makes use of images taken by the Webb telescope, it is mostly imaginative. Splashes of color, bubbles, tubes, machinery, and glowing rocks covered with runes flow across the room in response to what the telescope has found.

When the show premièred, in June—its D.C. première is this Friday—a number of researchers involved with the J.W.S.T. were in attendance, among them Stefanie Milam, a NASA astrochemist; Macarena García Marín, an astrophysicist at the European Space Agency; and Mike Menzel, NASA’s mission-systems engineer for the Webb. They stood talking with Sandro Kereselidze, one of Artechouse’s founders. “It’s absolutely fantastic and beautiful,” Milam said. “We already tried to do our own art,” she went on—scientists producing images with the Webb had used “different components of the instruments, different wavelengths, or different filters, to really tell the story about a given image, because we want you to see the baby stars being formed in a giant cloud, or to see the Great Red Spot on Jupiter in multiple colors, or other storms in planetary atmospheres.” But now artists were telling other kinds of stories using the images. “What we do is sort of amateur art,” Milam said.

“We designed the telescope to wow the scientists,” Menzel agreed. Now, he said, “We’re here in an art show, watching some images that we helped produce becoming things that are almost iconic.”

Kereselidze saw similarities between the artists he worked with at Artechouse and the scientists. “We speak the same language,” he said. “We have the passion for expressing what we discovered.” There were some small science exhibits on a mezzanine, but the venue wasn’t trying to be a science museum. Instead, Kereselidze said, “The goal is to open up curious minds. If everything is, like, ‘A, B, C, D,’ it becomes like PowerPoint, right?”

Later, over Zoom, Riki Kim, the executive creative director of Artechouse, explained the meaning behind some of the seemingly disconnected visuals. The floating rocks with glowing inscriptions on them alluded to prehistoric cave paintings; the drifting bubbles represented quantum foam, theoretical fluctuations in space-time. “Every exhibit that we produce is a celebration of a combination of science and technology and art,” she said. Her favorite Webb image, she said, showed the Phantom Galaxy, a spiral galaxy thirty-two million light years away, which the telescope captured using an infrared instrument. Something resembling a blue, glowing eye sits at the center of what looks like a cobweb going down the drain of a black marble sink. She contrasted it with the Cosmic Cliffs and the Pillars of Creation, two regions of nebulae that had also been strikingly photographed. They were like pop stars, she said—winning and charismatic—whereas “the Phantom Galaxy has that rock-star kind of appeal to it. It’s moody. There’s some mysteriousness.”

Kim said that she was moved not just by what the telescope shows us but by how it does so. “There’s decades of humanity’s best efforts in science, optical engineering, you name it” behind the pictures, she said. “That whole process is really inspiring for people who are behind the scenes, like us, the studio team and the designers.” Some of the imagery in the show—such as wiring maps and shards of machinery—is dedicated to the telescope’s engineering. At a high level, Kim noted, the show is about how we’ve experienced light throughout the history of civilization, and about how we keep pushing boundaries to see more of it. “This is our tribute to the technical infrastructure of discovery,” Kim said.

In July of 2022, Ashley Zelinskie, a Brooklyn-based conceptual artist, was at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, in Maryland, when the first Webb images were revealed in the presence of scientists and the media. “It was a very emotional room,” she recalled. “Everybody was very excited and misty-eyed when the images came back.” That October, her solo exhibition, “Unfolding the Universe: First Light” (curated by NASA’s Masetti), opened at ONX Studio, in New York City. One piece depicted the telescope itself, with its array of hexagonal, gold-plated mirrors. The 3-D-printed sculpture, “Exploration,” portrays those panels with three arms reaching out, the arms wrapped in the math used to build the telescope. Another 3-D-printed sculpture, “Southern Ring Nebula,” looks like a porcupine crossed with a snake, its loops meant to evoke the eponymous planetary nebula in the constellation Vela.

Some of the art is interactive. The movie “It’s a Wonderful Life,” from 1946, includes a telescopic image of five galaxies called Stephan’s Quintet; the Webb produced an updated, high-resolution image of the galaxies, and the grouping reminded Zelinskie of the five figures in Matisse’s painting “La Danse.” She brought them to life by creating her own “La Danse,” a hologram of dancing stars that viewers can control using a motion sensor. Scientists created an image called Webb’s First Deep Field by pointing the telescope at a patch of black sky that was approximately the diameter of a grain of sand held at arm’s length, and collecting light for more than twelve hours; the process revealed thousands of galaxies in layers, each containing light collected at a different band of infrared wavelengths. “The way they described the process, I was, like, ‘Oh, my God, that sounds so much like silk-screening,’ ” Zelinskie said. So she made “Deep Field,” a silk screen of the image. Viewers can place plastic pegs into dark patches of the work, and the pegs light up, conveying the possibility that, if the telescope had looked even longer, it might have found something there, too. “There’s probably a star there, everywhere you look,” she said.

In part because of the telescope’s hexagonal mirrors, stars appear with six points in the images it creates. The points are visible in “She Signs Her Work in Stars,” a 3-D-printed sculpture. “It’s kind of like the telescope signs its own art work—like the telescope is an artist itself,” Zelinskie said. “These images are extremely daunting for an artist to make art work about because they’re just so beautiful. How can we improve upon them?” When the first Webb images were released, Zelinskie didn’t attempt to make art in response to one in particular; she kept returning to an image titled “Cosmic Cliffs,” of the Carina Nebula, for months. “It’s just so breathtaking that I just said, ‘What can I say about it?’ ” she recalled. When we spoke, she was working on a tapestry that she hoped would do it justice.

Zelinskie sees artists and scientists as not so dissimilar; they are people trying to figure out their place in the universe. “Humanity is the universe observing itself,” she told me. “I want people to walk away from my art work just feeling very connected to the universe.”

In the nineteen-tens, Gustav Holst composed “The Planets,” an orchestral work inspired not by astronomy but by astrology. Its seven movements focus on Mars as the bringer of war, Venus as the bringer of peace, and so on. (Holst excluded Earth; Pluto had yet to be discovered or demoted.) Despite the suite’s grounding in the zodiac, Wade Sisler, an executive producer at Goddard, once created a film of NASA imagery to accompany “The Planets,” as he has for other musical works. A couple of years ago, Piotr Gajewski, the music director and conductor of the National Philharmonic, in Maryland, decided to flip the process, asking Sisler to create films of stellar imagery which a composer would then score. In May, in partnership with NASA, the National Philharmonic premièred “Cosmic Cycles,” an art work combining images with compositions by Henry Dehlinger. Its seventh movement, “Echoes of the Big Bang,” musically dramatizes cosmological images, including many from the Webb.

Dehlinger looked at the Webb’s version of Pillars of Creation—a nebular area where new stars are being created. The Hubble Space Telescope had photographed the same area, capturing brown, almost opaque appendages, but Webb’s near-infrared camera pierced the clouds and revealed stars within them. “You’re looking at a nursery of stars,” Dehlinger told me. “You’re kind of taking a peek at what the origins of our own solar system might have been like. And you can’t help but feel a certain feeling of love.” When that image appears during “Cosmic Cycles,” the sound ceases. “I used a combination of strings and woodwinds played very pianissimo,” he said, along with “tone clusters that give one a feeling of upliftment.” The strings and woodwinds play off each other, creating a moment that’s both ethereal and imperial.

“That was a classic case of how music followed the emotion that was being generated by the images,” Dehlinger said. Orchestras, he went on, are well suited to conveying multiple feelings simultaneously—something that the space images can also do. “You can have majesty, wistfulness, and ethereality coexist,” he said. “You know you’re dealing with wonderful material when it can elicit more than one emotion.”

Professional artists aren’t the only ones inspired by the telescope’s source material. In 2016, NASA invited twenty-five applicants, including Zelinskie, to visit the instrument while it was under construction at Goddard. Most of them made works based on it for a show called “Art + Science” the following year; among other creations, they produced paintings, poetry, and music. Then, in 2020, Masetti widened the scope of the effort, creating the social-media hashtag #UnfoldTheUniverse and inviting anyone of any age to post photos of themselves and their art expressing what they thought the Webb might uncover. People shared hundreds of pieces, and continue to: there are paintings (and painted fingernails), tree ornaments, a cake, a teapot, and a quilt. “Art is a good way to build bridges,” Masetti told me. “A lot of people think science is hard or isn’t for them. But science can be inspirational, and space is for everyone.”

A few weeks after seeing the Artechouse show, I escaped the city and went to Montana. Looking up at night, I saw how crowded our neighborhood was, on a scale larger than city blocks. The sky was—oh, my God!—full of stars. I felt both small and large, a minuscule component of something majestic. I was seeing the art work that is the universe—and I was part of it. ♦

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