Plummeting towards the sun but missing it: planetary physics, ancient ruins & astronaut memoirs in the work of Alice Wang

, 20 May 2019

Los Angeles and Shanghai based artist Alice Wang makes work that’s often described as alchemical. She’s drawn to properties like heat, scent, and the sensation of air being circulated around a room. Her Untitled piece for a recent group show that at Tin Flats, a former chromium-plating factory turned gallery and studio space by the Los Angeles River, was a white ceramic vessel plugged into the wall that emitted thin whisps of vapor. The show, called The Angel’s Share in reference to an amount of alcohol lost to evaporation in the process of distilling a spirit, was about “the idea of process,” and in particular, the process of transformation.

Alice Wang, solo exhibition (2019). Installation view. Image courtesy the artist and Visitor Welcome Center, Los Angeles.

For her latest solo exhibition at Los Angeles’ Visitor Welcome Center that ran March 16 to April 20, 2019, Wang focused her attention on what might have been a much headier subject: outer space. But the exhibition wasn’t so much a consideration of the stylized representations of outer space in science fiction or the political implications of space travel, as one might expect. Wang’s treatment of the subject instead forefronted sensation, something she regrets she can only experience vicariously through things like astronaut memoirs, which she reads voraciously. Her research for the show involved traveling to places where it’s most possible to perceive the Earth on a planetary scale: the high desert in the middle of the night; the arctic during the first sunrise of the year; seven stories above a rainforest canopy. Sites she describes as being “at the edge.”

When we sit down to discuss her show and accompanying publication, An Atlas of Outer Space, published March 2019 on San Francisco’s Sming Sming Books, it becomes apparent that these experiences informed her choice of materials — in this case, black mirrored glass (“the light play on it is incredible”), an iron meteorite, and sheet mirrors printed with images from NASA’s archive using a wet plate collodion process. When asked about this process, the artist talks about its materiality, and gestures as she describes submerging the plate in a silver nitrate bath.

Similarly derived from an interest in phenomenology, Wang’s standout video piece ‘Pyramids and Parabolas I’ (2019) is set to a score of radio transmissions from celestial objects in outer space that she sourced from NASA’s archive of sound recordings (a sampling of which can be found on soundcloud). Visually, the work switches between the Very Large Array, a radio telescope observatory in New Mexico, and Mayan archeological sites in the Yucatán. Also included in the video is crowdsourced amateur video footage of the 2013 meteor over Siberia. One of the most striking aspects of this footage is the banality of the scenes that this massive projectile from outer space interrupts in a literal flash. Perhaps as a result, Wang’s piece conveys the sublime sense that, as she describes it, “the Earth is plummeting towards the Sun but missing it.”

Alice Wang, ‘Untitled’ (2018). Installation view. Image courtesy the artist and Visitor Welcome Center, Los Angeles.

** Before we delve into your show, I wanted to ask you how you arrived at your subject matter. You studied computer science and international relations, but what compelled you to start working on outer space as a subject?

Alice Wang: Well, like a lot of people, I’m a space junkie and sci-fi nerd and just really curious about the cosmos. When I was in undergrad I took a few astronomy classes that blew my mind and were tucked away in there for probably ten years until I started thinking about astronomy again recently. Now I’m really interested in the experience of being on Earth. Starting from when I finished graduate school six years ago, I started thinking about this idea that the Earth is plummeting toward the sun but missing it. That reality didn’t really sink in for me until many years of working through that sentence to the point where it’s become strange and uncanny. It describes gravity and how we’re constantly falling as we orbit around the sun.

** Elsewhere you’ve called this sentence a mantra. I’m interested in how it entails a modern understanding of planetary physics that, like the images you’ve compiled in your latest volume, An Atlas of Outer Space, fundamentally transformed the way people conceive of the universe. But in your video, ‘Pyramids and Parabolas I’ (2019), you alternate between footage of the Very Large Array, a radio telescope facility in New Mexico, and footage of ancient ruins. Could you talk about the site visits you conducted and your decision to bridge these disparate temporal registers in the video?

Alice Wang, solo exhibition (2019). Installation view. Image courtesy the artist and Visitor Welcome Center, Los Angeles.

AW: The video is episode one of a series I just started. And to give you some background on it, I’d been thinking about the relationship between geometry and both monolithic architecture and technological structures as ways to commune with the cosmos. A parabola, which is basically the shape of a bowl, is a basic geometric shape. But we use that to create satellite dishes that receive and transmit signals. There’s also some footage [in the video] from the movie Contact with Jodie Foster at an actual scientific research site where they’re listening for quasars and pulsars in outer space. So that, on the one hand, is very current, modern technology. On the other hand, a pyramid is also a geometric shape even though we have these cultural associations with the pyramids in Egypt or Mexico or Mesoamerica. And I was thinking about how pyramids are also these transmission devices that sort of communicate with the cosmos. When I began this series, I was following a hunch that there was a relationship between geometry and a kind of outward urge toward space. What affirmed this hunch was my experience actually climbing the pyramids. We landed in a small airport, drove for hours until we reached a kind of entrance to the rain forest, drove another hour and a half to two hours, and then hiked for another thirty minutes. So it was really deep in the jungle. And when we climbed up, we climbed maybe five stories above the canopy of the forest. It became very clear to me that these structures were built by people seeking to get to the heavens, to the cosmos, physically.

** Before going to this site were thinking about these two technologies in tandem? Or did you make the connection later?

AW: When I make anything, I usually don’t start with a solid idea, but with curiosities or inklings. Almost like searching in the dark. The research I do usually leads me in a certain direction and I find that openness to be productive and necessary. Ten years ago I was working in the Canadian government regulating traditional Chinese medicine and acupuncture and I found that this very rationalistic, analytical thinking was stifling. In society in general, rational thinking can be a bit overdetermining. So I allowed an intuitive process to guide me to explore other ways of knowing and just trust the process.

Alice Wang’s An Atlas of Outer Space published March 2019 on Sming Sming Books.

** Let’s talk about your book, An Atlas of Outer Space, which is a compilation of images from NASA’s image archive. It’s by no means comprehensive, yet you chose to call it an atlas, which also happens to have been one of the primary tools of empire and colonialism. Tell me more about your use of this term. Is it meant to be tongue in cheek because of the literal impossibility of mapping outer space in its entirety?

AW: It’s definitely not meant to be taken too seriously — it’s an impossible task as you mentioned. It was kind of a pet project that I realized after it was printed is actually an important part of my practice. Because, going back to that statement or mantra, what it does for me is take me out of the social, out of this human centric way of thinking, and catapults me into outer space and to this realization that we are part of this solar system, the Milky Way galaxy, and whatever larger mapping that exists. So I wanted to concretize and make tangible that existence. It’s hard when you’re in a city but I feel closer to it when I’m in Twentynine Palms—kind of at the edge in a way because there are so many stars. Another time I felt this proximity to outer space was when I decided to go see the first sun rise of the year in the Arctic. For me it’s really important to have an embodied experience to get the phenomenological sense of that space and the light and so I went to the Arctic. It was a life-changing experience to be at the edge like that.

** Included in the atlas is the iconic pale blue dot photograph, which I understand has been something of a touchstone for you. What about this image interests you? Does it have to do with taking you out of a human centric way of thinking?

AW: Definitely, and I feel like images when they become tangible do something. I think that’s what’s interesting about art is that it enters you and kind of does something.

Alice Wang, solo exhibition (2019). Installation view. Image courtesy the artist and Visitor Welcome Center, Los Angeles.

** I have to ask, any strong reactions to the black hole photograph that just came out?

AW: [Laughs] Yes! And actually my publisher Vivian Sming sent me an article a few months ago while we were working on this project describing how scientists were trying to look at the black hole but the image wasn’t out yet so I also experienced some anticipation around when it would finally come out. But I’m still grappling with the idea and some of the scary and exciting possibilities it opens up around things like time travel.

** Going back to your current exhibition, the show is very materials-focused with the fused glass pieces being fairly dominant in the space. Why did you want to emphasize materials over images in the exhibition? In the past, your work has dealt with the alchemical transformation of materials. How is this linked to your current project, if at all?

AW: Because these pieces were made recently, they’re difficult to talk about. But maybe I can try to connect them to my thinking about my past work. One of the pieces heats up and heat has been a material I’ve wanted to work with for a while. I’m interested in more immaterial materials or ones that you don’t see. Before this I’ve worked with water vapor, which I like because as soon as it touches a surface, it condenses into water, undergoing its own metamorphic process. Another piece I did was with a bladeless Dyson fan and a monolithic beeswax sculpture. Beeswax has a scent and with the wind, the scent is circulated throughout the space. The iron meteorite piece in this show can also be activated. I feel these works exist somewhere between the real and the imaginary — imagining the beeswax scent circulating, for instance, or the iron meteorite’s activation into something else.

Alice Wang, solo exhibition (2019). Installation view. Image courtesy the artist and Visitor Welcome Center, Los Angeles.

** Your obsession with astronaut memoirs — tell me more about that.

AW: [Laughs] I would’ve loved to have been an astronaut before, but it’s a bit too late now. Not really sure I have many skills to offer them. It really started when I went to the Arctic. As I mentioned before I wanted to get close to the extremes. I looked up when the sun would rise and I went about three days before the first sunrise thinking that it would be completely dark and then the fourth day I would start to see the sun. That’s what I was imagining. But what ended up happening was that I landed in the evening so it was obviously completely dark but then the next day around 10:30-11, you could start to see the sky turning grayish blue and sense that light was coming through. At about noon the sky was this bluish pinkish hue like during the magic hour at dusk and dawn and it was like that for four hours. So it maintained this dusk. The light of this dusk was arrested and we were enveloped by this hue. It made me realize the sun is obviously not a light that you turn on and off and it allowed me to really observe the effects of Earth’s curvature. This experience pushed me to explore outer space as a subject and that’s when I began reading the memoirs of astronauts. I can’t go to outer space so the next best thing is to hear what their experiences were. And there are some really crazy stories.

** Anything stand out in particular?

AW: The idea of orientation is something I’ve explored a bit in my work. When you’re in space there’s no up and down or left and right. The astronauts describe how disorienting it is to do EVA or Extra Vehicular Activity outside of the spaceship. Because at least when you’re inside you have an up and down and objects to orient you.

Alice Wang, ‘Untitled’ (2018). Installation view. Image courtesy the artist and Visitor Welcome Center, Los Angeles.

** Whose memoir was that in?

AW: Scott Kelly’s. And what’s crazy is he was doing a twin study with his brother. They’re both astronauts and they’re twins. He was sent to space for about a year, which was the longest anyone has stayed in space, and they studied his brother on Earth. Just last week there was a press conference to reveal the study. It’s really to study what would begin to happen to humans if we stayed in space for a long time. So to me it indicates we’re really getting ready for that. Which is kind of frightening. Seems like it’s no longer if but when.

** What’s next for you? Any plans at the moment?

AW: Still definitely interested in space. Thinking about trying to focus more on a planet now. I’d definitely like to go back to the Arctic, maybe when the sun is up for 24 hours so I can experience this disorienting feeling of being exhausted when it’s light out. I think that’ll be what’s next.**

Alice Wang’s exhibition was presented at Los Angeles’ Visitor Welcome Center from March 16 to April 20, 2019. Her book An Atlas of Outer Space was released in March 2019 on San Francisco’s Sming Sming Books.