• Review

  • February 3rd, 2015 02.03.2015

    New Catalogue: This is a Present from a Small, Distant World


    The sun is presently setting. It is grey, even-toned, and the sky is gently lit in an un-gradated hue of pale steel blue and pallid violet, faintly dimming. Light to dark. The sun is setting. There is a sunset, but this is not a sunset.

    The term sunset brings to mind the image of many skies, none of which are present at this current overcast vision of dusk. A sunset is brilliant and intense, dazzling and touristic, vivid and impossibly bright. An idyllic dream vacation sunset. A honeymoon sunset. One in a million sunsets.

    The sunset is poetic. It is the most highly photographed landscape of our world; its image proliferates our definition of a daily event on earth. The sunset is evidence of our global position. The sunset is constant. As Martin Amis writes in his novel London Fields, “The sun was doing what it did and always had done, day and night, for fifteen billion years, which is burn.”

    The sunset is universal. Universal in the truest of senses; meaning that if any image at all, the image of a sunset is likely the only one that would be registered by another human species if detected in another solar system. The rise and fall of a sun can theoretically be seen across galaxies, across different cosmos, by another unknown.

    This is a Present from a Small, Distant World.

    This is the title of New Catalogue’s exhibition, a moniker for the collaboration between artists Luke Batten and Jonathan Sadler, currently on view at Rhona Hoffman in Chicago. The installation at the gallery is inspired by the content of the original Golden Record sent into space in 1977 on the NASA Voyager. The title of the show is lifted from a letter written by Jimmy Carter, whose presidential note accompanied the record on its voyage. Designed by astronomer Carl Sagan, with the help of additional artists and scholars, the Golden Record was meant to communicate, through visual and audible elements, the human experience to potential extraterrestrial life. Sunsets are among the key images of earth included in the Voyager Record Photograph Index, along with greetings recorded in 55 different languages, various pieces of Western music—Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, and Stravinsky—added “ethinic” selections—a Navajo night chant, Senegalese percussion, and Peruvian wedding song—and songs by whales, and birds.

    This human narrative, in all its attempted logic and inevitable eccentricities, was in the end sent into space, in the event it was found by aliens. The Golden Record was not the first artifact attempting to describe human existence on our earth to be sent out into the ether. Sagan had been previously tapped to create a record years prior by science reporters Richard Hoaglad and Eric Burgess in a sort of happenstance necessity for the Pioneer Plaque, a realization that occurred during the final stages of construction for the Pioneer 10 spacecraft in 1971—the first vessel being sent into deep space that could potentially be found by other beings. The Pioneer Plaque and Golden Record now drift in space, perhaps lost or found, destroyed or surviving, carrying the message of our planet—a message Sagan envisioned as being “from all mankind.”

    What images would we include now?

    The installation on view at Rhona Hoffman elaborates on this question. The reinvention of the Golden Record exists in the installation in three clearly delineated elements. The first, a floor-to-ceiling vinyl piece that occupies the front gallery of the space, lists the exact index of images included on the Golden Record. Here, the experience is cold, clinical, far from synaesthetic. The images themselves are purposefully not included, only their very basic descriptors published in the catalogue (which were never written in mind that they would be available to aliens, since English is our invention). The text on the wall halts a visual experience—the poetics of the images included on the record are lost in the coldness of the selected language.

    In this piece, simply titled The Golden Record (2012), these anonymous images present themselves as empty categories, displayed on the wall in bolded title text. For the most part, the titles are non-evocative: Anatomy 6, Children with Globe, Family Portrait, Diagram of Continental Drift. Though some are accidentally poetic: Fallen Leaves, Andean Girls, Sunset with Birds. The vinyl walls flank the viewer from either side, enveloped in text that ultimately does not convey much, and was never meant to convey anything at all. The text is evidence of what is forgotten by the images they describe, an index that helps us on earth to administratively record what was sent, but does not communicate what other beings may experience.

    The second piece is a grid of black and white images, each smartly cropped at ten by ten inches; the dimensions of standard 78s. In each of the images, a white hand holds a different object. The hand responds to the use of the object in non-traditional ways. A pinky finger on the edge of a limp wrist holds a teacup; a banana is propped in the middle of the frame as if on a pedestal; one hand grips the cover of Aldous Huxley’s A Brave New World like a flashcard, as it would have appeared in a Godard film. The most striking image is one of a hand that holds the prop of another hand, a near mirror of its disembodied form, holding itself—cold yet romantic. All of this is viewed with the faint sounds of an audio recording on vinyl playing in the back of the gallery, titled In Teaching Others We Teach Ourselves, a composition of new music created in collaboration with Judd Greenstein and violinist Nadia Sirota.

    The exhibition would benefit from less literal interpretations of the source, though the concept of what it means to be literal in relation to an impossible task is worth taking into consideration. What are the limits of formal representation, when all factors are unknown? What New Catalogue is successful in interrogating is the possibility that the other beings we attempted to communicate with even have the same capacities of communication as us. The absurdities of how we package the human experience (when given the task) is something that stands both outside of reality and within it.

    New Catalogue’s practice has been described as both “timeless and time-capsuled,”—meaning both connected to the present moment and detached from it. While the statement may seem obvious to most work involved with, or informed by history and historical content, not all of it adheres to this rule. Rather, it is quite the opposite. Works that are about history are looked at from a vantage point of the present, in which the present is always concrete. New Catalogue, on the other hand, looks into history for its stance on the future—a type of retro-future. For them, history is defined as the past that imagines itself looking forward, and the present that looks backward into the hypothetical.

    New Catalogue at Rhona Hoffman runs through February 28, 2015.