We think we know what space exploration looks like, but a big part of that idea comes from popular culture and in particular from fictional representations. I’m dimly aware that I tend to compare visions of space to movies which have had a formative influence on me, almost judging the value of science fact by how far it correlates with the visuals of science fiction.
On a visual level Edgar Martins’ The Rehearsal of Space and The Poetic Impossibility to Manage the Infinite had me from first glance. These large, beautiful prints capture the strange geometry of the high-tech facilities of the European Space Agency (ESA), with whom Martin undertook a two year residency. From a vacuum chamber in the Netherlands to a rocket gantry in French Guiana, Martins’ camera reveals this normally unseen world with the stark clarity for which he is well known. As well as documenting massive structures and sterile labs, he also focuses in on smaller details with similar precision, capturing a moon rock encased in resin and an astronaut’s empty glove reaching skyward.
As the title suggests these photographs aren’t really about space travel, but about its preparation and anticipation. It’s easy to forget that as the complexity of human endeavour increases, the resources required to support these undertakings grow exponentially. For the handful of astronauts who will leave the earth’s atmosphere there are thousands of support staff and dozens of facilities scattered across the globe. The man or woman sealed in a capsule atop a rocket is like the invisibly fine point of a very long spear.
The image of a spear however, isn’t just a convenient visual simile for a rocket, the two objects are also inherently linked in ways which are fleetingly visible in Martin’s photographs, and which he briefly acknowledges in his statement about the work. Space programs remain shrouded in great secrecy, and part of the reason is that for all their lofty scientific ambitions and humanitarian rhetoric, they remain closely connected to the militarisation of space. It’s well known that the first launch vehicles were adapted from military rocket technology, but less discussed is the fact that much of today’s space hardware is built by the defence industry, and civilian space facilities are routinely used to prepare and launch military technology. In other words, the immense promise of space exploration was born from and remains entangled with the possibility of human self-destruction.
Viewing these photographs with this thought in mind, their meaning seems to change. No longer a record of an exciting, technologically sophisticated present, instead it starts to feel like Martins has predicted a grim future where super-technology reigns supreme. A place where almost all evidence of the natural world has been scrubbed away, and human figures are present only as featureless automatons, garbed in white as they service the overlord of high technology. The windowless pods of space simulators start to look like grim cells, and the heavy, spiked hatch of an anechoic chamber resembles the padded door of some hideous torture chamber.