The Rehearsal of Space & The Poetic Impossibility to Manage the Infinite
By Edgar Martins
Reviewed by Naomi Itami for Photomonitor.co.uk
Britain’s Science Minister, David Willett recently announced plans for the world’s first Spaceport outside the US claiming, “My benchmark is to ensure the UK space sector is growing faster than the Chinese economy.” 1 And so it seems entirely congruous to be treated to the first topographical survey of the European Space Agency’s twenty classified sites in Edgar Martins’ new book The Rehearsal of Space & The Poetic Impossibility to Manage the Infinite published by La Fábrica/The Moth House. With 86 colour plates from Martins’ eponymous show and essays by John Gribbin, João Seixas and Sérgio Mah, this hardback features pristine, hyper-real images which raise timely questions surrounding our technological age, and the complex interrelation of space exploration and scientific endeavour, while hinting at the wider politics of commercial and military expansion.
Succumbing to the romance of space exploration as a boy, Martins was inspired by the Apollo Program and the astronauts’ well-documented transcendental experiences when viewing earth from the timeless void of space. To his credit however the resulting book reveals a nuanced, polemical view through the use of a pared-down, frontal, rectilinear approach, shot with a large-format camera and long exposures that echo photography’s early history. The viewer is treated to a seemingly dispassionate view of the inner workings of a governmental agency usually shrouded in secrecy and the cutting edge of scientific advancement. The large, stark images of payload docks, anechoic chambers, large space simulators, and the like, are precise and static, with an emphasis on symmetry, and mostly depopulated. When humans are present they are seen as technicians, masked and covered in sterilised suits, dwarfed by the machinery they service. The human dimension is revealed in images of empty spacesuits stored on a shelf, the astronaut’s playlists, and a moon rock encased in perspex. Technology reigns supreme here and it exudes a palpable sense of menace.
Humankind has looked to the heavens for many thousands of years to both explain and wonder at our existence and perhaps no other trope in popular culture has so fascinated the masses. The juxtaposition between what is on view here and the fictionalised accounts the viewer has imbibed through Hollywood is both startling and sobering. The viewer might also be struck by the compromise that Martins has made by having defence companies listed as prominent sponsors, though it is well known that much of today’s space hardware is manufactured by the defence industry, from rocket propulsion to satellites. Martins’ photographs force a collision between science and pseudo-science, asking intelligent questions about fantasy and fiction, and more poignantly, about the current state of the planet we inhabit.
These are images that deserve long and close looking. The project is compelling when the photography begins to shed the skin of its highly descriptive language and assumes that of another more subjective kind altogether. I, for one, began to question if the monumental effort and money spent on space programs could be better applied to tackling the equally monumental environmental and other challenges facing our planet. Then again, maybe it is that ‘poetic impossibility to manage the infinite’ that will indeed launch us onto our next home.
– text by Naomi Itami