Life on Mars gets artistic look in new MICA, Johns Hopkins space exhibition

Futuristic space art by Matthew McCormack and Jenn Figg.  (Xiaotian Yang)

Many of the earliest and most famous images of the windswept red planet Mars carried the gentle disclaimer “Artist’s Conception.” This reliance on art to stimulate scientific endeavors (or more precisely – investment dollars) has changed dramatically over the last five decades as programs such as the Viking Lander and Mars Rover have revealed a world more intoxicating than anyone could ever imagine.

But the question today seems to be: Does art still have a place in inspiring space exploration in an age of satellite-mounted telescopes and interstellar missions? A new exhibition currently on display at the Johns Hopkins University Milton S. Eisenhower library would seem to answer that query with a resounding “Yes”.

Recognizing the symbiotic relationship of science and art, students and faculty from the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA); Towson University; and Johns Hopkins University (JHU) have produced an exciting new exhibition about the past, present, and future of space exploration. The exhibition, entitled “Back to Earth: Preparing a Voyage to Mars” will be on view from April 25-May 30, 2014 in the Milton S. Eisenhower library (Q Level) on the Homewood campus of JHU. An opening reception for this new show was held last Friday evening from 4-7pm.

Back to Earth is a new exhibit which looks the exploration of Mars. (Anthony C. Hayes)
Back to Earth is a new exhibit which looks at the exploration of Mars. (Anthony C. Hayes)

Back to Earth was curated by Xiaotian Yang for his Curatorial Practice thesis at MICA. Input for the show came from JHU Biology Associate Research Professor Dr. Jocelyne DiRuggiero; Baker Award winning artist Jonathan Latiano; Assistant Professor of Art and Design at Towson, Jenn Figg, and her collaborator, Towson University MFA Interdisciplinary Art candidate, Matthew McCormack.

The exhibition features an extensive collection of objects culled from JHU’s Department of Biology archives, many of them pertaining to the search for life on Mars. It also includes a collection of Mars probe prototypes from the Nixon-era Viking Lander project. The prototypes were given to JHU by Dr. Gil Levin, an alumnus who was designated Experimenter of the Viking Labeled Release life detection experiment which landed on Mars in 1976.

Along with showcasing a fascinating history, the project reflects the ongoing efforts of an interdisciplinary team of JHU scientists investigating fundamental questions about the evolution of the universe. A series of short films created by JHU students will be screened at the exhibition and will highlight the team’s work and speculate on future prospects for space exploration.

Back to Earth also explores how such scientific discoveries influence artworks and popular images of Mars.

Artifacts include prototypes of probes from the Viking Lander project. (Anthony C. Hayes)
Artifacts include prototypes of probes from the Viking Lander project. (Anthony C. Hayes)

Yang told the Baltimore Post-Examiner the exhibit is the culmination of his year-long effort to utilize an open area of the Eisenhower library. Interestingly, Yang says he never had a special interest in space exploration, though he always enjoyed watching science fiction shows and movies like Babylon 5 and Star Wars.

“My thesis consisted of creating a gallery space at JHU that students can freely use to display any projects that they want to share with the community. This became the Gallery Q, which was the site of this particular project.”

“For this exhibit, I was looking for ways to combine science with art. I have known Jonathan (Latiano) for a while and found his work inspired me about the universe and biology. I met Matthew (McCormack) last year during a class visit to his studio at Towson University. After the visit, I checked out his website and was very impressed by the projects he was working on. Through Matthew, I was introduced to his wife Jenn (Figg). All three of these creative people are installation artists, so I was very interested in figuring out how to combine their work to create an appealing environment which would let audiences enjoy science through art.”

Matthew McCormack and Jenn Figg were both on hand for the opening night reception. The incredible mixed media mobile they produced – the centerpiece of the exhibition – is a combination of paper board, salt, molding compounds, paint, adhesive, and a textured UV stable polycarbonate material.

McCormack told the Baltimore Post-Examiner he believes the relation between science and art is more synergistic than most people imagine. “I did my undergrad work in glass-blowing. There is a lot of applied physics in that art.”

Columns of sand speak to the ever-changing surface of Mars. (Xiaotian Yang)
Columns of sand speak to the ever-changing surface of Mars. (Xiaotian Yang)

Figg agreed, noting the amount of math which goes into the programing of the machines she uses to work out her intricate designs.

McCormack said that while he is not into space themes, he was always into the other-worldly sounds of electronic music. That may have helped set the stage for his interaction with the science people at JHU.

“Part of my preparation for this project included touring science labs with Dr. DiRuggiero. I also met the head geologist of the Curiosity Rover project, Dr. Steele,” McCormack explained.

“Dr. Steele told me he is intrigued by the epic landscapes on Mars; by the constantly changing topography of the planet. But so far, he says, the only sign of life on Mars is the Rover itself.”

For visionary artists like Figg and McCormack, this project allowed them to stretch their creative wings. For Yang, it was an important and satisfying part of his college education.

“Not only was I able to work with so many different, wonderful people, I also learned a lot about NASA’s efforts and the search for habitable planets other than Mars. It makes me feel a sense of awe about the vastness all around us and an appreciation for the planet that we all live on.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, Yang said he plans to take some time off after graduation to travel the world.

We wondered, in light of his thesis project – and all he has learned from it – if Yang had any feelings about the possibility of life on other planets?

“I am interested in the prospect of extraterrestrial life, because I have always been intrigued by aliens. I do believe that life is possible on other planets, since I do not think that humans are the only intelligent species in the universe.”

Back to Earth: Preparing a Voyage to Mars will be on view from April 25-May 30, 2014 in the Milton S. Eisenhower library (Q Level) on the Homewood campus of Johns Hopkins University.  JHU is located at 3400 North Charles Street, Baltimore, Maryland 21218.