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Beyond the Limits of Our Senses: Luke Jerram on art, science, and the Museum of the Moon

Museum of the Moon in Rennes, France by Luke Jerram

“Our senses,” argues British artist Luke Jerram, “are extremely limited.” As a multidisciplinary artist, science enthusiast, and individual living with color blindness, much of his work has to do with pushing the boundaries of human perception. It’s also about creating pieces that bring attention to the tiniest as well as the largest objects found in our universe. And, “using microscopes and telescopes is one of the ways we can extend the range of our senses.”

One of his brightest childhood memories was when his primary school teacher brought in a microscope to class. “That was quite exciting” he recalls with a laugh. Technology in general really appeals to Jerram, who initially planned to study engineering but switched to art when he started college. It is not surprising, then, that Jerram often depends on existing as well as emerging technologies to bring his ideas and time driven artworks to life.

Gaia at Salisbury International Festival by Luke Jerram

One recent example is his project Gaia, for which Jerram worked with NASA and the information they provided about the actual topography of the Earth. According to his website: “The installation aims to create a sense of the Overview Effect, which was first described by author Frank White in 1987.” The term refers to the “feeling of awe” or “profound understanding of the interconnection of all life,” experienced by astronauts upon seeing the Earth from outer space.

Jerram’s ability to draw the public’s attention to the astoundingly interesting information sourced by the scientific community through artistic means has earned him a great deal of respect. Indeed, his work is often featured in esteemed scientific publications, such as The Lancet, Scientific American, and BMJ. It has even appeared on the front cover of Nature Magazine.

Because of the nature of his work — which ranges from large-scale installations to live arts projects to sculpture — Jerram has lectured at the European Space Agency, the Banff Centre, Royal Ontario Museum, the Corning Museum of Glass, the Royal College of Art, The Ruskin School of Art, and many other reputable institutions. Furthermore, his impressive artworks are featured in permanent collections in museums across the world.

Luke Jerram in the Palm Temple 2020

ARTpublika Magazine caught up with Luke Jerram to learn about his life, interests, and the scientific ideas that inspire his practice as well as ignite his imagination.

What was your childhood like?

I was born in the countryside just north of Bristol, England. It was very dark at night, which was wonderful; it was possible to see all the stars and the Milky Way, and of course the Moon as well. I always wanted a telescope as a child. [But telescopes] were quite expensive, so I wasn’t able to buy one.

I headed to university to study engineering, but decided to do an art degree instead. I am still very much interested in how the world works and what makes things tick, so I draw from my interests in science and engineering and art. They all influence me as an artist.

How do your interests in science and art work together?

I suppose I am interested in scale and exploring the edges of our senses. I’m red/green colorblind, which affects my visual perception.Through science, you realize that our senses are actually filtering out the vast majority of information that’s out there, and that our senses are very limited. Along with that comes my interest in scale; our senses can be extended through microscopes and telescopes to be able to see what we can’t with the naked eye.

[For a project called Glass Microbiology], I’ve created sculptures of microscopic viruses that are a million times larger than the real thing. I’ve also created a replica of the Moon, which came about from living in Bristol.

We have the second highest tide range in the world; there’s a 45 foot gap between high tide and low tide along our river. So, as I came to work every day, I noticed the tidal variation. I realized, of course, that it was the gravitational pull of the Moon that makes that happen, as well as the geography of the area amplifying the effect, [which] gave me the idea to make my own. That was about 15 years ago. It took [a long time] to be able to create this replica of the Moon, because the data from NASA wasn’t available back then, and the printing technology hadn’t been invented either. So, it took a while to realize that project.

So, the replica you created for the Museum of the Moon is based on the actual topography of the Moon provided to you by NASA?

Yeah, that’s right. [The surface of the sphere is decorated with 120dpi printed imagery of the Moon's surface from NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, stitched together by the Astrogeology Science Centre of the United States Geological Survey, at a scale of about 1:500,000, or 1 centimetre (0.39 in) to 5 kilometres (3.1 mi).]

All it is is a printed balloon, and there’s a light inside it that creates the illusion of texture, so when people see the Moon, it looks like it’s a solid object. People ask me if it’s made out of fiberglass or paper mache or concrete, but it’s an optical illusion.

You also have a project called Tide, where you explore the Moon's gravitational pull by rigging a gravity meter to three water-filled globes, turning data from the meter into a chorus based on Kepler’s theories of “music of the spheres.” Was it intended to be part of the same exhibition?

No. Tide was an artwork inspired by Bristol’s tide variation, but it was created in 2001. I toured it around the world. We went to Australia, Toronto, etc. So, it kind of had its life.

Do you have a favorite planet?

Earth has got to be my most favorite. I mean, it’s just incredibly inspiring. It was only, I think, in 1968 that [Earthrise was taken]. Astronauts were able to look back at the Earth and see it as a blue marble floating in the blackness of space — and realize how beautiful and fragile and full of life our planet is. It’s especially wonderful compared to other astronomical bodies. When you look at the Moon, it’s this desolate wasteland. Or you look at Mars and all the deserts there. So, when you compare that to what we have on Earth, it is extraordinary how lucky we are.

"Earthrise" | Taken on December 24, 1968, by Apollo 8 astronaut William Anders | Credit: William Anders and NASA

I think when you realize how big the universe is — how much emptiness, blackness, and lifelessness there is out there — you realize how special our planet is. I think that’s one of the benefits of astronomy, and of science [overall]; you become even more full of wonder the more you find out about it.

What was the first science that peaked your curiosity?

Physics, I suppose. I used to be one of those children that took things apart to see what’s inside and how they worked. Then, of course, they would never go back together in quite the same way. That’s a common interest that scientists and artists often hold — the interest in finding out how things work and the unknown.

You are always reinventing yourself, why?

I think artists can get stuck — they [can] get pigeonholed and get stuck. And I’ve always been determined not to. My art practice is quite diverse. It’s very exciting because I don’t know what sort of art work I'll be making in five year’s time. That’s why, I think, it took a very long time to get established in the art world; I am always reinventing myself.

You work with various people to make each artistic vision a reality, is that correct?

The artworks I make are idea-based and conceptually driven, and so I find specialists to help me realize these art projects. I may find [someone] to do some wood turning for me, or some glass blowing, or help me compose a piece of music to go with an art work.

And, I think it’s more fun collaborating with people. I think everything around us is made through collaboration, every object from a phone to a lightbulb to a house — is made by people coming together. Art is no different, really.

Why do you add music to your installations?

I’ve got a composer I’ve worked with for many years — his name is Dan Jones. Certainly with the Museum of the Moon, I felt like the sculpture needed music around it to help create an atmosphere and steer the interpretation of the art work.

The art work of the Earth that I had made was shown in cathedrals. I didn’t want people to get too religious about that. I wanted people to think about it scientifically [and] astronomically — to think about it from the perspective of climate change. Having a soundtrack with the recordings from NASA and David Attenborough’s United Nations speech helps steer the conversation and point it in the right direction for its interpretation. So, I like the way music and sound paint pictures in people’s imaginations, which again comes back to this idea of perception.

What was the first project you worked on?

My graduation project, [called Retinal Memory Volume.] I created sculptures inside people’s heads using retinal afterimages.

So, someone would go into a pitch black room and sit down on a chair. [With an interval of 10 seconds between each emission there are 3 flashes of light emitted from photographic flash guns placed 1.5m in front of the viewer. The light passes through a series of special stencils. Through this process, a 3-dimensional retinal after-image of a chair (consisting of three changing colours) is formed within the viewer. After a further 10 seconds a strobe light comes on, lighting up a corner of the installation room. This light amplifies the effects of the retinal after-image and due to the optical phenomenon of Emmert’s law the chair is perceived to change scale. The illusory chair, consisting of three changing colours, is perceived to be life size, and floating, in front of the viewer.] It’s a very strong optical illusion.

I toured that for about 5 or 10 years around digital art festivals. I graduated around 1997, so that’s when that art work took off.

Is public participation something you rely on when you brainstorm an art project?

I was trained in performance art; it was often [the case that] the performer on stage was having the most interesting time. So, a lot of the artwork that I make leaves space for people to be creative — it puts the public at the center.

With the Museum of the Moon, there’s space for awesome programming beneath it. [So far, we’ve had] astronomy lectures, choirs and opera singers, synchronized swimming and yoga. So the Moon is an installation art work but it’s also a space for people to be creative.

Is there a project that you are more proud of than others?

Yeah, I’m very proud of my street piano project [called Play Me, I’m Yours]. I got to install about 2000 pianos in about 75 cities around the world, which has been enjoyed by more than 10 million people across the world since 2008. It’s now being copied, so you see pianos in train stations and airports all over the world. In this way, the project has now become part of culture. I’m very proud of that.

Is there anything you want the public to know about your work?

I try to make art that’s available to everybody — not just the elite. And I try to make art that isn’t always in a gallery or where you have to pay money to go in. Many of my projects deliver an artistic experience to people in their neighborhoods, and that’s quite important. Here in the United Kingdom, we are partly funded by the Arts Council — that’s the people’s money. If I'm going to be spending public money, I have to make sure I will deliver an experience for everybody, and that it’s accessible. That’s what made the Museum of the Moon so successful.

Note* All images, except Earthrise, are the creative property of Luke Jerram / Earthrise was taken December 24, 1968, by Apollo 8 astronaut William Anders, Image Credit : William Anders and NASA


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