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Shelley Horan — Star/Gaze

Posted on March 9, 2015

Shelley Horan is looking for the night sky.

Viewing the night sky is a primal experience. It is an affirmation of identity that provides the ultimate sense of place. Through my work I explore the intrinsic connections we have with the earth and universe, but also the loss of cosmic appreciation and awareness in urban society. Sensations, such as those we feel when viewing the night sky, I believe, are essential for a wholesome human existence. Combining ideas from science and philosophy, star/gaze investigates our relationship to, and perception of, the cosmos. I am interested in what happens when we disconnect ourselves from stars, the greatest feature of the night.

The concepts explored in this body of work stem directly from a visceral reaction I had to a photograph modestly titled The Pale Blue Dot. Taken in 1990 by the Voyager 1 spacecraft before leaving the solar system, the photograph depicts the earth from a distance of 6 billion kilometres. This photograph is arresting because it shows that our planet, for all its history and glory, is just a minute particle of dust floating innocently in an expanse of unforgiving darkness. The image affected me profoundly and stirred a desire to connect with the celestial bodies that gave birth to our planet.

The knowledge we currently have of the universe relies heavily on the curiosity of our ancestral stargazers. For millennia humans have maintained a strong desire to understand the complex mysteries of the stars and planets, and we have noted our findings ingeniously. On the walls of dark and deep caves, we have painted constellations camouflaged in the form of wild beasts. In the most inhospitable locations, we have arranged solid elements of the landscape to form megalithic monuments, temples and observatories. We have told and retold mystic and mythic tales of cosmic creation through generations. The night sky has long been significant in our cultural and social development.

However, our ability to perceive the night sky has changed considerably in recent times. As our lives become busier, televisions bigger and city lights brighter, we’re less compelled to turn our gaze upward. As someone who lives close to the heart of an electrified metropolis, I assume I’m not alone in feeling physically disconnected from a genuine night sky. As light escapes into the sky from unshielded tungsten bulbs it catches atmospheric water vapour, creating an opaque grey blanket that separates us from our ancient home: the stars. This process, known as light pollution, causes serious physical distress across the nocturnal eco-system — for humans and other animals alike.

Australian environmental philosopher/activist Glen Albrecht has been developing a vocabulary that examines ‘psychoterratic states’, or environment-related mental afflictions. He coined the term solastalgia specifically to describe the ‘form of melancholia connected to lack of solace and intense desolation that arises when there is recognition that the place where one resides and that one loves is under immediate assault’. Solastalgia is the anguish experienced when a place you know intimately changes at a pace that makes adaptation difficult and acceptance impossible; Albrecht calls it ‘the homesickness you have when you are still at home’. For me, the loss of the night sky evokes such despondency. When you can no longer turn to the stars for comfort, guidance and inspiration, the unspoken crisis is existential and the loss spiritual.

As a photographer, I am compelled to express these anxieties with the help of my camera. In an attempt to bring together these ideas concerning our emotional detachment from the stars, I created a series of images that endeavour to reflect our current cosmic situation. Unable to physically perceive and photograph the night sky, I constructed a universe of my own. Using a sheet of black cardboard pricked with holes, LED torches and lasers, these star-scapes were made within the confines of my inner city apartment. The suggested ‘truthfulness’ in the intricate renditions of human eyes lures the audience into acceptance of the impossibility of the constructed star-scapes. It is this false interpretation of the work that comments on the engagement we presently lack with the night sky.

Photography is a deceptive medium. While a photograph can replicate reality with startling accuracy, it is the implied truthfulness that can lead to misinterpretation and misunderstanding of its content. It is easily forgotten that photograph is but a fragment of time, a compression of space. Employing these beguiling aspects of the medium, I hope to encourage a re-questioning of previously imagined truths and to inspire a (perhaps forgotten) curiosity and respect for the night sky. To look at the stars is to spiritually engage with things that are far beyond our physical reach, yet things we are infinitely connected to. It is an experience we should not take for granted.

References
Albrecht, G 2005, ‘Solastalgia’. A New Concept in Health and Identity, PAN: Philosophy Activism Nature, No. 3: pp. 41–55.
Bogard, P 2013, The End of Night: Searching for natural darkness in an age of artificial light, Fourth Estate, Hammersmith, London.
IDA 2013, International Dark-Skies Association, viewed 20 April 2013, <http://www.darksky.org/>.
Sagan, C 1994, Pale Blue Dot: A vision of the human future in space, Random House, New York, NY.

Shelley Horan studied at RMIT University.

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