Barry W. Hughes’ NEOP series has been ongoing since 2013 and represents an open-ended exploration of photography’s capacity to register our scientific and cultural relationship to outer space. The varying visual strategies that make up Hughes’ ongoing collection of photographs utilize staged fictions, still life constructions, and facsimiles as stand-ins for real experience, pointing to the mediating influences and barriers of trust that separate the true territory and characteristics of space from the common person’s understanding of it. At the core of the project is a passionate curiosity and fascination with subject matter that seems ultimately unknowable.
Gregory Eddi Jones: You began producing NEOP in 2013, and it’s still ongoing. Can you talk about the origins of the project? Do you see a resolution to the work on the horizon? And is the work more an open-ended study or are there specific aims you seek to achieve?
Barry Hughes: The project emerged from a combination of developments. I had been awarded a basic studio in Dublin for six months in 2013 and found myself staring at a large black wall with a lot of artistic baggage to reconcile. At that point in time, I felt something was missing in my work, a kind of sophistication. I had essentially lost confidence in my direction and so I set about dismantling my own rulebook. It sounds rather grand, but I think artists need to be willing to tear down their own house from time to time.
During that same period, it occurred to me that I had never successfully tackled one major project. One of the things I really wanted to change most about how I worked was to take my time, to develop a project that could last a lifetime. So a decision was taken to let things happen naturally, let the project evolve without too many limitations on time and scale. I’m interested in how one project can grow to become an oeuvre; how the lessons learned on one journey can be put to good use on another.
But to go back to the subject: I have always had an interest in science and science-fiction and how those two areas intersect both in culture and in daily life. Taking astronomy and cosmology as the field in which I felt compelled to explore, and having previously been preoccupied with the notions of coincidence and accident, I found myself drawn to comets and asteroids – or near-Earth objects, with NEOP being an acronym for Near-Earth Object Program. It’s a logical conclusion to end up here, but the impetus was an inherent fascination with the subject. I think one needs to be fascinated with a subject in order to truly engage with it in a meaningful way. As with any artist, I’m seeking to reorganize an indefinable aspect of reality through my personal vision – to reform information as a unique visual language.
” I think one needs to be fascinated with a subject in order to truly engage with it in a meaningful way.”
g. I do enjoy the relative lack of limitations and boundaries present in the work. It seems like a project that, like its subject matter itself, can continue to expand in all different directions, and in such unpredictable ways. There are just so many facets of what we relate to outer space, materially, theoretically, philosophically, scientifically…the possibilities of artistic exploration here seem rich and endless. Could you shed some light on NASA’s actual Near-Earth Object Program and why you’ve chosen to tether this project to it?
b. NASA’s Near-Earth Object Program, in a nutshell, it is a coordinated gathering of information from global sources to observe near-Earth objects. These objects are usually asteroids and comets of varying sizes that either fly by at uncomfortable distances or actually strike the planet. The program falls under the management of NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office. It’s not only about monitoring the solar neighborhood but about our very survival as a species too. I ended up looking into the program because it offered a concrete foundation for research. The history, imagery, evolving studies, and data were there; it just needed to be brought into the philosophical world. It transpired that asteroids were a perfect unifying subject as they encapsulate the philosophical and physical intentions I had gathered together – and as you correctly mention, it brings into play a plethora of notions and possibilities, which is what good art should do I think. There are far too many of what I call ‘conceptual cul-de-sacs’ in photography in particular – works that appear nice and clever but ultimately, once you get to a certain point there is nowhere left to go.
g. I’m really drawn to the aesthetic strategies you use throughout this work. Nearly all the images are conducted with a subdued, quiet palette, and there’s a contemplative sort of mood that is reflected in that. In some, you use lighting as a facsimile of starlight, illuminating objects within a field of black, empty space. Did you set out with a specific idea of the visual signatures you wanted to describe the project? Or was it more a gradual evolution?
b. While there are the distinct visual queues like those mentioned, every single image is formed from the result of my looking at thousands of images relating to astronomy and astrophysics: from Apollo-era mission photographs to 16th-century German illustrations. For over a year I just collected images and data that stirred my imagination, building up this visual stockpile that relates back to specific events or objects like meteorite fragments, pieces of space debris, engineers building satellites and testing engines and materials in laboratories, graphs and illustrations from reports, and things like that. Ultimately, I want this new universe I am creating to have an accumulated feel for that which spawned it. But it is somewhat ironic that while I had to shed a lot of pre-existing rules about making pictures in order to start NEOP, the project developed its own set of rules to follow. For instance, the images are produced in formats reflecting the Hasselblad and 35mm film cameras used by NASA astronauts during the Apollo missions; There can never be an actual picture of ‘space’, either taken by myself or NASA – which is important for me as a key principle for my work is the supremacy of invention over decoration or reportage.
At the same time, you are correct in associating the lighting and the ‘quiet palette’ with a contemplative mood as the project does indeed come from a particular time in my life when I was re-evaluating quite a lot of personal things. In many ways, these small occasions in the studio reflect moments in my life at that time. I think it is easy – maybe even lazy – for some to look at work like this, and not allow for the self-expression to be present in the actions and aesthetics. They can be quite minimal or even formal, but overall they are present. And it is not an overstatement to say that I can look at this work and see my core looking back at me, as scary as that sounds.
“As a whole, NEOP builds on our collective memory of what ‘scientific’ imagery looks like, whether that is staged photographs, newspaper reports, academic records, or objects displayed as though in a 19th-century museum.”
g. Some works in the series resemble scientific data and measurements. Others recall interactions of mass and movement.. Still others refer to volume, emptiness, fullness, and physical relationships. Could you talk about the ground you are seeking to cover in terms of the major themes of the work and the motifs that you are circling around?
b. Behind the pictures I am letting a certain amount of questioning intervene: how near is ‘near’ when we talk about planetary scales? I find this question interesting as it relates to particle physics, cell-structure, and DNA; Are we only worried about naturally formed objects, or is space debris (and by extension mankind’s technological evolution) a real threat to planetary survival? How has cometary interaction affected our planet’s evolution? Again, this is a big question regarding humanity’s existence in relation to the idea of interplanetary water depositing and transpermia. To what extent has astronomy affected our view of ourselves as sentient beings? Which I think is another important factor as it introduces arguments for a Grand Designer. Finally, there is a question that is more immediate – and relevant to today – can we trust the images and information we receive from government sources or the media? To give credence to this last question I have deliberately manufactured pictures or inserted elements that act as convincing visual lies.
As a whole, NEOP builds on our collective memory of what ‘scientific’ imagery looks like, whether that is staged photographs, newspaper reports, academic records, or objects displayed as though in a 19th-century museum. This lends the work an air of familiar believability, yet simultaneously I deliberately ensure some images look a little ‘handmade’. This is to draw on the pre-digital age, and it also relates to the notion of the ‘artist’s hand’ being present in an artwork. I quite like the contradictory ideas of the perfectly quantifiable world of scientific data presented in a tatty notebook. Or to put it another way, the serious discoveries of an amateur astronomer in their suburban garden shed. There are frequent references to fundamentals like time-space, mass, and movement, temperature, chemical reactions, cellular structures, but they are generally articulated through found objects and everyday materials that give rise to recurring motifs like the background grid, the use of Greek pumice stones, ice water, and of course there is the imperfect black ball, which serves more than one purpose but has associations with the mysterious – the unknown elements of scientific knowledge, dark matter and dark energy as well as a harbinger of potential catastrophe.
“We try to uncover the truths that govern the universe, and in these efforts, we learn about the laws of nature, or, we invent gods to explain that which we have not yet learned.”
g. You touched on my next question in mentioning the scientific referents in your work and the relationships that science has with the camera. You are using the camera in opposition to one of its predominant roles as a device of scientific study while still acknowledging the necessity of it as a recorder of truths. You reference the scientific, but you’re really staging facsimiles of scientific measurements and observations. And through this, I can see the questioning you point to in the trustworthiness of pictures delivered from media or governmental sources. Strangely, when I read your pictures they all seem true enough to me. The references point me towards my own internal understandings of space, and the impossibility of comprehension of it is to me a shield from any fictions that relate to it. It’s easier to believe in improbabilities in this case.
b. This contradiction is inherent in human consciousness: We crave the truth behind the universe, yet simultaneously we are very good at convincing ourselves of the most fanciful imaginary tales in place of that quantifiable truth. The price for consciousness is the prospect of cosmic loneliness, and as a result, we search for solace in the darkness. We try to uncover the truths that govern the universe, and in these efforts, we learn about the laws of nature, or, we invent gods to explain that which we have not yet learned. I think the role of the artist is to light the journey on which we learn these universal laws and truths. Sometimes we use an image of something to describe what it is not, and sometimes we travel to the farthest reaches to understand what home means; sometimes we use one form of language to explain another. This is ultimately what magic is and where art resides – in the potential to find meaning in the contradiction between known truth and desired reality.
g. I think what I like most about this project is that notion of collective memory, particularly in how it is influenced by photography to such an overwhelming extent. And in your explorations of space as a subject, you are dealing with a set of ideas that is already familiar to your audiences, visually and culturally. For me, the project becomes like an exercise in recognition in the common ground we share in both our deepest understandings and the most elusive mysteries of the world beyond our world. What is it that you hope your audiences walk away with after spending time with this project?
b. The most one can hope for is that the images will somehow resonate with and possibly join this collective memory. I like to think that pictures – and in particular photographs – can haunt one’s consciousness and appear at seemingly random times to offer perspective on our being. In much the same way a comet seemingly navigates the void of space to occasionally appear in the skies above us, our bearing witness as a testament to an extraordinary existence. To quote Carl Sagan, “We are a way for the cosmos to know itself” and if art serves any purpose, it is a way for humanity to know itself.
Barry W Hughes is a photographer, writer and editor. His work has been published and exhibited internationally including solo shows in Ireland, Germany and China. Since establishing the online platform SMBHmag in 2009, Hughes has authored many features with leading contemporary photographers for international publications, including regularly writing for HOTSHOE since 2012. He has curated exhibitions, delivered lectures and reviewed portfolios for a number of universities, festivals and institutions, while also working professionally in cultural communications.
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