The Australian Centre for the Moving Image’s exhibition Star Voyager: Exploring Space On Screen is a celebration of the historical and future relationship of space exploration and the moving image. Compiling a vast collection of film and archives from the late 1800s until present day, the otherworldly exhibition tells the tale of art informing science and in turn, science informing art.
Descending the stairs into darkness, one arrives amid the moving pictures and parlour tricks of the early 20th century. It is a world of fantasy and magic where voyagers to Georges Méliès moon bring their top hats and umbrellas to be shot from a canon into space. Mars is host to an array of space operas, involving benevolent giants, and is home to the elaborate constructivist metropolis of the mysterious and beautiful Queen Aelita.
Alongside these fantastic voyages and tricks of the eye are the writings of rocket pioneers Tsiolkovsky and Goddard, documenting the early beginnings of real space travel.
With the first occurrence of a countdown to zero before launch, the startlingly accurate 1929 film Frau im Mond by Friz Lang is considered the first serious portrayal of space exploration. Lang employed rocket pioneer Hermann Oberth as technical advisor to provide an authentic as possible illustration of multi-stage rocket travel. A scene depicting the crew staring back at earth evokes a similar reaction the Apollo 8 astronauts would have had almost 40 years later as they saw their first earthrise. Despite scientific inaccuracies (such as the moon having a perfectly breathable atmosphere) the film was considered so accurate that the Nazi government confiscated Lang’s research and model rockets. A young Wernher von Braun was to be so inspired by Frau im Mond that he painted the film’s logo on early V-2s.
Moving on through other films and artifacts, a Russian film from the 1950s depicts what life on a soviet space station would be like. It’s a strange mash-up of antiquated phone exchange and a submarine - however space is not without it’s creature comforts - everyone has an apartment with a view of the earth. Even your pet-comrade cat sits oddly purring at the window as the stars drift past. The film is presented as a sober documentary- this was to be the future for the USSR. This fictional Russian space station with its rotating wheel design was to be influential on Stanley Kubrick when thinking of his space hotel seen in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
The exhibition design by Minifie van Schaik Architects makes strong reference to the visual vocabulary of real spacecraft. In orbit around walls of gold mylar you’ll find satellite-like pods displaying rare footage of cosmonauts and astronauts, John F Kennedy’s ‘We choose to the go the moon!’ speech at Rice University, unedited footage of Neil Armstrong climbing tentatively down the ladder of the Lunar Excursion Module (you’ve likely seen it a thousand times before, but unedited and without soundtrack or sentimental narrative, the raw video of that boot planting on the lunar soil is still quite awe-inspiring). There’s newsreel footage of astronaut poster-boy John Glenn and various depictions of the space race in film - Apollo 13, The Right Stuff and Space Cowboys.
The space race was also the era of th vinyl record. Curators Emma McRae and Sarah Tutton appear to have collected every space related album cover imaginable from Public Enemy’s Fear Of A Black Planet the soundtrack of Plan Nine From Outer Space.
Unique to the exhibition is the short film On Mars 3D. It is too short. You want to see more. The Martian valleys and mountains look incredible and a little unbelievable. Is this really what the surface of Mars looks like? It makes Tatooine look boring. Planetary astronomy was never so cool.
Down a corridor reminiscent of the Discovery set from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (there’s a suspended model of the Discovery in there) you’ll find costumes, props and models from Forbidden Planet, Star Trek, Total Recall and Moon amongst others. Contrasting with their real-life, used-in-actual-space counterparts ,you get a sense of how science has influenced film and vice versa. It’s definitely a reciprocal relationship.
Amongst all the relatively familiar imagery, one exhibit is particularly fascinating for it’s unusual visceral qualities; presenting the smell and the sound of our own star, the sun. Eerie and absolutely alien, artists Joyce Hinterding and David Haines have simulated what we could never possibly experience- a solar scratch and sniff.
The overall effect is a montage of original artifacts, props, film, and photographs- an artistic and scientific orgy of everything that is great about imagining or actually going into outer space. Highly recommended.
Star Voyager is on at ACMI, Federation Square, Melbourne, until January 29.
Dan North is a Sydney-based architect. He is also an amateur astronomer with a life long interest in the history of space exploration and set and prop design for science fiction films.