“I happened to see some work when I was in Europe by Wolfgang Tillman and it stuck in my mind as something I’d like to see in New Zealand,” said Christina Barton, curator of the gallery, who worked with Geoffrey Batchen, Professor of Art History at Victoria University on the project. Batchen came across some rare photographs in a Dresden archive that documented the 1874 transit, taken by German photographer Hermann Krone, who travelled to the Auckland Islands and built a special camera to snap the sky.
“Both of us had discovered these artists that had been interested in the Transit of Venus,” said Barton. “It was a combination of chance and timing.”
The exhibit includes scientific, artistic, and popular images of the sky, from early 20th century postcards to NASA images, as well as two commissioned pieces. One a sound installation by Stella Brennan is based on audio from a 1980s Soviet space probe.
“They got all the data that would allow them to create the sounds that one might possibly hear if one were standing on the surface of Venus, like volcanic eruptions, extraordinary winds,” said Barton.
The other involves a computer programme developed by Simon Ingram that translates radio waves and electromagnetic activity picked up by a three metre inflatable PVC antenna attached to the roof of the gallery. The data is then translated into an image painted by a mechanical device responding to instructions from a computer.
“It has a brush and dips into a pot of oil paint and moves across a canvas on a wall,” said Ingram, a painter and professor at Elam School of Fine Arts at University of Auckland. It’s part of a radio painting project he’s been working on, but, he said, “It’s less about science than opening up painting to another medium.”
The gallery will also host a number of talks by scientists, artists, and writers, including poets writing about the Transit, commissioned by the International Institute of Modern Letters and the New Zealand Goethe-Institut.
“The real curiosity is to witness a rare event but also to witness the ideas and stories and images inspired by it,” said Barton. “It’s a cultural experiment not just a scientific one.”
The Carter Observatory is also involved. It provided images for the show, is hosting a screening of the documentary Nostalgia for the Night, and will have half price admission and a variety of activities on the day of the transit. The Observatory is also putting on Countdown to the Transit of Venus on May 16, a primer on the history and how to safely view the passing of the planet in front of the sun.
Dark Sky, Adam Art Gallery, Victoria University, May 1-July 8.