Microgravity – A small exhibition

Photograph of the Moon, silver gelatin print, by James Short, Red Hill Station, New South Wales, 1899-1930.
Photograph of the Moon, silver gelatin print, by James Short, Red Hill Station, New South Wales, 1899-1930

In late 2016 the exhibition Gravity (and Wonder) explored the human fascination with gravity, space and time through scientific investigations and artistic explorations. In a partnership between Penrith Regional Gallery & The Lewers Bequest and the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences curators Dr Lee-Anne Hall and Katie Dyer developed a three month program of events & workshops to support the exhibition.

Microgravity, on display at the Powerhouse Museum from 16 May to 16 July 2017, brings a small part of the wonder to the city.

Your first encounter will probably be Sound Ship (descender 1), an immersive 37-minute journey by David Haines and Joyce Hinterding, which dominates the space. Ride along with a balloon as it surges skyward, seemingly forever, only to burst leaving its payload to the mercy of gravity. The law of gravity is strictly enforced*.

The exhibit is temporally bookended, more or less, by Newton and Einstein – a model apple and a photograph of a total solar eclipse. A ‘Yates’ wax apple represents Newton’s classical ideas on gravity. More recently Einstein’s General Relativity, which governs the interaction of space and time and matter, was confirmed during the total solar eclipse of 1922. The Lick Observatory sent astronomers to remote Wallal in Western Australia to photograph the eclipse. Within the last year observations of gravitational waves from merging black holes, in complete agreement with Einstein’s century old theory, have opened a new observational window on the universe.

Following these giants of gravitational theory the field of rocketry, personified by von Braun’s appearance on a philatelic space cover, allowed the Soviet Union to escape the bonds of gravity and win the race to space with Sputnik, and the astronauts of Apollo 11 to reach the Moon.

The Moon raises tides through gravity, measured at Fort Denison with an automatic tide gauge, and eclipsed the Sun in 1922. The Moon is therefore central to this exhibit as it connects Einstein’s theory to lunar rocketry to tides to eclipses. Its half phase alludes (if somewhat cryptically!) to the missing artistic interpretations of Gravity (and Wonder)!

More mundanely where would we be without standards of weight? A set of Troy weight standards from the 19th century contrasts with a perfect silicon sphere made in 1994. The sphere is part of a project which will redefine a kilogram in terms of a fundamental constants of nature, rather than a physical object as it has been for over 200 years.

A planimeter, graviscope and hydrometer expand our interpretation of gravity to the less immediately obvious – measuring ‘centre of gravity’ via a beautifully intricate assembly of levers, gears and dial gauges and determining ‘specific gravity’ via delicate glass beads.

A swinging toy adds a playful final touch, but nonetheless one governed by gravity and precisely described by Newton & Einstein.

Before leaving Microgravity contemplate the work of visual artist and researcher, Dr Kate Scardifield. Kate was a MAAS Visiting Research Fellow in February 2017. Her project Archival Enactments: New Constellations, draws on objects and ephemera linked to Thomas Brisbane, NSW Governor in the 1820s, and his astronomical research at Paramatta observatory. All materials are from the artist’s studio. They document the creative research process being engaged with in response to findings made during her Fellowship. The material predominantly traces the development of two new works: High Noon and Canis Major – a creative response to the mapping of place and the construction of identity brought about by civic archives and museum collections.

The video playing nearby is an early result of Kate’s research. It shows The Troughton mural circle, brought to Australia by Governor Thomas Brisbane in 1821, which was used in conjunction with a telescope to map the positions of stars in the southern sky. Watch it gently spinning under the influence of gravity…eternally.

*If anyone knows the origin of this quote, please let us know.

Written by Andrew Jacob

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