The Moon: so near, yet so far

NOW: The Moon

Curator Lucy Askew and Composer/Sound-Artist Michael Begg discuss the moon and its influence on some of the artists featuring in our current NOW exhibition.

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In a literal sense, the Moon is what we are closest to. Although in folk tales and children’s stories the Moon is regarded as the antithetical twin of the Sun, the latter is relatively remote – in fact it is almost 400 times further away! Most nights, when we look up into the sky, we see clearly the Moon hanging there, separate and empty. The feelings instilled by this common sight are varied and ever-changing – to some it is a comforting, protective presence, to others a symbol of lunacy.

Last year marked the 50th anniversary since a human first walked upon the moon. The extent to which this anniversary was celebrated and discussed evidenced the lasting cultural impact of this unparalleled act of human exploration, driven by an unquenchable fascination with our astrological neighbour. 

The Moon is, arguably, the most potent symbol in the history of Western culture. In Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for example, the word ‘moon’ is spoken over 50 times, including the famous greeting, ‘ill met by moonlight’. And there are many famous lunar-inspired pieces of music, such as Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight Sonata’ and Debussy’s ‘Clair de Lune’.

James Nasmyth Moon Craters 1870s
Joseph Turner The Moon About 1880

Many works of art from our collection feature the moon. One of the earliest, and most fascinating, is James Nasmyth’s sketch of moon craters. And, from around the same time, one of the earliest photographs of the Moon was taken by Joseph Turner.

From the late eighteenth into the twentieth century, the Moon was a popular subject amongst painters, including the Impressionists and the Surrealists.  Claude Monet’s painting, A Seascape, Shipping by Moonlight  is a fine example of how the Impressionists were interested in the play of nocturnal light as well as daylight. Later, in Paul Nash’s Landscape of the Vernal Equinox (III), rather than a source of light, the moon is depicted as a stark symbol. More recently, in Jock McFadyen’s painting Calton Hill, the Moon dominates the composition, dwarfing the human world below.

Claude Monet A Seascape, Shipping by Moonlight About 1864
Paul Nash Landscape of the Vernal Equinox (III) 1944

In the NOW exhibition currently showing at Modern One, two contemporary artists take much inspiration from the Moon.

In his evocative Fullmoon series, Darren Almond creates photographs by the light of the full moon, using long exposure times of fifteen minutes or more. This affects the image captured, blurring shadows and forms to reveal a new vision of the landscape. The unexpected light in the images appears to turn night into day.

Scottish artist Katie Paterson takes a keen interest in the cosmos, and the place of humans in relation to it. Often she deals specifically with the Moon and how it affects us. In Light bulb to Simulate Moonlight, for example, Paterson worked with specialists to create a light bulb with identical wavelengths – known as spectral measurements – to those of moonlight.

Earth-Moon-Earth (E.M.E.) radio is a form of transmission whereby messages are sent in Morse code from Earth, reflected off the surface of the Moon, and then received back on Earth. The Moon reflects only part of the information back: some is absorbed in its shadows or lost in its craters. For Paterson’s work, Earth-Moon-Earth, Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata was translated into Morse code and sent to the Moon. Returning to Earth fragmented by the Moon’s surface, this historical composition was then re-translated into a new score, the gaps and absences becoming absences and rests. The ‘Moon-altered’ piece is played on an automated grand piano.

NOW runs until 31 May 2020 at Modern One.

'Fullmoon@Neban Point' 2007 Darren Almond Courtesy of the Artist and White Cube © the Artist
Katie Paterson Light bulb to Simulate Moonlight 2008 © Katie Paterson
By William Snow, 24 January 2020