In 1969 as Buzz Aldrin stood on the alien surface of the moon looking back on our tiny blue planet suspended in the vast firmament, he pressed play on his portable tape deck. Frank Sinatra’s crooning cover of ‘Fly Me To the Moon’ echoed into the heavens. From the profound to the kitsch, the universe gives us myriad ways to equate the terrifying magnitude of space with our terrestrial and interior experiences. Since the very earliest celestial maps and oral histories passed down through thousands of generations, representations of animals, humans and other features of the natural and built environment have been used to chart the constellations above. Contemporary astronomical charts use colour and pattern as tools of comprehension. In literal and metaphoric ways, we use the stars to explain our world, to warn, to comfort and to guide us.
Lisa Sammut’s panoramic dioramas explore this irresistible tendency to poetic allusion: a tiny catalogue of the sublime. Working primarily in wood – ply structures and armatures with carved shapes in red cedar and birch – her installations draw upon the imagery of astronomical diagrams and the history of celestial mapping. Surfaces are painted, collaged or embroidered and thrum with subtle kinetic activity, using clockwork mechanisms and metronomes as markers of time. Allusions to mountains and rock formations suggest geologic movement and formation over millennia. Rotating mirrors cast reflections and shadows, creating a lunar cycle in miniature.
Sammut, a current MFA student at UNSW Art & Design, has held solo exhibitions at Bus Projects, Firstdraft and Archive_. In 2016 her work was commended in the Churchie National Emerging Art Prize, and was recently awarded a Sainsbury Sculpture Grant to study advanced woodcarving techniques at Geisler-Moroder Schnitz und Bildhauerschule in Tirol, Austria later in 2017.
For her upcoming solo show at Verge Gallery, the University of Sydney Union, Sammut has expanded her installation, bringing some of the pieces to human scale. This increase in size gives the objects a new kind of intimacy. The 18th century architectural astronomy instruments of Jantar Mantar in New Delhi, where sundials and structures for measuring solstice and equinox measure up to six storeys tall, provide a monumental inspiration. The objects in ‘Tapestries for Galaxies’ take on the appearance of prop-like theatricality, arranged in conversation with each other. Surfaces draped in velvet and velour provide sensory texture and illusions of depth. The objects imply measurement, observation and ritual, their exact purpose tantalisingly unknowable.
This ambiguous quality imbues the exhibition with what Sammut explains as, “the emergence of a social, cultural and philosophical cosmic anxiety, where the astronomic, ecologic and geologic spheres can be understood as a condition of our time.” As the realities of our distressed planet become catastrophic and the doomsday clock ticks closer to midnight, maybe we will look even more hopefully at the stars for some cosmic intervention. Hopefully our salvation won’t be beyond reach.
Eleanor Zeichner is a writer from Sydney and current Assistant Curator at UTS Gallery.
1 to 25 March, 2017