Antony Gormley – Lunatick

The moon is deeply embedded in our artistic culture – we sing about it, write about it, make films about it and in return it affects our very being through its lunar cycles. It’s been 50 years since man took his first steps on our nearest planetary neighbour. Since then only 12 astronauts have done so. Now, we too can get a taste of what it’s like to walk on the moon thanks to a virtual reality experience designed by the esteemed sculptor Antony Gormley.

Gormley has got together with Indian-American astrophysicist Dr. Priyamvada Natarajan from Yale University, together with the technical whizzes from the London digital art lab Acute Art. They have collaborated to produce an immersive, interactive VR experience entitled Lunatick that offers what Natarajan describes as “a collision of reality and imagination”. Natarajan is a leading expert on dark matter and black holes and considers the project as a means for her to “share the magic and majesty of the universe in a more intimate experiential way”. 

The 12-minute feature begins, on donning the VR headset, on the white beach of a beautiful south-sea island, deserted save for a few crabs scuttling through the sand. It’s the only simulated part of the experience and is based on islands such as Kiritimati and Kiribati in the Indian Ocean that are destined to become the first casualties of global warming due to rising sea levels.

Using your head to alter your direction and a button on a handset to stop or go, you can wander through the vegetation, even submerge yourself in the water, before you are thrust upwards through the earth’s stratosphere and into space. From here, everything is rendered as accurately as possible using data collected by NASA. All the constellations you see are real and in the right place. You see the sun, the moon and, most poignantly the familiar Earth-rise view of our own blue planet. 

Your body has become its own spaceship. Antony Gormley’s sculptures have long investigated the relationship of the human body to space. His works, most famously the Angel of the North in Gateshead and Another Place on Crosby Beach, have confronted fundamental questions of where man/woman stands in relation to nature and the cosmos.

“As a sculptor, I have a responsibility to see how my sculptures relate to space,” he remarked in a chaired discussion before the preview. “Here is an extension of our reach into the visual that can deal with the exponential realities of space.”

After hovering in space for a while, you land on the moon. Once again the topography has been rendered as accurately as possible. You feel the weightlessness by being able to bounce up and down in the near-zero gravity. It is by virtue of the moon’s lack of atmosphere that it has been bombarded by asteroids and sculpted by cosmic forces to pockmark its surface with craters, the average diameter of which is 80kms. The highest mountain on the moon is some 2kms higher than our Mount Everest. 

It’s fun bounding along amid the craters, sometimes descending into them, at other times trying to navigate your way past them. You feel the sense of isolation evoked through the contrast of the barren rocks and craters and the view of a colourful Earth hovering in the distance. It’s a desolate environment, yet at the same time leading to a sense of awe.

After a few minutes, you feel yourself being sucked up out of the moon’s orbit and further into outer space where you pause to survey the vast panoply of shimmering galaxies and vast star clusters around you. It was the only time at which I felt a hint of vertigo. Lunatick ends in a white-out as you approach the heart of our solar system – the sun.

As a VR experience, Lunatick has none of the gimmicky ‘wow’ factors that I’ve seen in other VR works. This is partly because it’s a serious subject based on real data as opposed to fantasy but also because it is limited in its resolution by the data given by the lunar orbiter when mapping the moon. The bandwith to do the project in higher definition given its scale is simply not there at the moment. 

If the project is to progress, the collaborators agree that it won’t be a question of trying Mars, Jupiter or Saturn next but instead using new developments in what is, after all, a still nascent technology, to improve on what they have achieved so far. 

What I did get from Lunatick was a sense of perspective and a reference point for our place in the cosmos. Up there in the firmament, surrounded by stars and planets that defy the imagination in terms of their number and magnitude, I got a sense of our insignificance in the great scheme of things. Yet, within our own planet, we are highly significant by the way we have developed the means not so much to destroy the Earth but to take away its propensity to sustain life.

Antony Gormley put it well when he described the moon as “the ghost of what we could become”. And, for me, Lunatick hit that message home above all else.

You can buy tickets to view it at until 25 April 2019

The images are courtesy of Acute Art.

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