The photos of Tim Peake’s spacewalk are simultaneously timeless, and of the moment. One online comment described them as ‘insanely beautiful’. Peake’s gleaming white spacesuit and equipment look reassuringly modern and hi-tech, different from the vintage silver of 1960s space travel – although as the US artist Andy Warhol described it, back then “silver was the future, it was spacey – the astronauts wore silver suits – Shepard, Grissom, and Glenn had already been up in them, and their equipment was silver, too.”
One of the most iconic astronaut images in art is Moonwalk by Andy Warhol. But this photo of Peake put me in mind of another Warhol work. Silver Clouds, first exhibited at Leo Castelli’s New York gallery in 1966, resonates with the vintage space imagery of silver suits and silver rockets. Yet it also captures the timeless ‘insane beauty’ of space. Like astronauts released from the force of gravity, the helium-filled pillows floated. Their weightless meandering through space was mesmerising.
During the piece, the movement of the Silver Clouds was confined to the gallery room. But a few months before the show, Warhol blew up a silver balloon and released it from the roof of his warehouse; as he watched the balloon float away, he cried out: “Oh, it’s beautiful, it’s infinite.” The photo of Peake is awe-inspiring because it is man who takes a meander in infinite space.
To make Silver Clouds, Warhol consulted with electrical engineer Billy Klüver, who recommended the new material Scotchpak, a metalised fabric that was impermeable to helium. Yet there remained an inherent frailty to the Silver Clouds. Some of them popped; all of them eventually deflated and needed to be replaced. During Peake’s spacewalk seven days ago, water leaked into his colleague’s helmet and the walk had to be abandoned. It was a reminder that technology is fallible – only, in space, a flaw can be fatal.
Looking at those Silver Clouds, there is a sense of the infinite – that there are no walls or ceiling or floor; that where you are goes on forever. In 50 years, Tim Peake’s suit will no doubt look outdated. The International Space Station might join the historical spacecrafts in London’s Science Museum, where, like the rest of them, it will probably look like an oversized child’s rocket. This is also part of the wonder of space travel, that Peake is prepared to be thrust into space in a tin can so that we understand our cosmos better and experience the ‘insane beauty’ of space safely back on Earth.
Catherine Ingram is an art historian and the author of This is Warhol and This is Dalí, both published by Laurence King.
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