The stars are a lie. The light we see glimmering in the night sky is so old, the heavenly bodies from which they echo may be long gone. Yet still we stare above us and tell ourselves that the stars embody intimate truths and mirror mysteries inside us. “The cosmos is within us,” the astrophysicist Carl Sagan once wrote, “we are made of star-stuff. We are a way for the universe to know itself”.
No artist was more bewitched by the misleading declamations of the stars than Vincent van Gogh. “I allowed myself to be led astray”, the Dutch post-Impressionist wrote in a self-berating letter in November 1889, “into reaching for stars that are too big – another failure – and I have had my fill of that.” Van Gogh was admonishing himself for what he believed was the “failure” of a painting he had created five months earlier, while he was convalescing in the Saint-Paul-de-Mausole asylum in the south of France, an institution into which he had admitted himself after suffering a mental breakdown earlier that winter.
The canvas in question (one that Van Gogh insisted “says nothing to me”) is now among the most famous and unanimously admired paintings in the history of art: The Starry Night – a masterpiece of interstellar angst against which the world has, ever since, measured the grandeur of the glistering sky. Why, exactly, did Van Gogh turn against his work? Though many people today treasure the iconic painting for its ability to distill from the distant stars the feeling of inner agitation, the artist convinced himself that the work was in fact too removed from the real rhythms of life and nature. In short, he believed it was too “abstract”.
Van Gogh’s perverse disdain for his own extraordinary visual achievement came back to me this week with the publication of a series of spectacular starscapes shot across south-east Asia by the Malaysian photographer Grey Chow – photos whose allure, like The Starry Night, relies on an arresting distortion of what the eye actually observes in the universe around it. Among Chow’s awe-inspiring images is a photo of the star-scattered sky above the volcano Mount Bromo, in East Java, Indonesia that the photographer has christened The Flow of Time.
By employing time-lapse photographic technology capable of merging into a single frame the restlessness of the nocturnal sky, The Flow of Time tells of an astronomic spin that is neither factual nor fictitious, yet both. Resembling the concentric rings of an ancient tree, Chow’s photo transforms the sky into something palpable yet abstract. The result, like Van Gogh’s The Starry Night, is an image that misleads us into reflections about the internal universe. The stars are a lie. But beneath the lie, we suspect, there could be a deeper truth. “If people sat outside and looked at the stars each night,” those other legendary astrophysicists, Calvin and Hobbes, once said, “I’ll bet they’d live a lot differently”.
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