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The Moon: One of the earliest human symbols
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(Credit: Alamy)
As a new VR artwork appears at Art Basel Hong Kong, Kelly Grovier looks at what the Moon has come to mean in art since prehistory.
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Nearly 50 years since we first bounded awkwardly across its crusty surface in July 1969, does the Moon still transfix us? An ambitious new virtual reality artwork by the US artist and composer Laurie Anderson and Taiwanese new-media artist Hsin-Chien Huang is aimed at keeping fresh our fascination with Earth’s closest celestial cousin – an enchantment that dates back to mankind’s earliest artistic impulses. From the moment our prehistoric forebears first felt the urge to draw graffiti on cave walls, the Moon has tugged at our creative consciousness, drawing forth our aesthetic imagination as commandingly as it pulls into rhythm the oceans’ tides.

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If you think that’s an overstatement, consider those primitive sketches of horses and deer scrawled across the limestone interiors of the Lascaux caves in France – among the first images that spring to mind when we reflect on the origins of art. Alongside those early representations is a curious constellation of dots that scientists have deduced is a 17,000-year-old lunar code: a cosmic calendar chronicling the Moon’s comings and goings from the ancestral sky. That crude Paleolithic scribble suggests just how fundamental the Moon is to the very inception of image-making in cultural history. Blot out the Moon and you blot out art.

Laurie Anderson and Hsin-Chien Huang have created an immersive work for Art Basel Hong Kong, placing viewers on the surface of the moon (Credit: Laurie Anderson/Hsin-Chien Huang)

Laurie Anderson and Hsin-Chien Huang have created an immersive work for Art Basel Hong Kong, placing viewers on the surface of the moon (Credit: Laurie Anderson/Hsin-Chien Huang)

Anderson and Hsin-Chien’s intense and ambitious project, To the Moon, which premieres this week at Art Basel Hong Kong, is an immersive VR experience that enables viewers, one at a time, to embark on a 15-minute low-gravity journey across the rocky satellite’s undulating terrain. In the hands of Anderson (who was the first-ever artist in residence at Nasa) and Hsin-Chien (whose ideas were shaped by the popular French novella, The Little Prince), the Moon is refashioned as a visionary realm where past and future melt into the timelessness of a poetic present.

One small step

Vaulting weightlessly across the powderised knolls and raw craters of the Moon’s volcanic skin, viewers who strap on the bulky equipment necessary to experience what Anderson candidly calls “a ridiculously clumsy” work will encounter an arresting succession of impossible wonders. Creatures on the verge of extinction here on Earth, such as polar bears and honey bees, dissolve when approached. Spectral dinosaurs, whose brittle bodies are woven from a fragile lattice of DNA formulae, explode into a shatter of scientific shorthand that then recombines surreally into the shape of a fossil fuel-guzzling Cadillac.

To the Moon allows us to levitate through a lunar landscape complete with polar bears, honey bees and dinosaurs (Credit: Laurie Anderson/Hsin-Chien Huang)

To the Moon allows us to levitate through a lunar landscape complete with polar bears, honey bees and dinosaurs (Credit: Laurie Anderson/Hsin-Chien Huang)

Levitating through this lunar dreamscape is at once exhilarating and vertiginous. One minute you’re floating in hot pursuit of a phantom rose (a nod to the narrative of The Little Prince), the next you are plunging perilously into a dark abyss. The result is an elaborate odyssey that feels more like a search for one’s own interstellar self than a scientifically objective quest to fathom the contours of our orbiting neighbour. Conceiving the Moon as a metaphor for a knowledge that is at once within our grasp and utterly unobtainable, Anderson and Hsin-Chien’s VR adventure taps into a tradition that is as old as art itself.

The Ancient Egyptian god of the moon, Khonsu, marked the passage of time; his name means ‘traveller’ (Credit: Alamy)

The Ancient Egyptian god of the moon, Khonsu, marked the passage of time; his name means ‘traveller’ (Credit: Alamy)

In Ancient Egyptian iconography, the Moon is typically found balancing on the head of the god Khonsu, whose name means ‘traveller’ or ‘pathfinder’. Khonsu was responsible for accompanying spirits on their posthumous voyage, defending them against demons. Bronze Age Celts may have placed the Moon at the centre of a similar spiritual system. To help departing souls navigate their journey through the hereafter, a lunar map was carved into a 5,000-year-old burial tomb in County Meath, Ireland. Ingeniously situated within the tomb so that it is illuminated by the Moon itself as it slips across the night sky, the map represents the earliest known attempt by an artist faithfully to capture the crater-pocked complexion of the heavenly body as it actually appears on close inspection.

The dark side of the Moon

Before this discovery in 1999, it had long been assumed by scholars that Leonardo da Vinci was the first artist ever to turn his hand to the actual topography of the Moon as best as his naked eye could perceive it (the telescope would not be invented for another century). It has since been demonstrated that the Netherlandish master Jan van Eyck got there before Da Vinci. The left-hand panel of a diptych that Van Eyck created between 1430 and 1440 features a faithful portrayal of the Moon, drifting in the darkening sky behind the crucifixion of three figures, that predates by several decades lunar sketches found in Da Vinci’s notebooks.

Jan van Eyck showed the topography of the moon as seen by the naked eye in his diptych The Crucifixion and The Last Judgment, circa 1435-40 (Credit: Alamy)

Jan van Eyck showed the topography of the moon as seen by the naked eye in his diptych The Crucifixion and The Last Judgment, circa 1435-40 (Credit: Alamy)

Hovering at exactly the same height as the heads of the two figures who flank Christ, the Moon in Van Eyck’s painting is strangely skull-like in its size, lucency, and waning gibbous shape. Golgotha, the hill where the scene occurs, means ‘place of the skull’, and contemporary viewers of the work would not have been surprised to find a discarded skull at the foot of the cross as an allusion to the Old Testament Adam, whose Fall changed the world into a place of death. But there is no skull in Van Eyck’s painting. By appearing to blur into one the Moon and skull, suspending the conflated symbol in the twilight sky, Van Eyck transforms the otherwise distant and disconnected orb into something spiritually vital and relevant to every observer of his painting – a touchstone key to understanding who we are.

Joseph Wright of Derby – who painted Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump (1768) – was a member of the Lunar Society (Credit: Alamy)

Joseph Wright of Derby – who painted Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump (1768) – was a member of the Lunar Society (Credit: Alamy)

From there, the Moon, as an aesthetic symbol, will be handed down from artist to artist, century to century, like a secret scrying crystal – a lens through which the soul of an era can be brought into mystical focus. In the evocative Enlightenment tableau Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump (1768), by the 18th-Century English artist Joseph Wright of Derby, a glimpse of an overlit full Moon, seen through a window in the margin of the painting, serves more than merely the poetic function of throwing midnight shadows. Here, the Moon is a coded wink to the learned dinner club known as the Lunar Society, with which Wright was intimately associated. Gathering each month on the Sunday nearest the full Moon, the philosophers, intellectuals, and industrialists who comprised the society (including Erasmus Darwin and Joseph Priestley) relied on the reflected glow of lunar illumination to find their way safely to and from the meetings, which were devoted to advancing science and society. For them, the Moon wasn’t merely a symbol of wisdom but a vital tool.

I want to fly… that’s what I’m in it for – Laurie Anderson

To the imagination of the ensuing generation of Romantic writers and artists, the Moon is less a utilitarian prop than a lyrical aspiration, emblematic of unreachable ideals. William Blake’s charming engraving I Want! I Want! (1793), which envisions a childlike figure erecting a long slender ladder to the Moon, is indicative of the age’s fragile longing for meaningful social reforms. As an object of wistful yearning, the Moon imprints itself indelibly on several influential masterpieces of the 19th Century as well.

Caspar David Friedrich’s Man and Woman Contemplating the Moon (1818) offers a meditative approach (Credit: Alamy)

Caspar David Friedrich’s Man and Woman Contemplating the Moon (1818) offers a meditative approach (Credit: Alamy)

Caspar David Friedrich’s affecting double portrait of pensive companions, Man and Woman Contemplating the Moon (1818), is the very picture of mindful meditation. Framed ruggedly by a ragged gnarl of branches, the Moon offers itself to the conjoined mind of these wanderers as a counterpoint to the fleeting concerns of our ephemeral existence. To the troubled consciousness of Vincent van Gogh, near the end of the century, the anguished orb that clenches its gold and white knuckles in the corner of Starry Night (1889) is a tightening knot of inner fire that is as disquieting as it is blazingly beautiful.

In Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night (1889), the moon is disquieting as well as beautiful (Credit: Alamy)

In Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night (1889), the moon is disquieting as well as beautiful (Credit: Alamy)

The many phases of the Moon’s meaning, evolving as it has over the course of its long journey across humans’ cultural imagination from prehistory to the present, will necessarily shape every observer's experience of Anderson and Hsin-Chien’s immersive work. Less a blank slate than a rich palimpsest of accumulating connotations, the Moon can only be appreciated anew if we strip away what we think we know about it and about ourselves. Like all great works of art, To the Moon aims to facilitate the finding of oneself through a paradoxical process of self-loss. “I think you can lose yourself in a Russian novel, and you can lose yourself in a pencil drawing,” Anderson says, “but you lose yourself in VR in a more organic way”. At the core of this extraordinary work is a desire to orchestrate “a sense of disembodiment”, allowing visitors to dissolve into the endlessly swelling mystery of the Moon. “I want to fly,” she tells me, “that’s what I’m in it for.”

To the Moon by Laurie Anderson and Hsin-Chien Huang will be presented by HTC VIVE Arts, official Virtual Reality Partner of Art Basel in Hong Kong, from 29 to 31 March 2019.

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