New Zealand born, London-based artist Louise Beer mixes photography and installation to create space based images and atmospheres intended to inspire the viewer to examine their own understanding of the universe. Her work raises existential questions pertaining to our limited knowledge of the profound yet infinite realm we occupy, the questions of why do you seek meaning in experience, and, is there anyone else out there who thinks of the beginning and the end of the universe? Through considering the ever fleeting and indefinite nature of ideas and philosophies, Louise aims to highlight the certainty of one thing – change is permanent.
You use installation, sculpture and photography to explore our evolving understanding of the universe. Can you explain how you do this?
I put astronomical objects in hidden and small spaces to create omniscient light installations. These create the illusion of a physical object, which is intended to suggest a conscious physicality that might exist outside our understanding within or outside of our universe. The objects I make are intended to make the viewer realise that almost anything is a possible explanation for the nature of our reality. As well as encouraging people to think about the universe, it’s also important to explore the otherness of the universe and the changing philosophies and purposes we impose on life and what impact that has on an individual.
How would you describe the otherness of the universe to someone who has never thought about it before?
I would describe it as an indefinable intention of the universe, an all-seeing, all-knowing presence that we can’t source or see.
Did you always know you’d explore art and science in this way?
Well it started when I discovered my father’s telescope as a child in New Zealand. The night sky there is absolutely amazing, and I remember looking through that telescope and it was just like a window into another world. That combined with some images of the scale of the universe he had put up in the house just made me feel like I wanted to spend my life thinking about astronomy, but not in a way where I had to study astrophysics or anything like that because being an artist felt like a natural direction for me.
What informs your work the most?
As part of my research at the moment, I’m reading a book by Mary Proctor who was a science communicator from the early 20th century. I find the way that she writes about astronomy just really beautiful, her descriptions are filled with wonder and adoration. It would have been quite rare for someone back then to be so respected in science, and especially at that time, a woman, but she was celebrated. It has a been a long journey to have woman recognised in the same way as men and we have such a long way to go. I meet a lot of wonderfully inspiring women in science and there is a very strong presence working in the field of art and science.
You’re involved in a number of art collectives, what do they focus on?
I’m involved in several that I co-direct with other people. I have two art collectives, one’s called Aether and the other is Lumen. Aether focuses on curating white space exhibitions, where artists interpret their understanding of astronomy in a contemporary sense. It focuses on the fragility of earth and the context of space, so not things on earth as in nature but from the perspective of seeing earth from space and reacting to that. As for Lumen, we have a gallery space in the crypt of Crypt of St John on Bethnal Green Church in London and exhibit solely in churches in UK and Europe... We’re all atheists – it’s about trying to create a dialogue between people who use religion to understand their existence and people who use astronomy.
So has there been a positive reaction in creating that dialogue?
Absolutely, it’s really fascinating. The intention on both scientific and religious sides is not to offend anybody with different beliefs, so we’ve only met with positivity when talking to some religious people. I think that’s because their faith is so unshakeable, the idea of understanding existence through astronomy is not offensive to them, which it’s not meant to be anyway. We’ve found people of the church to be open and interested in talking about it. It’s not what I expected at all, it’s been a really amazing experience and I think we’ve all learnt a lot from each other. With my art collective Lumen, we run a residency in Italy every year where we go to observatories and churches and talk to people of the church about things like black holes. It’s just about creating a conversation that’s peaceful and not derogatory. It’s not meant to be offensive to anybody.
Your space installations are designed to replicate a part of the universe that most are completely unfamiliar to. How on earth do you do this?
If I’m to make a dark space installation based on being somewhere in an indefinable part of the universe, it’s to inspire a genuine feeling for the viewer of being in that environment so I don’t include references to anything that you can associate with your everyday life, like recognisable smells or the ability to see your own body or other people’s. It loses the impact of creating an environment that is supposed to be otherworldly and not like life on earth. The cold or lack of warmth in the dark space installation is a sensory effect that adds to the piece, which is really important. In a vacuum, you aren’t able to smell because you’re not able to breathe or hear so the use of sound within my installation isn’t essential. The lack of oxygen in the atmosphere makes it not an option. Recently though, NASA have tried to get a perfume company to replicate what the moon smells like for astronauts for training purposes.
Wow, how does NASA know what the moon smells like?!
Astronauts that have visited the moon often come back to find pieces of it on their space suits. They’ve said it smells a little metallic and burnt. I’m not too sure why NASA find the smell of it important for training purposes but I guess learning more about earth’s only permanent natural satellite is extremely important.
Incredible. Finally, what reaction do you hope to inspire in viewers once they’ve seen your work?
With all of the projects I do, I want to inspire people to think about how important their lives are and how strange it is to be alive. We’re in a time where ideas constantly change, and we have this assumption that right now we’re right about everything whereas if you look to the past it’s quite obvious to see how this theory has been disproven. We’re living in a time where anything can be proven wrong and everything’s possible.