"It holds vast cosmic forces": Shuttle astronaut Jeffrey Hoffman shows up at Scottish town's science-art exhibition

| 15 September 2016 | Updated: 25 September 2016

Jeffrey Hoffman, the five-mission shuttle astronaut and savior of the Hubble Space Telescope, was a surprise visitor to the Merz Gallery, in Sanquhar, for its Landscape of Waves exhibition. The gallery hopes a spirit of collaboration can attract people to south-west Scotland, says curator Tim Fitzpatrick

a photo of a man standing in a gallery in the town of sanquhar in scotland
Curator Tim Fitzpatrick with solar system-exploring artist Charles Jencks at the Merz Gallery in Scotland© Colin Hattersley
“Every exhibition curator wants to attract visitors from far and wide. But getting one from outer space was beyond expectation.

Jeffrey is a former astronomer and the man whose repair job saved the Hubble Space Telescope. He was inspired to come along by his long-time fascination with Charles Jencks’ capacity to use landforms to express ideas about cosmology.

One of the core attractions of Landscape of Waves was that it had a variety of pieces offering insights into the genesis one of Jencks’ boldest enterprises, Crawick Multiverse, a 55-acre artland just up the road from Sanquhar.

a photo of a man standing in a gallery in the town of sanquhar in scotland
Jeffrey Hoffman and Charles Jencks at Merz discussing art and science in the company of Anne Foley, of A' the Airts© Colin Hattersley
Crawick is spectacular. It holds vast cosmic forces within its bounds. The most dramatic features include Andromeda and our own Milky Way, two galaxies set to collide in about four billion years.

At the heart of a great amphitheatre there is this mosaic called Sun Flare – Earth Shield depicting how our planet’s electromagnetic field protects us from destruction by solar flares.

Hoffman went to the Multiverse and then headed to Merz to find out more about the artland’s origins, which was exactly what we hoped people would do.

a photo of a man standing in a gallery in the town of sanquhar in scotland
Jencks is an American landscape architect and designer of new mini-worlds in the great outdoors© Colin Hattersley
Merz is a new venture. When I first went into the building to discuss the exhibition, its transformation from being a derelict lemonade factory to an arts space was more of a vision than reality.

Starting the process of curating an exhibition from that point was clearly challenging. And as the gallery’s first show, I wanted it to demonstrate what an asset it could be for Upper Nithsdale.

A few metres away there is A’ the Airts, a community arts and crafts centre, which was another crucial partner. It provided staff and a base for ticket sales and was the venue for a series of Cosmic Conversations throughout the summer.

a photo of a man standing in a gallery in the town of sanquhar in scotland
Alex Rigg's silvery costumes at the Multiverse© Colin Hattersley
These were designed by our team to bring in artists and scientists to deliver talks, followed by exhibition visits on everything from quantum physics to spiritual landscapes.

Pooling expertise and resources was critical in giving Landscape of Waves a broad appeal and allowed it to evolve as a vehicle for a variety of activities.

Wide Open, a local arts-based business, even seized the initiative and ran themed day-long Quests based round the Cosmic Conversations. These involved visits to sites, walks and entertainment, all culminating with the talks by speakers such as Scotland’s Astronomer, Royal John Brown, and historical geographer Prof. David Munro.

a photo of a man standing in a gallery in the town of sanquhar in scotland
The Solar Flare mosaic at the Multiverse - as seen from a drone© Crawick Multiverse
Landscape of Waves was more than a collaboration, it was a catalyst. It was also an opportunity to bring together the work of two impressive artists with the core artistic purpose of conveying a fundamental concept in contemporary physics – that waveforms permeate every aspect of the cosmos.

Jencks points out that we see this in nature from gamma waves and radio waves to the Jet Stream waves that direct the weather patterns of rain, wind and temperature swirling around us every day.

Waveforms underlie water waves and are behind the twists and folds of the landscape. Even the human mind works using waves.

a photo of a man standing in a gallery in the town of sanquhar in scotland
© Colin Hattersley
While Jencks’ drawings and paintings explicitly examine the science, and are often concerned with immense forces at vast scale, Rigg comes from a very different perspective.

For the past two years he has created fabulous performance works for the Crawick Multiverse summer solstice celebrations. These have ebbed and flowed across Jencks’ landscapes. Their use of sound, colour, form and movement was a living embodiment of waveforms.

Trying to communicate this in a gallery could have been difficult, but Rigg’s sketches are phenomenally dynamic. And by using video and examples of finished costumes it was possible to convey a great deal in a relatively small space.

a photo of a man standing in a gallery in the town of sanquhar in scotland
Inside A' the Airts© Colin Hattersley
One of the most important elements of the exhibition was a new work, Black Hole, which brought the two artists’ work entirely into the same realm. Rigg was using fabrics to express scientific ideas about one of the greatest forces in nature.

The intellectual and artistic sweep of the artists’ work was so great that the exhibition felt considerably larger than it was. It also appears to have made a very positive impression on visitors like Jeffrey.

Landscape of Waves is now over. But it has hopefully demonstrated the ongoing potential for a small town like Sanquhar to deliver imaginative projects that combine artistic merit with wider community benefits.”

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