Mark Cullen: “Ladies in gentlemen we are floating in space”
Photography: Mike Hannon
In 1997, Spiritualized released the album from which this show takes its name, and the album artwork, which replicates medical packaging, instantly suggests that the machinery for space travel may be more pharmacopaeic than physical. The title furthe r suggests we reflect on how ‘we’ are doing the floating – is it the Earth’s natural motion? The attainment of orbit? The loss of orbit, as ‘we’ drift uncontrollably? One layer of the voices comes to us as through a distant communication device, punctuated and closed by the pings familiar from Apollo recordings. Cullen’s show crosses from material to ethereal, from majestic and properly sublime to mundane and practical, and concludes on the same note of loss for the manned space programme that aimed to land somewhere. The Apollo missions have represented, for a long time, a retro-future, a lost promise, a steampunk future that had the strange fate of actually happening. As this vision warmed again to the prospect of the projected 2020 Moonbase and subsequent Mars mission, Obama cancelled these ambitious programmes, and the Apollos settled into the dusty sublime of a handful of 70s space travellers once again.The first part of this show centres on drawings, of skies, of a nebula (the ‘iconic’ horsehead’, I believe, captured by the Hubble telescope), an observatory, and obsessive renderings of starcharts in various media. These latter are fine, except the lightbox versions, which raise them from the bringing down to earth achieved by the drawings into some sort of mundane wonderment. The second part, upstairs in the ESB substation, brings the starchart idea into explosive purpose as the stars puncture the wall. Back down below, the observatory pictures are neat, their ricketiness a nice reflection of drawn observations of planets (Patrick Moore’s famous Moon drawings of over 50 years ago), a tribute to the stretching of means that has stretched human interaction with space. Climb again. This time pause at the museum-like installation of Sleeper Cells (2010) – fourteen tin foil sleeping bags, emptied and shaped in different exit poses of their presumed departed inhabitants. The foil itself is a product of the space programme, an evocation of the scientia povera used to justify the space programme on grounds of its immediate terrestrial use value. It also recalls the limited version of the Spiritualized album, which came as 12 cds, one for each track, in blister packs, backed in foil. The emptied beds are a soft monument to the passing of Apollo, the heat of discovery dissipating as the astronauts disembarked. Or – the giving up of this programme marks the move to another type of space travel – as William Burroughs often droned, ‘we are here to go, into space’, and to do so would mean leaving behind the literalism of rocket-propelled-metal-box physical travelling. These metallic cauls are as mysterious as the actual space mission artefacts, or the Easter Island statues – why did someone do this? Why did they stop? Or – what gave birth to this, and oh my god, WHERE DID THEY GO? WHERE ARE THEY NOW? Paul Hegarty teaches cultural studies and philosophy in the French Department, University College Cork. He performs in the bands Safe and La Société des Amis du Crime, and co-directs dotdotdot record label.