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Exhibition: Michael Benson’s Otherworlds: Visions of our Solar System at the Canadian Museum of Nature

By Brian Carroll on July 2, 2019

Brian Carroll interviewed American artist Michael Benson about his extraordinarily beautiful exhibit of 41 images of our solar system that is having its North American premiere at the Canadian Museum of Nature. Benson has composed and processed these images from raw scientific data from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the European Space Agency (ESA). This interview has been edited for length.

Apt613: NASA and ESA, they’re in the business of scientific collection of data. What’s striking about this exhibit is how beautiful these images are. Would you care to comment on the difference between the science and the artistry?

Michael Benson: With this body of work, I’m making the case that the visual legacy of over 50 years of interplanetary exploration belongs, rightfully, as much to art as to science, in a way that’s bringing art and science back together where they originated. In the old days, you didn’t even have scientists – they were called natural philosophers. The process of researching the visual world was both the scientific pursuit and an artistic pursuit. It was all fused. We’re talking in the Renaissance.

With digital image processing, one could unlock the archives and work with the raw material, which is what I did.

From my earliest days, being aware of this activity of interplanetary exploration with robotic spacecraft, I intuited that the images being sent to Earth were the beginnings of a new genre of graphic representation of the natural world. Even if the data acquired was acquired for scientific research purposes, it was, potentially at least, component parts of aesthetic vision, aesthetic presentation.

In the late nineties, it became possible, with the World Wide Web and with NASA being one of the early adopters of the Internet, it was possible for the first time for nonspecialists to get access to the zillions of raw frames.

With digital image processing, one could unlock the archives and work with the raw material, which is what I did.

The night side of Saturn. Image courtesy of the Canadian Museum of Nature.

Speaking of art, some of the compositions are truly striking in their artistry. They could easily have been hung in the National Gallery of Canada as opposed to the Canadian Museum of Nature. One example that I’m thinking of is the Night Side of Saturn, which is almost geometrically abstract.

Saturn, by the way, is just endless. It’s just this endless feast of images. It’s an extraordinary object. It’s so much fun to go through the material and find angles like that, where the composition practically appears, makes itself for you, in the image.

I should say that that’s a colour image and it didn’t originate as a colour image. I do compositing of different shots taken through different filters to get to colour. So apart from making mosaics, mosaicking multiple shots together to get a wider field view, higher resolution, there’s a lot of compositing going on in what I do.

Michael Benson beside his image of Venus passing in front of the Sun.

For those of us who are accustomed to seeing space images in books and magazines, these images are much bigger and have more visible detail. Some of them are so big, two meters square, for example, that if you get close enough, they’re immersive.

Image courtesy of the Canadian Museum of Nature

So what were you thinking artistically, making those format choices? I’ll give you examples. There’s Venus passing in front of the Sun. We have a photo of you beside that [above]. And Jupiter and Io is just breathtakingly huge [right].

72 inches square, 72” by 72”. By the way, 72 inches is as wide as chromogenic paper gets. This is chromogenic paper, not inkjet. So that’s as big as I could get it.

What were you thinking artistically about doing that?

Well, you know, if you have an object of the scale of Jupiter or the Sun or the Earth. It just seems like the way to go to try to do justice.

The idea is to WOW people with the level of detail, to impress them with the phenomena that’s being presented.

Viewers will find many surprises. For example, Pluto has an atmosphere. Who knew? And Valles Marineris can fill with ice and fog. Why aren’t these better known and publicized?

I’m doing my best. Don’t look at me.

I mean, we rarely collectively look up from our human concerns, our miserable provincial petty tribal concerns on Earth. That’s another motivation for the show is to try to raise our view above our own concerns, our own self absorption.

So why wouldn’t people understand that there’s ground fog in Valles Marineris? Because first of all, we don’t live on the same planet as that. But you know, it just hasn’t been out there.

Pluto was the first time a spacecraft has encountered an object that we knew that little about in advance. So everything was new. It was an extraordinary thing. When the spacecraft, having been preprogrammed to turn around and look at the planet after flying by it, with the sun behind lighting the atmosphere and when it became clear that there was a blue halo, it was an extraordinary moment because we associate blue sky with the Earth. This is the farthest object out that we’ve ever visited. So that was pretty interesting.

Europa in front of the Great Red Spot. Image courtesy of the Canadian Museum of Nature.

When you’re sifting through the images, does there come a point where something like these images speaks to you and says, show me to the world?

Oh, absolutely. I mean, that image of Europa in front of the Great Red Spot: I stumbled on that one around two in the morning when I’d been going through the entire database of Voyager images, as the two Voyagers flew past Jupiter, looking for extraordinary views. I was going through all these cloud shots during the several days of closest approach. Suddenly it looked like the top of a bald man’s head was stuck into an image of cloud scapes. I thought, what the hell is that? Then I realized: that’s Europa! Then I look for the neighbouring frames and, and found the whole moon hanging there in front of the cloud scape.

My first test audience is myself: do I find that cool?

My first test audience is myself: do I find that cool? Well, yes, I did. At first I made a four frame mosaic and then I was content with cloud scapes and the moon. That was already extraordinary enough. I just let it sit there as a screensaver for awhile.

Then I went back to the data later, we’re talking early 00’s, and I discovered, “My God!”, to the left of the satellite was the Great Red Spot. It didn’t even occur to me to use the colour information that was in the data because it was so dramatic as a black and white!, So yes, with that particular image, I thought “This is something. This has to be seen. This has to be put out there.”

That’s part of the fun of it for me. It’s just that visceral kind of instinct to find extraordinary material and get it out there.

Is there a question I should have asked?

There is one more thing I would say. The title of every piece includes the name of the spacecraft and the date when the data that I use to make the image was acquired. Just so that there’s no perception that I am attempting to take some kind of credit for achievements that were not my own. All glory should go to the people who made those missions happen.

What I’m doing is one of the activities that can happen afterwards. Planetary scientists go into the archive of the missions looking for their type of discovery, which can involve finding data to back their theories. Maybe confirmation of a theory or an idea about atmosphere of Saturn or the rings of Saturn or what have you. I’m looking for a different type of discovery in the archive. But none of that would be possible without what was achieved by NASA and the European Space Agency with those missions.


Otherworlds by Michael Benson is showing at the Canadian Museum of Nature in the two floors of the Rotunda and in the Stonewall Gallery in the basement until September 2, 2019. The museum is open daily from 9am-6pm, and is open til 8pm on Thursdays. The museum closes at 5pm on July 28th and August 23rd. The Rotunda may be closed occasionally for special events. Check the schedule upon your arrival at the museum, or call ahead at 613-566-4700. Admission to the Museum and to the Otherworlds exhibit is $11–15. Free for members. Visit nature.ca for more information.


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