Space Is the Place

Space Is the Place

The Belknaps Exoplanet Skin 8

The Belknaps’ sculpture Exoplanet Skin (8) (2015), made of silicone, has glow-in-the-dark properties. The Chicago artists revel in the cosmos. Photo: Joel DeGrand

For Sarah and Joseph Belknap, home is a tiny blue dot in a universe packed with possibilities. Romantics, adventurers, collaborators, lovers of all kinds of inquiry, husband and wife, these Chicago artists have staked out space as their place.

The Belknaps work in sculpture, photography, video, and performance. They show in art galleries and used to sell at craft fairs. But they really don’t like to pin their work down, to call it art or science – or even whimsy, though some pieces spark smiles.

“What we say about ourselves is: We work with our hands,” Sarah says.

The Belknaps might be best known for the “skins” they’ve made in the past few years, deflated silicone spheres that appear to have been shed by some unassuming moon or one of the exoplanets of deep space. A dozen skins – you can guess by their colors and textures which heavenly body they might belong to – hung on the walls at a 2014 solo show at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, like so many jackets waiting for a chilly day. To make the skins, Joseph says, they brushed silicone onto a textured foam orb, layer by layer, as a scientist in the field might make a mold, and then they turned each one inside out. They didn’t know in advance exactly what result they’d get. That’s typical of their experimentation with materials, natural and synthetic, including graphite powder, mica flakes, and “lunar regolith simulant” – man-made moon dust.

Says Karsten Lund, curatorial assistant at the MCA, who organized the Belknaps’ show, “Experimentation is part of the process both of the artist and at the scientific frontier. They’re interested in exploring that overlap.”

The two-dimensional piece 4 Months of Sun Spots (2014), which depicts satellite images of sunspots on a sphere, also intrigued viewers at the MCA. It’s not a faithful record, though. Rather, for four months, whenever they thought about the sun, the Belknaps downloaded satellite images of sunspots provided by NASA. So 4 Months is a time-lapse picture of sunspots – but only to the extent that a couple of human beings were thinking about them.

That’s their primary interest in the universe, the Belknaps say – how humans interact with it. For most of human history, the cosmos has been remote and mysterious, but our relationship is much more intimate now, thanks to recent discoveries. “It’s not about outer space, but about people gravitationally stuck on this little blue dot. We like to think about us, on this planet. We’re in space,” Sarah says; “it’s not ‘out there.’ ”

The Belknaps met in 2004 in Chicago at the art supply store where Joseph was working after finishing college. His original artistic inspiration was the post-industrial Ohio landscape of his childhood. Sarah’s student work (she was still in college at the time) centered on a series of needle sculptures dealing with the trauma and illness she had watched her father suffer – and reflected her own struggles with a lung ailment. (Surgery eventually restored her to health.)

Married in 2008, they both wanted to try something new. But, Sarah says, “we had to start from scratch to collaborate.” Joseph was “wild and crazy,” Sarah “anal and pragmatic.” What they had in common was a boundless curiosity and a love of road trips. On one trip, in 2010, they heard an episode of NPR’s Radiolab about the Voyager interstellar mission, specifically about how the famous astronomer Carl Sagan and a young researcher named Ann Druyan fell in love while choosing which natural sounds and world-music selections should go on a “golden record” the spacecraft would carry to the far reaches of the solar system and beyond.

For the Belknaps, that episode had it all. “It’s an incredibly romantic story of Earth and of human life,” Sarah says. The intention of the golden record wasn’t to “have someone find it. It’s about the poetics of who we are and what we want to show. This is what our work has been about ever since. All our work stems from Voyager,” she says.

“Looking outward helps us look inward,” Joseph adds. “What’s your golden record?”

The Voyager mission, launched in 1977, parallels “the time scale of our life,” says Joseph, who was born in 1979. The images it sent back dramatically changed how people think about the Earth. Earlier jaunts to the moon had given us the image of the “big blue marble,” but Voyager produced pictures of a poignantly tiny Earth as seen, for example, through the rings of Saturn.

As the two Voyager vehicles ventured farther, the images they sent back were digital descriptions of objects no human being now alive will ever actually see – and they had to be translated into something visual back here on Earth, using color, aureoles, rings, tails, and other effects we know about from the planets and stars we have seen, Joseph points out. This need to make data visible fills the couple with glee, because it blurs the line between science and art.

“Visualizing intangibles is a function of the arts,” Joseph says. “For me, space is about ways of seeing. It’s important to move away from what’s in front of us.”

One of the Belknaps’ favorite stories involves an unforeseen consequence of the 1994 Northridge earthquake in California. People called 911 and the Griffith Observatory during a widespread power outage in Los Angeles, alarmed by the sight of the huge, bright cloud in the night sky – the Milky Way, ordinarily obscured by the city’s ambient light.

From 2008 until earlier this year, the Belknaps also worked in production craft, selling their work through Renegade craft fairs, museum shops, and their own website, Works on the website included plastic skulls made from molds of real human and humanoid specimens the Belknaps acquired from an anthropologist, along with a line of handmade, irreverent Trophies You Deserve, emblazoned with wording such as “At Least You Tried.” The couple even designed for Crate and Barrel’s CB2 product line for a while, but “the studio got hectic” during that period, Joseph says.

Today, they’re teaching more, often at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where they both earned MFAs.

But a priority is keeping their time in the studio for their inquiries, for doing what feels right, and just “to sit and ponder,” Joseph says. “Signs point to us being able to survive.”

The Belknaps’ newest work doesn’t necessarily depict heavenly bodies, but sometimes those cosmic themes are simply not obvious. A pair of works, Hands (1) and Hands (2), made in 2015, show a number of hands impressed onto squares of silicone. “They’re about childlike touching,” Joseph says. “And they glow in the dark.”

Delia O’Hara is a Chicago freelance writer.