In a typed letter dated March 31, 1964, film director Stanley Kubrick told sci fi writer Arthur C Clarke that he had been an admirer of his books “for quite a time”.
He wrote that he “had always wanted to discuss with you the possibility of doing the proverbial ‘really good’ science-fiction movie”.
The movie was 2001: A Space Odyssey. Not all the critics deemed it “really good” on its release but it attained cult status long ago, to the extent that the letter in a display case on Baltic’s Level 4 exerts a powerful gravitational pull.
It is one of the items loaned by the Stanley Kubrick Archive for They Used To Call It The Moon, a moon-inspired exhibition which began earlier this year in Baltic 39, Baltic’s experimental lab in Newcastle, and has expanded into a Baltic biggie – a relatively humble star become a supernova.
This is just what Baltic 39 was intended to be, a nursery for ideas that might take flight spectacularly or quietly sink to earth with lessons learned along the way.
This exhibition represents a meeting of minds from art, science, literature, film-making and space exploration. In the 1960s, when Clarke and Kubrick were peddling their exciting dreams and Nasa was sending men to the moon, it would have been cutting edge and thrillingly futuristic.
Today the thrills are largely nostalgic. The date that Clarke and Kubrick plucked from an unknown future gave us not space odysseys but the horrible earth-bound tragedy of 9/11; footprints on the moon, to anyone under the age of 45, is an iconic image from history rather than a first step towards greater things.
A big display case in Baltic’s expansive Level 4 gallery has a range of space-related literature, including popular and slightly scuffed looking paperbacks by Arthur C Clarke and “a Daily Mirror Special” called Man on the Moon, priced at three shillings and sixpence (about 17p in today’s money) and described as “Your Guide To The Greatest Adventure Since The Start Of Time”.
There has been little to beat it since the very last moon walk, in December 1972, by Apollo 17 astronauts Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt, who are now aged 80 and 79 respectively. Some stuff on show at Baltic looks like fodder for Antiques Roadshow.
But one thing the exhibition demonstrates is that a fascination with the moon pre-dates the Apollo missions by many years. On loan from Newcastle’s Lit & Phil is a spectacular example of the first supposedly exact lunar map, created by German astronomers Wilhelm Beer and Johann Heinrich Mädler from 1834-6.
You can also see ‘lunar’ photographs made by Scottish amateur astronomer James Nasmyth in the 1870s when, undaunted by the fact that photography was not yet advanced enough to do the job, he made plaster models of the moon as he envisaged it and took photos of them.
Black Drop, a film by Turner Prize-winning artist Simon Starling, looks at the rare planetary phenomenon of the transit of Venus and, in documenting early moving image technology, also touches on the Nasmyth photos. You can watch the film in a dark room at the back of the gallery.
In the middle of the floor sits Trevor Paglen’s Prototype for a Nonfunctional Satellite, a big silver blob that could have floated straight out of Nasa or the studio of Stanley Kubrick.
One of the thrilling things about lunar exploration is the blurring of science fiction and science fact - exemplified by the works of Arthur C Clarke, an author who moved effortlessly from one to the other.
A display of meteorites comes with a factual explanation that could fire even the most sluggish imagination, suggesting that terrestrial life forms – “you, your partner, your dog, your cat and your houseplants” – are all made from stardust, “produced in the cores of dying giant stars”.
As you admire the wonderful photographs taken by astronauts including Charles Duke, Alan Bean and Ronald Evans, and brought into the public domain by artist Michael Light, you will hear – performed on self-playing grand piano – Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata (composed in 1801 but here part of an extraordinary artwork by Katie Paterson who had the composition translated into Morse code and bounced off the moon and back to earth using a technique called moon bounce, or EME (Earth-Moon-Earth).
Put on headphones and you will hear the same piece of music slowed down to equal the length of Neil Armstrong’s lunar walk back in 1969. The work, by Thomas Ireland, is called 2:36:41.
No doubt even Moonlight Sonata pales after several hundred repeat playings (just ask members of the Baltic crew) but this is an exhibition that merits one or more repeat visits.
Like footballers who graduate from academy to first team, it is a great example of nurturing. It is also a great exhibition. It runs until January 11, 2015.
On December 5 you can see 2001: A Space Odyssey at the Tyneside Cinema as part of the British Film Institute’s Sci-Fi Days of Fear and Wonder. The 8pm screening, in partnership with Baltic and Northern Film and Media, will include a question-and-answer session with Piers Bizony, an expert on the film.