At 9pm on Tuesday, April 15, my son and I popped out of a Newcastle pizzeria and looked up at the sky. Earlier in the day I had been talking to three artists and they recommended we do this in order to see the International Space Station whizzing overhead.
To my shame, I didn’t even know the thing was up there. But at about 9.04pm (my son had just about written it off as a wind-up) a shining object, like a star but bigger, came over the rooftops like a slingshot and then disappeared as quickly as it had come. Wow!
A bit of online research revealed that the Nasa craft, the length of a rugby pitch and with the sun reflecting off its underside, was crewed by five male flight engineers, three Russian and two American, under the command of Dr Koichi Wakata from Japan.
Able to orbit Earth in 92 minutes, the craft was flying 200 miles above the ground at 17,500mph as we mulled over the pizza menu.
This is just the kind of thing to interest the artists who have contributed to the latest exhibition at Baltic 39, the Baltic satellite on Newcastle’s High Bridge.
The exhibition, They Used to Call it the Moon, features 36 works by 18 artists from around the world, including the Croatian Marko Tadic whose work We Used to Call it the Moon is referenced by the title.
According to Baltic 39, the show explores “the enduring presence of the Moon and the rich iconography of space on the popular imagination of artists”.
Far from being limited to the serious, factual stuff Nasa puts in the public domain, the exhibiton finds a place for fantasy, sci-fi and the fear that gives rise to conspiracy theories and which fuelled the Cold War and the space race. With the exhibition taking shape in the gallery, I talked to North East contributors Michael Mulvihill, Kate Liston and Katy Cole.
“My work has always started out with preoccupations with the Cold War,” says Michael who lives in Gateshead and has an MA in fine art from Northumbria University.
“I grew up during the 1980s and I remember it was a politically tense time. I particularly remember running home from school just to time how long it took.
“It was six minutes but I was aware there was a four-minute warning (before potential nuclear armageddon). I remember that sense of helplessness, that I’d never get home in time.
“In the conversations I’ve had with people it seems there were all sorts of little dreads and imagined scenarios and with this work I’m trying to unpick and make sense of that fear and paranoia, and also the conflicting ideologies.”
Michael, based at the Vane art studios on Newcastle’s Pilgrim Street, also remembers a boyhood enthusiasm for the space race, kindled by the Space Shuttle programme.
Specialising in tiny drawings, his series The Pursuit of Happiness features helmeted Russian cosmonauts and besuited figures – economists, politicians, shadowy fixers – whose contribution to Cold War politics and global one-upmanship isn’t immediately obvious.
Their scale owes something to the source material, thumbnail portraits found online, but it also contrasts tellingly with the “massive geo-political themes” the artist alludes to.
As with that ‘star’ flashing over the Newcastle restaurant, some seemingly tiny things are bigger than they appear.
Similarly this is illustrated in the work of Katy Cole, who also studied at Northumbria University and now has a studio at The NewBridge Project in Newcastle.
She is exhibiting some of the little ‘galaxies’ she showed in Soncino, Italy, last year when she participated in the town’s successful art biennale, although she isn’t clear at the time of our meeting exactly how they will be displayed here.
They are toy building blocks painted to look like small chunks of outer space, each resplendent with swirling galaxies and celestial bodies.
Katy explains how an interest in the imagery of explosions led naturally to stars and space, products of the ‘Big Bang’.
“I’m interested in really volatile environments and scaling them down,” she says. “A lot of people think we might be living in space one day so I create little environments that could be little worlds.”
Katy, whose work spills from science into sci-fi, talks tantalisingly of creating space landscapes inhabited by little people.
Gateshead-born Kate Liston, who studied at the Royal College of Art and has a studio at Baltic 39, is represented by Moon Rabbit, a three-part video work inspired by a spell in China in 2011, after she had been selected for the Red Manion Residency based in Beijing and then Shanghai.
She recalls that the girl she went to China with fell ill, leaving her to wander about an unfamiliar landscape “trying to make sense of everything”.
She could hardly miss the annual Festival of the Moon, an occasion for families to gather and watch the full moon while eating moon cakes and re-telling old lunar myths and legends.
Kate was drawn to the tale of Chang’e, tragic wife of the archer Hou Yi, who drank an elixir of immortality and was whisked into the heavens where she resides as Goddess of the Moon with just a jade rabbit, Yutu, for company.
Into this she wove the idea of the Moon Rabbit, which in many cultures is the shape suggested by the markings (pareidolia) on the Moon. “When I was younger someone said to me, ‘You can see the rabbit in the Moon’,” recalls Kate.
The legend of Chang’e and her rabbit features in modern space lore because the Apollo 11 astronauts were told of a newspaper headline asking them to look out for them when they made the first Moon landing.
“OK,” said Buzz Aldrin. “We’ll keep a close eye out for the bunny girl.”
Spot the famous Playboy Bunny logo in Kate’s video meditation on the Moon and its place in many cultures.
Last year, making Kate’s work even more pertinent to this exhibition, China launched a lunar mission called Chang’e 3 which was to drop off the country’s first moon rover, called Yutu.
They Used to Call it the Moon runs at Baltic 39, 31-39 High Bridge, Newcastle, until June 29. Admission is free. The gallery is open Wednesday to Sunday, 12 noon to 6pm (8pm on Thursday). Check www.balticmill.com/39