The Goldilocks Region

I haven’t yet decided whether Giles Alexander’s The Goldilocks Region is elevating or forlorn. On the one hand, even though the universe is expanding all around us – even hurtling away beneath our feet – when we think of space, we intuitively look up. But when we do we hit a cognitive brick wall in comprehending quite what it is we’re looking at. I’d defy anyone to really see the dome of the sky as the bottomless void it really is. Likewise it’s hard not to see the 2D surface of Alexander’s artwork as anything other than the narrow window through which we gaze at the (quite literally) otherworldly visages beyond. But that’s the point.

There’s a bit of both elevation and pathos in Alexander’s work. People cluster together in the centre of the room, peering outwards through elliptic portals at the vistas of planets and the detritus of human relics drifting through the void. But at the same time the resin that is perhaps Alexander’s signature material reflects our gaze back at us, making us a part of the work, forcing our gaze inwards. 

The work is riddled with artefacts, in the original sense of the world: things made, by us. From a distance, images of the planets – Jupiter, Venus, the moon Io – recall the stunning photographs beamed over unimaginable distances by the man-made modern day explorers: the Voyager probes. But lean in, peer closer, and it becomes apparent these are no mere reproductions. They’re creations. But why? Why meticulously re-construct an artificial rendering of a photograph? Then again, isn’t the photograph already mediated – by lens, by conversion from pixels to bits, bits to radio waves, radio waves back to bits, and then to packets flung over the internet? Why not convert it to paint?

Each stage of this conversion introduces the other kind of artefacts: distortion, compression, pixilation, brushstrokes. All things that are part of the package deal of perception. Nothing is seen as-it-is, but is seen through something. Increasingly, they’re seen through artefacts of our own creation. Alexander’s work reminds us of this, reinforcing the point through his use of resin, a material that – like space flight – is not something with which one dabbles. Dressed in his own space suit, treading lightly through the rarefied atmosphere of the clean room in his studio, constantly battling hair and dust, much as NASA scientists do in the construction of their otherworldly explorers.

The sheer shininess of the resin reminds us of the ubiquitous screens through which we consume so much of the non-proximate world, including the countless breathtaking images of our solar system and beyond. The same screens that trivialise the task of peering into the heavens. It’s now harder to see what’s under your bed than what floats amongst the rings of Saturn.

But the artefacts aren’t just in the production or its consumption; they’re part of the subject. It’s been but a cosmic blink of the eye from the erecting of the pyramids or the forging of the terracotta soldiers, a fleeting moment that has gone unnoticed by the wandering planets, yet in that time we’ve gone from worshipping Jupiter to praising the technology that lets us gaze at the chaotic contortions of the clouds boiling across the surface of the eponymous gas giant.

Alexander has us see the relics of human endeavour drifting through our vistas of the ancient relics of the solar system. There’s no comparison in their age, but Alexander reminds us that while images of the planets are ‘new’ – being a triumph of 20th century technology – and the artefacts are ‘ancient’, we can’t help but to see things bound by our own experiential terms. 

Because, ultimately, this is an artwork about us. Its very title, The Goldilocks Region – referring to that precious band of space around a star that is ‘just right’ for supporting life – reminds us of the fragility and fortuitousness of life. The ellipses carved out of resin give us our lens through which we see the world, and the worlds beyond. The relics remind us that our footprint inevitably expands ever further from our planetary cradle. The blackness of space reeks of possibility, but the scale defies comprehension. The work is more sublime than beautiful, but it’s still beautiful. It reminds us of how narrow our view of our universe is, yet how profound it could be.

Tim Dean, philosopher and science writer