Museum of Nature: Reaching for the stars with photographer Michael Benson

Night side of Saturn. South is up in this nocturnal view of Saturn. The planet’s night side is illuminated by sunlight reflected off its rings. Sunlight also filters through the innumerable chunks of ice and dust that make up the rings. The planet’s shadow cuts across the rings at top centre. Mosaic composite photograph. Cassini, Oct. 28, 2006. Photo: NASA/JPL/Michael Benson, Kinetikon Pictures.

It’s my second time in as many weeks at a new exhibition that straddles art and science, and what an inspired frontier it is. Where dispassionate data and untethered imagination meet, the potential for insight seems, well, infinite.

Two weeks ago it was Leonardo da Vinci: 500 Years of Genius, at the Museum of Science and Technology. The current exhibition is Otherworlds: Visions of our Solar System, a collection of 41 photographs by the American artist and writer Michael Benson, now at the Museum of Nature. The exhibitions are complementary in that da Vinci designed aircraft that literally reached for the sky, while Benson reaches further into the endless expanse of space.

“I’m interested in the frontier, the place where what we know and don’t know meet, the place where we’re expanding our knowledge, where we looking at new things,” Benson says, during a walk through the photographs displayed over three levels of the museum.

Eclipse of the Sun by Earth. The solar corona – the outer atmosphere that surrounds the Sun – and magnetic loops during an eclipse of the Sun by Earth. The graduated reduction in our view of the Sun is due to the increased density of Earth’s atmosphere from left to right, which blocks
ultraviolet light. Ultraviolet exposure. Solar Dynamics Observatory, April 2, 2011. Photo: NASA SDO/NASA GSFC/Michael Benson, Kinetikon Pictures.

“My goal personally is to position us in a wider frame than we’re used to, a much wider frame. … In the last 50 years we have opened up the solar system to the human eye for the first time, and so we see that our reality here on earth belongs to this continuity of landscape.”

Landscape may seem a peculiar word when thinking about deep space, but it’s accurate. Many of the photographs — which Benson culled from innumerable images captured by various exploratory craft sent into the distance — are landscapes. One photo shows what look like small, rippled sand dunes on Mars, and in contour and colour they look remarkably like the sandbars of Prince Edward Island. Another shows a much larger Martian landscape and a fog-shrouded canyon that is six-and-a-half kilometres deep — more than three times deeper than the Grand Canyon.

The photographs are, appropriately, huge, 72 by 72 inches or even larger in area. Benson, who’s published several books on space, built the composite photographs from frames that were captured through various colour filters, and even radar, and he says they are “as accurate as I can make with the existing data available.”

In the lower level is a photo that particularly captures the scale of the exhibition. Jupiter fills the large frame, dwarfing just one of its 79 known moons, Ganymede — which itself is the ninth largest body in space, bigger than the planet Mercury. Another Jovian moon, Io, looks rather like a red pepper scone, until you lean in to see the plumes shooting up from the surface of the “most volcanic object in the solar system.” The images were captured by the Cassini spacecraft in 2001, while it flew “faster than a bullet” past Jupiter at a tremendous distance.

The larger and most distant planets from Earth are collected in the lower level, and the uniqueness of each is wondrous. Uranus is pale blue, and Neptune is like a giant, azure gemstone. Saturn has its defining rings, which are almost 300,000 kilometres across.

Michael Benson

As we enter the lower room it’s filled with a school tour and small, uniformed kids who dart hither and thither around the room like electrons in an atom. One kid asks Benson if he’s an astronaut, and while the answer could have been disappointing the boy seems fascinated by a brief explanation of how the photographs were created.

That sense of awe has been shared by those who’ve already seen the exhibition in London, England, in Vienna, Brisbane and elsewhere. After Ottawa its next stop is  Shanghai.

Upstairs are the inner planets, including our own. Even the photos of Earth are unlike any I’ve seen. A vertical cross section of Earth during a lunar eclipse shows the Himalayas shrouded by the moon’s shadow. Another shows our one, lonely moon and its Mare Orientale impact crater — at 320 kilometres wide “one of the largest in the solar system,” and looking like the moon’s giant, cyclopean eye. It’s difficult to imagine the moon having survived such a cataclysmic impact.

Fun facts abound. Venus, the wall panels reveal, is the Queensway rush hour of planets, having “been visited by more spacecraft than any other planet,” totalling 18.

Benson, meanwhile, is an artist but recently was a visiting scholar at MIT’s engagingly named Centre for Bits and Atoms.

“I’m making the argument that over 50 years of planetary exploration belongs as much to art as it does to science,” he says. “I’m bringing it back to art in a way.”

Otherworlds continues at the Museum of Nature to Sept. 2.

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Peter Simpson, a native of Prince Edward Island, was arts editor and arts editor at large for the Ottawa Citizen for 15 years, with a focus on the visual arts. He lives in downtown Ottawa with one wife, two cats and more than 100 paintings, drawings and sculptures.