Monday, October 4, 2021

How High the Moon

 by Robert Boyd

The 8th Continent is the title of a new artwork by Brazilian artist Clarissa Tossin now on view in the Brochstein Pavilion at Rice University. Some followers of the Houston art scene may recall that Tossin was a Core Fellow from 2010 to 2012. During her time in Houston, she was in two Core Exhibits at the old Glassell school (one of which I wrote about), and in exhibits at Sicardi Gallery and the Houston Center for Photography.

Clarissa Tossin, The 8th Continent, three tapestries with metallic thread, 2021

The 8th Continent are a series of tapestries produced with metallic thread on a jacquard machine, a type of loom invented in the 19th century that used punch cards to communicate the design to the machine--it was a precursor in a way to the computing machines of the next century. But the large tapestries are meant to recall those produced during medieval and Renaissance times. These were Veblen goods--they signified the wealth and power of their owners (although they did have a practical purpose--buildings then were drafty and poorly insulated, which tapestries helped). The metallic thread in The 8th Continent also are design to recall the ostentatious wealth display of ancient tapestries. 

Clarissa Tossin, The 8th Continent center tapestry, tapestry with metallic thread, 2021

The 8th Continent was produced with the cooperation of Rice’s Space Institute and Houston’s Lunar and Planetary Institute. They depict areas on the poles of the moon that are possible sites for future moon missions. It is thought that in some of the shadows of some crater--shadows that are never exposed to the sun--there may be water ice. 

Clarissa Tossin, The 8th Continent right tapestry, tapestry with metallic thread, 2021

Tossin used high-contrast photos as her source material, which make the shadows seem even darker than they might otherwise. The black in the tapestry is especially black, presumably because the sewn surface traps light very well. 

So why should these lunar locations be the subject of this modern tapestry? The idea is that because of a 2015 treaty, the Artemis Accords, the USA might be able to mine the moon, particularly to extract water from these dark craters to make rocket fuel from. Why go to the moon to get the water? After all, we have plenty on Earth. But the problem is that it takes a lot of energy to lift rocket fuel away from Earth. A lot of what we're doing when a rocket lifts off is lifting the fuel itself. So if we want to go further than the moon, it would be useful to produce the rocket fuel on the moon and lift off from there. Earth's gravity would still be a drag, but much less so if we were leaving from the moon. So think of these tapestries as trophies of a future colonial possession.

Clarissa Tossin, The 8th Continent left tapestry, tapestry with metallic thread, 2021

(As an aside, they fact that we would even consider going to the Moon to get water shows how absurd it is that science fiction films posit aliens coming to Earth to get our water, as in Oblivion (2013). Why would they drop into our gravity well when water is plentiful in the solar system--on the moon, on various other moons like Europa and Ganymede, and in comets.)

I saw this exhibit on September 24, when it was officially installed. The artist was present. I met her and said, "Parabéns," which is Portuguese for "Congratulations." She spoke Portuguese back to me and I was immediately lost--I know it a little, but not enough to converse.

Clarissa Tossin in the Brochstein Pavilion

Looking at her CV, it seems that in her most recent works, she is looking at science fiction themes. She has always been interested in Modernity, and what is science fiction but Modernity persisting? (Except for the more dystopian branch of the genre.) But linking this futuristic notion--lunar colonization--with the past--medieval tapestries--places this work is a postmodern space, if I may be allowed to use a term that already is starting to feel antique. Colonizing the Moon won't have the huge cost borne by colonized populations, but there could be conflicts. The Artemis Accord is supposed to prevent that--it defines how far apart different nations' outposts must be from one another. But people are good at finding reasons to fight. 

The location of The 8th Continent is interesting. Brochstein Pavilion is not an art gallery, as should be obvious from the photo above. It's a small cafe with spaces for student to get some coffee and study. 

The Brochstein Pavilion

It was built in 2007 (long after my student days here in the early '80s), and architects, Thomas Phifer + Partners, made no effort to fit it in with the original Mediterranean design style of Ralph Adams Cram. Trying to contextualize buildings into Cram's original vision is something that Rice has done sporadically since the founding of the university over a century ago, and the result is a mish-mash of architectural styles. The Brochstein Pavillion seems perfect for its purpose, and students seem to enjoy hanging out there. And I suspect that The 8th Continent is just the sort of artwork that will appeal to the nerds of Rice University.

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