CHICAGO — Five digitally animated images of the sun twist, flare, and twitch within each of their screens. The images, taken by Sarah and Joseph Belknap for their solo exhibition, BMO Harris Bank Chicago Works: Sarah and Joseph Belknap at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, were captured with NASA software that the couple downloaded on to their phones. Over the course of one year, the couple took screenshots when either would think about the sun. Documented in the animated five-channel video, “12 Months of the Sun” (2014), the work renders our vast universe on a more personal, human scale, making it almost tangible. With each animated frame, the viewer connects with a moment that recorded each artist’s placement in relation to the sun, and his or her view of the fiery being overhead.
“12 Months of the Sun” is the best introduction to the body of work, a way to dive into the conceptual basis of the Belknap’s obsession with documenting their day-to-day experience with large planets outside of their physical grasp. Throughout the exhibition, the artists attempt to form the cosmos as a quantifiable subject rather than an infinitely vast network in which one is sure to become inexplicably lost.
At the center of the exhibition, three walls display various bouncy ball-like objects, hung sagged and limp, labeled as “Deflated Moon Skins” and “Exoplanet Skins.” The skins appear as if they had just been ripped from life, dripping with the dried silicone that formed their shape. The intensely detailed, multicolored skins are textured like derelict tar, appearing like a microecosystem of algae. The Belknaps modeled the skins off of Jupiter’s moon, distant exoplanets, and Earth’s own moon, compressing space and time by displaying the skins close together, regardless of the planets’ realistic distance from one another. Although interested in the works’ surfaces, I was most intrigued by what was lacking from the skins — their definition. I was curious if the artists kept the skins deflated to release the momentous lifeforms of their power, making them more accessible and relatable as objects.
The largest piece in the exhibition hangs in the opposite room: an installation roughly textured like the deflated skins, yet inspired by the interiors of craters instead of planets or moons. The work is flat and rectangular, and though presented as a single object, each half is different, the right showing the largest crater on Earth’s moon and the left the largest crater in South Africa. One can almost trace the artists’ hands in the dark topography’s drips and imperfections. Splayed out, the skin, a patchwork quilt of holes and craters, retains its power. The room is kept dim, a confusing but rewarding aspect to the object, pushing the viewer into the cosmos as if momentarily stuck in the eternal darkness from which the object was created.
Overall, the most successful works are those that gently suggest that the universe can be more quantifiable, but not necessarily tangible. These works put the cosmos into a personal perspective, grasping a sense of the unknown even if its entirety remains out of reach. Although the deflated moonskins and exoplanet skins provide a way to get close to the cosmos and remove its overwhelming distance, works like “12 Months of the Sun” connect more personally with the viewer, while keeping an appropriate mystery to the cosmos at large.
BMO Harris Bank Chicago Works: Sarah and Joseph Belknap continues at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago (220 E Chicago Ave, Chicago) through February 24.