Art is often an act of venturing into the unknown, of starting something without knowing the outcome. Maybe that’s why so many artists have undertaken expeditions, whether setting out to ride the abandoned railroads of Mexico in a custom-built spaceship, teaching a flock of geese to fly to the moon, or patiently navigating the path of the sun across the Mojave Desert.
Setting Out at apexart in Tribeca examines the intersection of art and science through exploration in the work of over 20 artists. Organized by Shona Kitchen, Aly Ogasian, and Jennifer Dalton Vincent as part of apexart’s Unsolicited Proposal Program, the group show aims to, in the curators’ words, “untangle the terms that motivate and define contemporary expeditions.”
Contained in apexart’s single-room space, Setting Out is a lot to take in, and you’re given your own “research document” to navigate the projects, although the details provided on each are limited. Instead, the show functions more as a collection of expedition artifacts, with a central table strewn with antique photographs along with material from the newer work. This can cause some of the pieces to get a little lost — don’t miss the NASA-meets-nature “Local Means (Stoned Moon)” from 1970 by Robert Rauschenberg on a back wall — but does create a strong sense of the collective drive we have to push ourselves to the edges of existence.
One of the more quixotic and visually engaging projects is Agnes Meyer-Brandis’s “The Moon Goose Colony,” a documentary on her efforts to train 11 geese from egg to adulthood to fly to the moon, with herself as their galactic goose-mother. Inspired by Francis Godwin’s 17th-century “The Man in the Moone” tale (in which a man soars to the moon with a flock of birds), Meyer-Brandis employed actual scientific research in pursuit of the obviously impossible task, her feathered friends following like devoted Sanchos. That blurring of the real and science fiction is echoed in two prints from Annabel Elgar’s Cheating the Moon, installed alongside Meyer Brandis’s project. Elgar’s quest was to find missing moon rocks among the trove of 270 that were gifted around the globe by Richard Nixon. The authenticity of her discoveries remain shrouded in uncertainty, like a mound of alleged lunar dust in New Forest, England, encircled by tiny rockets.
Nearby, there are photographs and some very real Latin American rocks from Ivan Puig and Andrés Padilla Domene’s SEFT-1 travels, where they rode the abandoned railways in Mexico and Ecuador from 2010 to 2012. The rails represented an unfulfilled government promise for better access to the regions Puig and Domene drove through in their silver vehicle, a handmade spaceship that retraced the path of a lost future. The endurance aspect of the SEFT-1 project is echoed in William Lamson’s video for “A Line Describing the Sun” (2010), in which he spent two days tracking the path of the sun in the Mojave Desert. Using a Fresnel lens mounted on his own wheeled vehicle to melt mud in a shimmering line representing a celestial arc of time, he created a visual record of solar movement that we rarely consider.
There are projects that look less to the stars and more to the ecology of our planet, like James Balog’s Extreme Ice Survey, an ongoing photography project where over 40 cameras document 24 glaciers around the world, a study in single-frame images of their changing architecture. The exhibition also showcases some endeavors that were never intended as art, like The X-Hunters, a team tracking down forgotten aviation crash sites as a form of “aerospace archaeology.” They’ve found over 100 such sites in the Southwest of the United States, represented in the gallery in the form of shredded aluminum fragments, a reminder of the fatal limits of human endeavors.
Setting Out doesn’t go into detail on any of these projects, serving as more of a portal into the different ways contemporary artists and scientists carry out expeditions at a time when we often think that every corner of the world has been explored. The exhibition includes in its guide a 1902 quote from Frederick Cook (who might have been slighted out of his North Pole victory by Robert Peary) that sums up the drive to push further and further past the limits of our world as, ultimately, an urge for a legacy beyond our lifetimes: “Each point of attraction which at first bewilders us by its strangeness becomes a written page to be added to the future annals of science.”