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Michael Najjar has his sights set on being the first civilian artist to travel to space. Since 2012, the German photo and video artist has undergone training at Russia’s Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in anticipation of his secured trip aboard Virgin Galactic’s new SpaceShipTwo, a commercial spacecraft still in its test phase. (The price of his passenger ticket, valued at $250,000, was covered by his collectors.) While training, he has documented his surroundings and experiences — from embarking on underwater space walks to undergoing zero gravity flights — later introducing sleek digital manipulations to his pictures. The resulting series, outer space, still ongoing, is now on view at Benrubi Gallery and contemplates the burgeoning industry of space travel and its implications.
As you might expect, the large-scale photographs are crisp and polished, offering futuristic views of environments normally sealed off from the general public. Gleaming, seemingly symmetric images of the world’s largest centrifuge, Centrifuge TSF-18, and of the James Webb Space Telescope — intended to be the world’s most powerful — immediately evoke scenes from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Looking at the photos, you immediately sense the grandeur of the spaces and devices pictured as the most advanced tools of their kind, even if you don’t recognize what they are: Najjar presents them as perfectly engineered, pristine, showroom-ready technologies, sending the message that the current era of space exploration is simply thrilling. Looking toward the future, Najjar also captures a vibrant, almost luminescent image of plants, taken at England’s Eden Project, a complex of artificial biomes. In this context, “space garden” (2013) spurs questions about synthetic environments in space and what sustaining life in the cosmos would look like if the technologies Najjar has photographed do prove successful.
The artist and astronaut-in-training largely presents space as an awe-inspiring realm of opportunity, even in images that show its related hazards. An image of space debris from cosmic explosions, created in collaboration with Institute of Aerospace Systems in Braunschweig, Germany, frame the very real threats to space stations and satellites as distant, twinkling stars. Even “serious anomaly” (2015), an image of a crashed jet composed from photographs of the original SpaceShipTwo’s fatal test flight in 2014, has an air of glory, its fragmented shell shining despite its wreckage, as if freshly buffed for the shot.
We do receive a glimpse of the challenges bound to also test humans’ physical limitations through a number of self-portraits. For instance, “liquid gravity” (2013) captures Najjar drifting in a nearly 40-foot-deep water tank; his feet are an inch off the ground, but the suit he dons and the equipment he shoulders remind of the hardware he needs to accomplish that weightlessness. Similarly, what resembles an upside-down space selfie shows Najjar during a high-altitude flight, when he was propelled at supersonic speed in a jet fighter, reaching a height of 12 miles to enter the stratosphere. His surroundings are but a blur, but in sharp focus is his heavy gear, his strapping armor that protects him from otherwise crushing G-forces.
Also disorienting, albeit for different reasons, are Najjar’s composite images that stitch together terrains from space and from earth. One fuses images of a region in Iceland with those of the surface of Jupiter’s satellite, Europa; another, views of Chile’s Valley of the Moon in the Atacama desert with pictures of the moon’s surface shot by Apollo astronauts. Where the borders dividing the landscapes lie are uncertain, but the beauty both embody and the wonder both provoke are evident. We are gradually familiarizing ourselves with space, and this enduring push to reach beyond frontiers, Najjar suggests, is worth every effort.