Art

Moon as Muse: Centuries of Artistic Interpretations of Earth’s Mysterious Satellite

Through around 60 historical and contemporary objects, Lunar Attraction at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem considers the enduring artistic curiosity for the mysteries of the moon.

Beth Hoeckel, “Campground” (2013), from the series Point of View, found paper collage (courtesy the artist)

SALEM, Mass. — As demonstrated by the metal cosmic forms on the 3,600-year-old Nebra Sky Disk, unearthed in Germany in 1999, humans have been visually reacting to the moon for an incredible length of time. The cultural responses to Earth’s only natural satellite have ranged from the Japanese folkloric figure of a rabbit in the moon making mochi, to contemporary work like the “Moonwalk Machine” designed by Sputniko! to walk on the lunar surface and leave an imprint of a high-heel, referencing the fact that no woman has yet to set foot on the moon. Both, and more, make an appearance among the almost 60 objects in the Lunar Attraction exhibition at the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) in Salem, Massachusetts.

Greg Mort, “Space Aged–For the Crater Gouda” (2013), watercolor on paper (courtesy the artist)

“So few people seem to pay much attention to the moon, despite its role in our planet’s daily rhythms, human history, and as an enduring muse for artists and musicians,” Janey Winchell, PEM’s Sarah Fraser Robbins Director of the Art & Nature Center, where the exhibition is on view, told Hyperallergic. “I wanted to put the moon on stage for a bit, so people might experience Earth’s constant companion from a new vantage point, which artists do so well.”

Lunar Attraction has recent and historical art displayed together, mingled with interactive experiences that delve into its themes. “We wanted to give adults and families alike different ways of engaging with the moon, both as a physical entity and as something that has inspired countless artists from across the globe and for over a millennia,” Winchell explained. For instance, after viewing an Edo period Japanese stoneware hand warmer in the shape of a rabbit, you can create some shadow puppet theater evoking the rabbit-in-the-moon story along with other moon myths from across the globe.

Japanese hand warmer (Edo period, 18th or 19th century), glazed stoneware and copper lid (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Installation view of Lunar Attraction at the Peabody Essex Museum (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Activities in Lunar Attraction, like finding out your weight on the moon with a special scale, are definitely aimed at a young museum audience, still scientific topics such as the moon’s influence on our tides are also engaged more conceptually. Centered in the gallery is Adrien Segal’s “Tidal Datum” (2007), a literal “tide table” that uses curved steel bars positioned through its wood to chart a month of the rise and fall of the San Francisco Bay over the course of one lunar cycle. Alongside the work — and revealed by drawing back a curtain — there’s a delicate 1713 illustration of a solar eclipse by Edward Holyoke, showing the moon with a human face. Each of these objects contributes to a centuries-long narrative on scientific observations merging with artistic speculation.

It may seem a bit nostalgic to focus on the moon, when the Apollo missions are decades in the past, and although Elon Musk is promising imminent SpaceX trips for space tourists, the scientific funding for epic space expeditions is meager. Yet the moon remains an exploration goal, an optimistic beacon, and Lunar Attraction features moon architecture that could soon rise on its distant surface, such as the European Space Agency’s plans for a lunar base by the 2030s.

“In 2017, as nations around the world jockey to establish a presence on the moon of some sort in the coming decade or so, it seems a given that permanent human structures will be visible on the lunar surface in the not-too-distant future,” Winchell said. “That vision really captured my imagination as a curator.”

Foster+Partners/ESA, “Lunar base made with 3D printing,” from project Lunar Habitation (2013), 3D rendering (© 2013 Foster+Partners)
Installation view of Lunar Attraction at the Peabody Essex Museum (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Adrien Segal, “Tidal Datum” (2007), steel, walnut, and hardware (courtesy the artist)
Edward Holyoke, illustration of a solar eclipse (1713), ink on paper (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Michael Benson, “Lunar Far Side with Mare Moscoviense, Lunar Orbiter 5, August 13, 1967” (2003), digital chromogenic color print (courtesy the artist/Kinetikon Pictures/NASA RPIF Rome)
Joseph Wheelwright, moon sculptures (1981-2008), stone (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Young Sook Park, “Moon Jar” (2003), porcelain (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Installation view of Lunar Attraction at the Peabody Essex Museum (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Georges Méliès, “A Trip to the Moon” (1902), restored and colorized version by Lobster Films with original soundtrack by AIR (2011), film still (ourtesy Lobster Films and Flicker Alley, LLC)
Installation view of Lunar Attraction at the Peabody Essex Museum (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Craig Dorety, “A Moon with Many Suns” (2016), digitally carved aluminum, 3D printed resin, custom electronics (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Installation view of Lunar Attraction at the Peabody Essex Museum (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Lunar Attraction continues through September 4 at the Peabody Essex Museum (East India Square, 161 Essex Street, Salem, Massachusetts).

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