Named after NASA's 'Near-Earth Object Program', Barry W Hughes' latest series 'NEOP' takes us on a challenging adventure through his often-sculptural investigations into the aesthetics of outer space. Rosie Gist spoke to Hughes to find out more.
RG: Have you always been fascinated by space?
BWH: Science fiction had always interested me, but as I grew older and read more about history and science I began to regard space exploration and astronomy as the last true Romantic Obsession for humanity. I’m fascinated by the ideas that we humans attribute to space, and how we deconstruct space through science and logic so as to build an explanation and understanding for our own existence.
RG: What does contemplation of 'the beyond', or experiencing a mediated viewing of outer space (via the news, photos, films, etc.) hold for you personally?
BWH: I love the many variations of imagery relating to space as there is always more than one way to look at this subject, whether it is influenced by politics, technology or imagination. This vast, expansive vacuum that contains scales and ages beyond our limited perception is at once heaven and hell, the ultimate question and answer. Any way we try to visualise that will never be sufficient so it really does need to be approached in a multiple of ways. I find that exciting.
RG: As someone born in the late '80s, the term ‘space exploration’ calls to mind either a proliferated 60s/70s aesthetic or, conversely, the largely closed-off arena of modern science- associations which are somewhat dated and very impersonal. Did you grow up encountering the vestiges of the Space Race; and are the various and undeniable gaps in memory and experience surrounding this subject (be it for yourself, or viewers of your work) of influence to NEOP?
BWH: I recently found my original pack of rocket Top-Trump playing cards and it was interesting to see all those out-of-date ‘space ships’. Growing up in Ireland during the 1980s, there wouldn’t have been so big a deal being made about Apollo missions or the Space Race or anything…we were too busy surviving everyday existence to be concerned with those things. As you say, there are of course undeniable gaps of experience, and it is my duty to fill those with carefully constructed images based on credible data straight from the original source. But this is artistic interpretation and not documentation, so I have the freedom to move more freely when navigating through that data and constructing something from it using whatever visual aids are available.
RG: How much artistic interpretation do you like to present though, exploring what is an inherently scientific subject? Many of your photos playfully reveal a clever camera trick, or point to some leap of faith taken in trusting the veracity of space documentation- or photography in general.
BWH: Basing all the images in NEOP (and other works) on a clear line of research is vital for me. My idea of poetry is that the best is always based on factual reality. Once the foundation is solid, then the building can be as elaborate or delicate as required. Something I have noticed though is that a work gets more longevity by not giving too much detail away about that foundation. Mystery, or the withholding of information, is what gives people the chance to identify with the work on their own terms, and holds their interest. A magic trick loses its allure when we know how it is achieved and it is the same for an artwork. So with NEOP I have withheld titling the individual images and have deliberately left that space there for the viewer to contemplate meaning rather than receive meaning. Playing on the photograph’s ability to communicate “truth” is important to all of this too.
RG: What room is there for humour in your work?
BWH: There is always room for humour, and I generally let it in when it promises not to shit on the carpet.
RG: Is presenting NEOP as a series (or compendium) vital? Would you ever show images independently, even testing them somehow in non-artistic contexts?
BWH: Before commencing the project I had already decided that each image should be a single work in its own right. Basically, NEOP is the culmination of many years of thinking about how I want to make a photograph, and a single body of work. I tried things out with previous single images and projects but it wasn’t until making NEOP that all these years of experience came together cohesively. I have exhibited and published selections and combinations from the images presented on my website, and have let others select images freely. If I have done my job right, it won’t matter if one image or many or all are seen to understand NEOP.
RG: Certain photographs from the series are eventually identifiable as poetic, artistic renderings of the everyday- tin foil, flowing water, even modelling clay. Do you hope to convey a scepticism or a romance about our encountering of space- and by the same token, about the 'near-Earth' or terrestial?
BWH: One of the more profound qualities of photography is its ability to transform the everyday object, the seemingly meaningless, into something meaningful. Of course this can only be achieved through artistic vision. But with NEOP in particular I am drawing attention to the fact that we sometimes take certain materials or technological breakthroughs for granted, being that they regularly exist in our everyday lives only by virtue of the science relating to space exploration. As with most scientific discoveries, it is relative.
RG: Could you ever identify whether the possibilities of 'the camera' or 'the image' are your preferred site of creative investigation?
BWH: For me, or my practice at least, it has taken a long time to figure out what it is I’m trying to say with photography. Part of this is understanding what a photograph is, and how it works. I have come to the conclusion that I cannot say the things I want to say, or convey the ideas I want to articulate, without also commenting on how the medium functions. I sculpt in order to photograph it, and then the sculpture is destroyed so it only exists as a photographic image. I want that physical object to continue existing in a plane that is beyond physical material and the ravages of thermo-dynamics. Just like all art, the thing must present this tension between a physical time-relative reality and a metaphysical timelessness.
RG: Might I infer then that, as an artist, your goal is to create and preserve moments of poetic beauty; and that whether these invite us to investigate further along a scientific path, despite its undeniable link to the subject matter, is perhaps besides the point? Would you agree? Do you believe the ‘traditionally beautiful’- especially if positioned as a beguiling force, and despite its devaluation in contemporary artistic discourse- will always hold some intrinsic allure over the human spirit and imagination?
BWH: I think most artists aspire to preserve a moment of beauty in some form or another, and there is no doubt that in the past there was an urgent need for a dramatic shift from making images that solely rested on an aesthetic beauty. Maybe because photography is such a young artform it is a lot more visible to observe this shift, but now that photography has evolved so confidently in recent times I really don’t see why we can’t have conceptually adept, or complex pictures that simultaneously exist as objects of fascinating beauty. One of the great things about making photographs is having the ability to create an image of “terrible beauty” to quote Yeats, whereby the subject itself might be deeply unsettling but the aesthetic can also be alluring; this paradoxical tension that oscillates between reason and imagination, for me, is the driving force for a progressive contemporary practice.
RG: Finally: would you choose to take part in a space mission (if given the opportunity!), or do you prefer the idea of it as a potent and forever unreachable domain?
BWH: If I ever had the chance to visit space I’m not quite sure if I’d want to return; to touch the void and experience such eternal beauty might be more than I could handle. In summary, I’m the guy that would stay behind on the doomed ship so as to experience that unimaginable (though fatal) final trip.
Explore Barry's 'NEOP' here.
— Rosie Gist