Mount Wilson Observatory
Southern California is a golden land, a destination for fortune seekers, snake charmers, dreamers, sun worshipers, refugees from dark, grey lands and cold, hard regimes. Here, at the edge of manifest destiny, a promise of a better future was made, where everyone could have an orange tree in the back yard and a Ford in the garage. In this soup of innovation and American ambition, Midwestern ideals encountered fascist-fleeing physicists and the American Space Age was launched. The catalyst for this new era was a telescope built on top of a mountain, high above the tree-lined streets of Pasadena, where the son of a nineteenth-century tycoon saw opportunity in the climate, fortunes, and cultural capital of Southern California.
George Ellery Hale's visionary transformation of Mount Wilson laid the foundation for Aerospace City: companies like Douglas, Hughes, and Lockheed brought prosperity to twentieth-century Los Angeles and destruction to America's enemies. In partnership with the Pentagon, Hale's other creation, Caltech, became the testing ground for the research and theories that fueled the industry. Destruction and Discovery, the dialectic of the Space Age, were at play in Southern California: as Aerospace filled its valleys with subdivisions and manufacturing plants, astronomers on Mount Wilson were expanding our understanding of the universe.
Mount Wilson Observatory embodies the ideal of the American Space Age, its mission: knowledge. Here, profound questions about existence are raised, as the mysteries of the universe are explored. This is a place of magic, where telescopes peering into deep space conjure the unseen, taking photographs of stellar objects that ceased to exist billions of years ago. Hale credited the Daguerreotype with the advent of Modern Astronomy, and indeed perceptual alchemy is the trade of astronomers and artists alike, both seeking to reveal some heretofore unperceived knowledge.
KNOWLEDGES at Mount Wilson Observatory emerged from this same impulse: our vision is to invite a new consideration of the site through the lens of contemporary art. The artworks in the exhibition explore the idea of observation and the many forms it takes in the human quest for knowing. Through this experiential reexamination of Mount Wilson Observatory, we hope to gain new insight into the relationship of art to science, of the past to the present, and of perception to knowledge.
Ascending Angeles Crest Highway to Mount Wilson, we leave behind the subdivisions, freeways and shuttered plants of the city built by war. As we drive, the air thins; the urban interface gives way to wildland and we reach the top. Here, above the inversion layer, Los Angeles is quiet below, the Pacific still, stretching to the horizon. We look up to the sky, to new understandings and new questions - to big bangs, dark matter, and cosmic dust. Standing at the wild edge of the city, we now see what is visible - and what is not.
- Above the Inversion Layer, exhibition essay for KNOWLEDGES at Mount Wilson Observatory, Elleni Sclavenitis 2012