Since it was built in 1904, astronomers and scientists have been documenting the mysteries of the cosmos at Mount Wilson Observatory. It was here, in the Angeles National Forest at an elevation of 5,700 feet, that famed astronomer Edmund Hubble first observed that the universe was expanding and that our galaxy, the Milky Way, is merely one among billions. As recently as 2008, Mount Wilson’s superintendent Dave Jurasevich discovered a new planetary nebula, dubbed the Soap Bubble Nebula because of its round shape.
But in late June, visitors to Mount Wilson were observing wonders a bit closer to home, during “Knowledges,” a cosmic-themed art weekend curated by CalArts grads Christina Ondrus and Elleni Sclavenitis. Putting together the list of thirty plus artists who participated in “Knowledges,” Ondrus says she and Sclavenitis “started with artists whose work seemed to stem from ideas of space observation and then we expanded upon that.” Almost all of them, she adds, created brand-new pieces for the show. “It makes you realize how inspired people were by the project.”
Dotted throughout the grounds and inside the base of the 60-inch Hooker telescope, the works ranged from the simple – Emily Halpern’s “Moondrift,” a mirror placed on the forest floor – to the elaborate, like Katie Grinnan’s “Astrology Orchestra,” featuring hand-made stringed instruments that corresponded to the planets in Grinnan’s astrological chart. Lita Albuquerque’s multi-performer installation “One Small Section of the Sky” took place on the so-called “Bridge to the Stars” between the 60-inch and the 100-inch telescopes and featured projections the entire length of the bridge. Ondrus welded a steel dodecahedron with a quartz crystal in the middle; hanging in the base of the Hooker telescope, it referenced the eight-sided prism that was used to measure the speed of light for the first time – yet another landmark finding from Mount Wilson.
Entering the telescope and finding the dome not only completely accessible to the public but hung with art around every turn did give one pause: Is this really allowed? According to Ondrus it was more than allowed; it was encouraged. “Dr. Harold McAllister, the director of the Observatory, was really interested in the idea of bringing artists there and reaching a new audience,” she said.
After the Station Fire in 2009 closed the main access road for almost 16 months, Mount Wilson didn’t see many visitors. Ondrus said that she and Sclavenitis found a detour – but it took two extra hours. Today the gorgeous, winding mountain drive is completely clear, and more than TK art and space lovers came to experience “Knowledges” – plus a few intrepid hikers who make the trek from Altadena.
“I just feel really thankful and wowed by the support of everyone involved,” Ondrus reflected. “So few people have visited [the Observatory]. It felt like a great thing to bring to the attention of these people.”