Here, in Greenwich (England, that is, not Connecticut), we’ve all got astronomy on the brain. So when photographer Charles Emerson arrived early one morning to shoot Robert Orchardson’s new exhibition here, and watched the sun rise through a crevice in the heavy concave walls of one of the artist’s sculptures, he found it rather apropos.
That was one of the unexpected delights of “Aperture,” the aptly named show that opened last week at the fledgling Now Gallery. Orchardson, a Scottish artist who lives and works in London, lays the groundwork for these serendipitous discoveries by placing his work well out of its original context. That way they become abstract, “altering our perception,” he says, “to create new possibilities.”
Orchardson has become known in recent years not only for his geometric trompe l’oeils of rich metal, but for his source material, which ranges from modernist architecture and design, to comic-book sci-fi. “I’m interested in ways we look beyond our moment in space and time, how that plays out in film, design, and architecture, and results in material objects that attempt to give form to something unknowable or immaterial,” he says. In Orchardson’s art that typically plays out in mobile installations that seem to draw inspiration from Miro or Noguchi.
When Now Gallery commissioned a site-specific collection for its tubular, glass-walled space, the artist–with astronomy on his mind–ventured down the road to the archives of the Royal Observatory in Greenwich. There, he zeroed in on a collection of scientific miscellany that father-son astronomers William and John Herschel used to chart unknown territory in the 19th century. “It reminded me of that quote from W.G. Sebald,” Orchardson says, “about ‘beads on an abacus designed to calculate infinity.’ I was excited about using these clocks, cogs, and prisms, the volcano dust, and magnesium—the raw materials of discovery—to look beyond an immediate moment into the future.”
To achieve the ambitious vision, Orchardson rendered some artifacts in graphic arrangements of brass. Others, he translated to a simple silhouette and faced them in inky blue cyanotypes, a forerunner to the blueprint invented by John Herschel in 1842. With the cyanotype overlays, the shapes became abstract compositions that were hard to categorize. To balance them, he built a gallery-within-a-gallery of concave concrete slabs, something curator Jemima Burrill called an “exploded space telescope.”
“I liked that pairing of the substantial concrete versus the ephemeral art,” Orchardson says. “That materiality versus something that’s less easy to pin down.” He assembled the massive concrete space from hundreds of slim cement triangles arranged like diamonds. This, he did in homage to the architect Bruno Taut (à la his 1914 glass pavilion in Cologne). “These utopian crystalline forms are a recurring motif in Taut’s drawings,” he says.
The concrete walls protect the other artwork from being swallowed up in the gallery’s floor-to-vaulted-ceiling glass walls. But, like the work itself, they break open slightly to allow a glimmer from the waking sun or the rising moon. That’s something that would have inspired the Herschels.