A small cube made of quartz glass, with the laser etched fingerprint of a tree from Earth: The Cosmic Tree by Jamal Ageli is part of the Moon Gallery project and will begin its journey to the International Space Station (ISS) on 19 February 2022 before being installed on the surface of the moon in 2025.
A certain need to give proof of our existence seems to be in humanity’s genes since a long time: Barely eight years had passed since the first moon landing when NASA sent two probes into deep space: Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 began their long journey in 1977 and continue to send their fascinating images and collected data back to Earth to this day – 55 years later. For several years now, they have been traversing interstellar space. To get a rough idea of the distance, it should be noted that a message travelling at the speed of light currently takes around 18 hours to reach Voyager 1, and for Voyager 2 it is even more than 21 hours – for one direction, mind you. The payload of both probes includes the Sounds of Earth, gold-plated copper discs with image and audio files from Earth: greetings in 55 languages, terrestrial sounds and a colourful selection of music ranging from Ludwig van Beethoven and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart to Melanesian pan flutes, Louis Armstrong and Chuck Berry. “Few missions can ever match the achievements of the Voyager probes. They have enlightened us about the previously unknown wonders of the universe and inspired humanity to discover our solar system and everything beyond,” NASA manager Thomas Zurbuchen told Bavarian Radio in February 2021.
Today we bear witness to our existence once again, with a work of art on the moon. Photographer and video artist Jamal Ageli is part of this project, to which 64 artists are contributing. “The Moon Gallery is an international collaborative artwork and gallery of ideas,” the project page says, “worth sending to the moon.” The Moon Gallery’s goal, it says, is to establish the first permanent museum on the moon. The project will send the 64 artefacts to the Moon as early as 2025 in a compact format of 10x10x1 cm panels on the outer casing of a lunar module. “In this gallery, which is similar to a petri dish, we are developing a culture for a future interplanetary society.
Jamal Ageli calls his contribution The Cosmic Tree and aims to reflect the exponential change of a forest landscape shaped by climate change and extreme weather phenomena: “Over millions of years, plants have shaped the formation of our tribes, villages and civilisations. In all these civilisations, human existence was expressed through the image of a plant – the cosmic tree as the source of all life in all cultures and their cosmology. This unique symbol has been abolished by colonial and hierarchical ideas of domination that have increasingly loosened our relationship with plants to the point where we are today.”
Jamal Ageli’s idea was supported by Leica, the quartz glass experts at Heraeus and the laser specialists at Ernst Abbe University in Jena. They put his idea into practice, supplying quartz glass and the technology to laser his image into the pressed block. This is about nothing less than braving the rigours of conditions on the moon. We spoke to Jamal Ageli about his contribution to the Moon Gallery.
Jamal Ageli, as an astrophotographer you reach for the stars, so to speak, but the fact that your art ends up first on board the International Space Station (ISS) and finally on the surface of the moon is quite extraordinary. How did you get involved with ESA (European Space Agency) and the Moon Gallery project?
I became interested in astrophotography at an early age and was immediately enthusiastic when I found out in online forums that you don’t need the equipment of a professional observatory. Nevertheless, it was still prohibitively expensive for me at the time and I first started with classic photographic equipment. It was an internship at ESA ESTEC (European Space Research and Technology Centre) that gave me access to ESA; it was at ESA ESTEC that I first came into contact with space technology at close quarters. Working as a photographer and Director of Photography in the laboratories really appealed to me. During my internship, I also got to know the Moon Gallery project and was immediately fascinated by the idea of bringing art into space. The idea that this art will then remain on the moon forever has a very monumental character and searches for special aspects of our earthly existence.
Your artwork is something very terrestrial – a photo of the annual rings of a tree, lasered into quartz glass. It is a piece of nature that shows us our responsibility for the earth in a very unvarnished way. What do you associate with it and what special meaning does it have that you are part of the moon project with it?
My projects, whether photography, film or multimedia, are often holistic reflections and researches of landscapes. This often refers to the cosmic, but also the terrestrial or technological landscape in which we find ourselves, as for me these are interconnected and in constant exchange. The Moon Gallery seemed to be an interesting part of this landscape research and is the first mosaic that combines all these three aspects. It has a special meaning for me in that I asked myself what a work of art could look like that literally looks down on the earth and sees all these human processes that are changing the Earth. Satellite images documenting the deforestation of the rainforest and these milling patterns that humans are cutting into the forest have a horrifying effect on me and were one of the first inspirations to develop a design that could do justice to this special extraterrestrial exhibition space and the idea of an artistic time capsule. The exhibition space not only brings with it many restrictions in terms of material, but also raises many questions about ecological problems such as rocket launches and the material consumption of high-tech environments such as the ISS or a lander. Nevertheless, the project Moon Gallery was designed to be resourceful, as it only uses flights that are already scheduled and that can take Moon Gallery because of its small size.
The flight to the ISS represents a test flight of the Moon Gallery, during which the material and design of the artworks are adapted to the special features of the ISS. The aim is to test how certain materials behave in weightlessness. In this respect, the Moon Gallery, and thus my artwork, is a constantly evolving artistic process in which different materials must also be tried out that are compatible with the artwork’s ecological critique. The Cosmic Tree is something very terrestrial, the idea goes far beyond the fate of a single tree. The Cosmic Tree – also called the Weltenbaum or Weltenesche in German – is one of the oldest symbols in human mythology and is found in the narratives of almost all cultures around the world. In these tales, the Cosmic Tree represents the universal source of all life and connects heaven and earth. I found these ancient tales, in which the Cosmic Tree appears as the gateway to heaven and unites heaven and earth through its enormous size, very interesting as a formative concept and as the title for this rather special extraterrestrial exhibition project
What do you want to achieve with your contribution?
I think that almost everyone has some awareness of the collective loss that we are experiencing and feel powerless in the face of it. We are currently in a phase where a new awareness of the environment has developed, but it is more characterised by climate inactivism and distrust of solutions. In this field of tension, which is primarily influenced by politics and economics, I think art is rather idealistic and does not offer any significant contribution through real, applicable solutions. Therefore, I take a realistic view of what art can achieve. Nevertheless, I am also convinced that in the next few decades we will see a completely new genre of art that will make the global ecological catastrophes the main component of art, because their effects are increasingly visible and will accelerate. This will also be a crucial component in my artistic exploration of the theme of landscape. I am convinced that the subject of landscape has always been political and will become even more political in the future, as climate change is already omnipresent. Its presence will become even more obvious in the coming years and will determine all areas of our lives. The pandemic gave us a bitter taste, so to speak, of what awaits us in the future. This future scares me personally and my idealism is increasingly infiltrated by my pessimism. That’s why I took the Moon Gallery as an opportunity to create an artwork that works with the current numness in the face of the climate crisis. For me personally, this artwork is a kind of time capsule that will have a new meaning in 20 years. What will happen to the landscape we live in during that time is the focus of my work at Moon Gallery. It is in a constant process of development, as I believe that the complex interrelationships cannot be represented by a single work of art, but can be dealt with in a coherent artistic exploration of them.
Is there an exchange with the other artists who are part of the Moon Gallery, or do they make their contributions and are otherwise self-suffi cient?
The artists are in (online) exchange with each other, there are Moon Gallery community meetings and the exhibitions organised in different countries and museums providing opportunities for artistic exchange. Of course the pandemic has complicated everything in the last two years. Nevertheless, the Moon Gallery Foundation is working on a continuous exchange of all artists and developing new opportunities and optimism. For this, I would like to thank the organisers who, despite the pandemic and the difficulties of this extraterrestrial endeavour, always represent the vision and idea of Moon Gallery and work tirelessly on this project!
Do you already know where you will be or want to be when the Lunar Lander launches to the moon in 2025?
An interesting question, but one that I haven’t dealt with very often. It’s still so long before the rocket actually takes off . I have to admit that it always has been a big dream of mine to experience a rocket launch live. I will be watching the launch to the ISS via livestream, as I don’t think a trip to Virginia is responsible in the current pandemic situation. I am happy to be able to experience the launch to the ISS on 19 February together with my family from home. It is also not in the spirit of the project to undertake air travel, so when we launch to the moon in 2025, I would also be happy to be able to watch the spectacle via a livestream. Whatever happens in the next few years, I am very happy to be part of this international project because it is not tied to a specific location and all participants contribute something to the project, no matter where they are on Earth.
What’s next for you, what are the upcoming big projects and what role does Leica play in them?
I am currently working on my graduation project, a photo and video installation that will be exhibited in The Hague in June and will be part of various exhibitions afterwards. This installation is also connected to the Moon Gallery and my artistic exploration of landscape: an installation that combines heaven and earth in a short film narrative. I am also looking forward to Leica’s support and involvement in this new project. After this graduation exhibition, I already have some new projects planned that I would like to realise – also in the course of the Moon Gallery. Seeing the project as a work in progress, I would like to develop a multimedia platform on climate fear and climate inactivism that will have different online and offline levels. The idea is to combine different media besides photography as well as other artists to provide a holistic view. Of course I have some other small projects planned, but I will start them after my final project. Leica is very interesting for me as a partner because, in addition to its experience with cameras and optics, the company is also part of the ongoing discussion about how photography will change in the coming years. Especially documentary photography, which is an important cornerstone of Leica’s brand identity, is in transition. Especially when it comes to positioning on the topic of climate change, a technology company like Leica is an important part of the discussion to make the medium of photography as such more sustainable. This question is not only existential for photography, but for everyone who works with or for this medium.
JAMAL AGELI (*1997): The German photographer and video artist lives between Frankfurt/Main and Amsterdam. He works for various commercial clients and has already shown his work in several international exhibitions. He is currently doing his Bachelor of Design in Photography at the Royal Academy of Arts in The Hague.