By Frédérique Aït-Touati


Published in Stations, RVB Books, London, UK.

‘Every cloud, even those only languidly carried away by the wind, gradually disappeared at the far right of his field of vision [...]. He wished he could have kept them in place, motionless, forever anchored in the sky, pinned to some fixed point in the ether.’ (Jacques Roubaud, Ciel et terre et ciel et terre, et ciel)

How can we really take in the sky from the earth? What access do we have to this mysterious and changing canopy? Aesthetics and science are inextricably linked when we ponder questions like these, since they speak to our relationship with what lies above, attesting to our constant fascination with the sky and what it says about us. With her ‘stations’, Noémie Goudal reveals a disconcerting sky. Not the one we thought we knew, but the one seen by others: a sky inhabited by symbols, loaded with messages. Celestial temple, cupola, the heavens, fixed stars set in an incorruptible firmament, Cartesian tourbillons or vortices — images of the sky are always already cosmologies, theories of the cosmos. Observing the sky, admiring its strangest, most curious or frightening aspects, losing oneself in the contemplation of phenomena: this fascination for celestial objects has a long history, because the sky has been, since antiquity and through to the modern era, a canvas for fantasies. Peopled with mythical figures, featured in many passages of the Bible, in the sky we see the powerful, popes and rulers, we trace the outlines of mysterious and magical beasts, we read the fate of the world. Sailors peering up at the sky with dread, astrologists and soothsayers looking to the heavens for signs, the sky made divine or sacred, the sky of poets and scholars.

Two geometric figures — the circle and the line — structure and wend their way through the diverse set of images brought together in Southern Light Stations, variations on the theme of sky observation. Stations, thus brief stops, but also milestones, observation posts, viewpoints. Photography captures an instant’s balance, a celestial object hanging in the sky, thereby registering a momentary, fragile, ephemeral observation. Cosmos, orb, star, geometric figure, sphere, disc, mirror, optical lens or passage to another world – the circle asserts itself as a nucleus of creativity. Paper discs, seemingly tacked to an earthly, terrestrial landscape, remind us of the manufactured nature of any representation.

Following the principle of spatial montage, the astronomical diagram occupies the place of the celestial object being observed. The image is thus a construction, liberated from the perspectivist illusion that has dominated Western painting since the Renaissance.

A murky space opens out before us, born of the tension created by this duality of viewpoints, allowing an interior topography to emerge. In this series, which combines perspective and plan views, thus recalling El Greco’s vertiginous View and Plan of Toledo painted around 1608, the flat image represented by the sheet of paper, positioned over the landscape, adds a second level of abstraction. For Goudal, the headland from where we are observing the scene itself takes on a dual nature: it is this place suspended between sky and earth that allows us to contemplate both of them. It is an observation point that gives the viewer the feeling of being positioned at the interspace of the horizon line, a line that runs through the entire series and becomes its axis. The horizon, whether formed by a mountain ridge, the tops of trees or the ocean’s surface, is the boundary where earth and sky meet. A central, existential axis, marking the divide between earth and sky that calls to mind the Renaissance concept of analogy implying a hierarchical separation between earth and heaven, prior to the rediscovery of linear perspective, which unified multiple viewpoints into a single one.

A historian of science contemplating these images would be tempted to interpret them as a brief history of astronomy. In some of Goudal’s Stations, the star, situated precisely at the point where the base lines converge, forms a barrier. It sets a limit for our visual perception, evoking the sphere of fixed stars in the Ptolemaic system, which posited a finite cosmos. Elsewhere, the circle seems instead to break through the landscape, providing an opening for our gaze. We thus discover the story, told through images, of a central moment in the history of astronomy and of humanity: the turning point of the Copernican revolution, moving from the closed world to an infinite universe. In the first theories of the cosmos, those of Aristotle and Ptolemy, the universe is a sphere consisting of two separate and distinct regions. The sublunar region, where all substances are mixtures of four elements (earth, water, air and fire), includes the smaller sphere of the earth at its centre and extends as far as the moon’s orbit. The superlunar region begins at the moon’s orbit and extends out through nine concentric spheres encircling the earth: seven planetary orbs, then the sphere of stars and finally the crystal firmament. Whereas the sublunar region – the realm of humans – is imperfect, corruptible and changeable, the superlunar region is perfect, eternal and divine. In this world view with its solid orbs and fixed stars, the cosmos is finite and the boundary between the sublunar and the superlunar cannot be crossed. It was by observing the comet of 1577 and calculating its trajectory that the astronomer Tycho Brahe definitively shattered this binary cosmology: if an errant celestial object can pass through the planetary orbs from the superlunar to the sublunar region, the divide conceived by Aristotle cannot exist. Already five years earlier, Tycho had observed a brilliant point of light in the constellation Cassiopeia. Failing to detect a diurnal parallax, he realised that it was much farther away than the moon and had to be a new element in the superlunar world, thought by Aristotle to be free from change. He called it a stella nova, or new star. With Tycho’s observations, the relationship between earth and sky was radically transformed. The eternal and divine world was no longer understood as immutable. Worse still, it was mortal. Today, we know that the point of light observed by Tycho in Cassiopeia was a supernova, thus not a star being born but a dying one, increasing massively in brightness as it explodes, an idea explored in some of Goudal’s Stations, where the star gradually disappears before our eyes.

As early as 1543, Copernicus had proposed an entirely different concept of the cosmos in his famous work De Revolutionibus, placing the sun and not the earth at the centre of the universe. By the turn of the 17ᵗʰ century, Aristotle’s physics and Ptolemy’s cosmology could no longer continue intact: the closed world had opened. Several, more complex concepts of the universe began to emerge, the perfect Ptolemaic-Aristotelian harmony was losing its balance, while wonders and miracles made clear the impossibility of reconstructing a harmonious cosmos founded merely on a network of relationships and analogies. Eclipses, fireballs, errant stars, hairy stars and other comets have been perceived since antiquity as warning signs, portending revolutions or natural disasters, or as divine signs, foretelling the success of a venture or the birth of a great leader. The astonishment they inspire is either one of admiration for their demonstration of a power infinitely exceeding that of mankind or of terror when confronted with phenomena whose violent strangeness seems to foretell the fate of humanity, also suggesting that human actions are perhaps behind their occurrence. Some of Goudal’s Stations put us in the position of observers stupefied before these unexplained celestial phenomena. How can such wonders be recreated? To answer this question, Goudal carried out a range of experiments for most of her stations. A landscape, even a celestial one, remains a human construction conceived in a scientific laboratory or an artist’s studio. It is for this reason that her work is closely tied to the gestures through which a horizon is determined, to the point of articulation between movement and gaze, perception and action, the understanding of space and the subject’s openness to the world. This space is built up through actions and movements, through experiments with materials and views, constructing a viewer for whom mobility and spatiality are first and foremost existential conditions.

But Southern Light Stations is as much about the earth as the sky. The sky images in the series are anchored to terra firma. This is their force: the earth is the vantage point from which these celestial landscapes are observed, recalling the existential situation of human beings looking up at the stars. Hence the sense of disquiet prompted by these photographic works combining a traditional landscape with a view of the sky that seems to break through the landscape, providing an opening for our gaze. Goudal’s stations make the most of these two frames. By overlapping a celestial image and a terrestrial one, they combine two viewpoints, the first relating to the contingent circumstances of mankind on earth, the second on the contrary to the scholarly viewpoint of cosmology; the perspective view of the landscape and the plan view of the geometric diagram. By concentrating our gaze, Goudal’s Southern Light Stations invite observation and join up the vocabulary of aesthetic contemplation with that of scientific investigation. From one station to the next, there is a passage from the visible to the representable. The sky, initially the mirror of the earth, a canvas for projection where we find evidence and signs, becomes a physical space that we can roam through, map and measure. The ‘views’ offered by the stations evoke the first astronomical observations, those made possible by the telescope, giving access for the first time to images of the moon’s surface. In his Sidereus Nuncius of 1610, Galileo managed to depict the mountains and craters he had discovered on the moon’s surface thanks to his training in chiaroscuro.

A different optical and pictorial technique is used to capture the sky’s transformations: a circular mirror reflecting the clouds, hanging above the ocean horizon, offers the infinity of a limitless gaze. These swirls of clouds are reminiscent of the illusionism of Correggio’s trompe l’œil cupola frescoes. These vertiginous glimpses toward the endless skies reveal, as Wölfflin explains, ‘a completely new conception of space directed towards infinity: form is dissolved in favour of ... the effects of light: the unfathomableness of a dark depth, the magic of light streaming down from the invisible height of a dome, the transition from dark to light and lighter still.’ Whether capturing the gleam of the splendori celesti [celestial splendours] or the profundity of the night sky, Wölfflin reminds us of the strength of these painterly effects, ‘through which our eyes and minds are lost in immeasurable space’.1

Two questions are central to Goudal’s work in this series: how the sky is constructed and how we are constructed by it. Fully assuming their role as artefacts, her Southern Light Stations place us in the position of observing the observer or, better yet, the observation. We observe the gesture, the apparatus put in place, the observation site, but the latter is left empty, like a lookout point inviting a traveller to stop for a moment. The notion of observation connects up with knowledge and artistic practices, but also with layers of the human adventure in a yearning for elsewhere. Seeing further, seeing with precision, seeing through, seeing what lies above, seeing a reflection – through this series of stations we encounter different ways of looking at things and varying anamorphoses of the sky. These images, all of them dual in nature, play with the tension between the desire to enter into a landscape and the need to stop before it. Astronomical observation is a scopic tension reaching toward the sky, toward the stars – ad astra.