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Imagining Exoplanets

Journeys to other worlds in Adam Makarenko’s Toronto workshop


There is a box under the worktable in Adam Makarenko's Toronto studio. Like the rubbish bin of some unhinged god, it contains hundreds of planets, each about the size of a fist.

This is Adam's sculptural library of imagined exoplanets. His works are modelled on real worlds that orbit stars light-years away. Each of his creations - rocky surfaces streaked with blue, gas giants with swirls of white and red - draws on the sparse data astronomers have collected, combined with the principles of planetary composition we have learned from our own solar system.

When these exoplanets are photographed against a dark backdrop, or juxtaposed against an elaborate set seething with lava or coated in crystalline spires, the images look as though they were beamed from another part of the Milky Way.

In reality, each exoplanet is made of plaster or Styrofoam that has been covered in glue or paint to add texture and colour. Adam's work shows us that advanced technology isn't always enough to bring humans to other worlds - exploring the galaxy requires imagination, too.

In an essay for Atlas Obscura about the history of "space art," author George Pendle observes that, while photography usurped illustration in a number of scientific disciplines throughout the nineteenth century, outer space remained an area "too far away to be photographed yet too thrilling to be left undocumented." Art and science have a symbiotic relationship: art inspires new generations of researchers, while new discoveries inspire more artists.

Take, for example, one of the first detailed artistic creations of these faraway worlds: the cover of The Conquest of Space (1949), illustrated by American painter Chesley Bonestell. The picture shows a rocket perched on a shadowy, mountainous moonscape. In the foreground, suited figures assemble a scientific instrument. The image helped popularize the idea of manned space travel - even rocket pioneer Wernher von Braun was a fan of Bonestell's work. At the time Bonestell was drawing these scenes, the idea of humans going to the stars was regarded with scepticism (NASA launched its second monkey into space that same year; it did not survive). Only 20 years later, the first astronauts touched down on our moon.

There are simpler, and more realistic, ways to show distant objects than by creating intricate miniatures. Computers have become the standard method (the producers of 2014's Interstellar hired a physicist to help create the film's CGI black hole). And the James Webb Space Telescope - a more powerful successor to the Hubble - will launch in 2018, giving scientists the ability to directly examine hitherto unseen exoplanets.

Adam believes that his sculptures, physical planets that can be moved and touched, provide something equally important. "There is something tangible about the miniature versus something that is made on the computer - not necessarily better, but different," he writes. "It makes these far-off places appear to be more real for me, because they are sculptural forms. Thee images are literally transporting the viewer to a physical place."

This article originally appeared in The Walrus Magazine. It has been reproduced with permission.


Find this story and more in our STUDIO MAGIC: BABY IT'S COLD OUTSIDE - ISSUE #54

(print copies have SOLD OUT - but a DIGITAL ISSUU is available!)


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