Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville launched an artwork into space via a weather balloon at a public Art in Space event Jan. 20 as a celebration of art, space and the upcoming exhibition Men of Steel, Women of Wonder.
“Sending art into space may seem a bit unusual, but in the context of our mission to provide access, education, and community engagement, it totally fits,” said Shane Richey, creative director of experimentation and development at Crystal Bridges. “While we show hundreds of artworks in our galleries and on our grounds, this was the first time Crystal Bridges has sent an artwork away from the earth, and we were excited to share the experience and learnings with the community, both on-site and through various new media platforms.”
The inspiration to launch artwork into space came from the museum’s upcoming temporary exhibition, Men of Steel, Women of Wonder, which examines art-world responses to Superman and Wonder Woman. The exhibition was developed at Crystal Bridges by Assistant Curator Alejo Benedetti and features over 70 paintings, photographs, installations, videos, and more by over 50 artists. Men of Steel, Women of Wonder will open to the public on Feb. 9. Tickets are $12 or free for members and youth ages 18 and younger.
Superman and Wonder Woman are two of the most beloved icons in American pop culture. Created in times of economic adversity and world war, these characters quickly emerged as beacons of American morality, representing the ideals of truth, justice, and the American way.
A lecture on the exhibit featuring artists Fahamu Pecou and Aphrodite Navab in conversation with Benedetti will be held from 7-8 p.m. Feb. 8. The lecture is free with online registration
“As we all know, Superman is from another planet, but crash-landed on Earth,” said Benedetti. “This (launch) seemed like a particularly fun opportunity to capture that concept, highlight an artist’s work, and do something new and exciting all at the same time. Artist Robert Pruitt’s work features futuristic themes, and I immediately thought of him for this project.”
Pruitt’s sculpture (Untitled male figure, 2019) was created specifically for this event. The artwork weighed under 3 lb. with a dimension of 24 1/4” x 12” x 5 1/2”. Two of Pruitt’s other artworks will be featured in the exhibit.
“The sculpture is a male Dogon figure that I have altered slightly, adding a covering of aluminum foil, an antennae, and a suitcase containing a secret package to be delivered to space,” said Pruitt. “The Dogon are a people and culture from Mali who have a long relationship with stargazing.”
The 12-foot balloon was attached to a custom built protective frame built by Amazeum Making and Tinkering Manager Joel Gordon and equipped with an MP3 unit, 2 GoPro cameras, and a GPS tracker, all attached to a protective rigid foam frame that protected the sculpture and electronics during the journey.
To recover the aircraft, Richey and Benedetti watched the GPS tracker until they noticed that the coordinates stopped moving. The aircraft traveled southeast to the Ozark National Forest, near Hector, and north of Russellville, reaching 109,000 feet at its peak and spending a total of one hour and 35 minutes in the air. After a few hours of wandering through the woods, they found it hanging safely on a tree limb. Post-journey, the balloon and the artwork have returned to Crystal Bridges and will be on display in the Reflection Area (located off the Great Hall Corridor) at the museum while Men of Steel, Women of Wonder is on view.
In addition to sending an artwork into space, over the past year, Crystal Bridges has also launched several other experimental technology projects including virtual reality, augmented reality, an audio immersion project, and a low-technology experimentation space called the Niche.
“Crystal Bridges is interested in the convergence of art and innovation, but there’s a balance to be found when using experimentation to add value to our purpose,” said Richey. “The goal is not technology for technology’s sake, but looking for new tools that we can use to bring the public closer to art. Whether we’re developing a 105-square-foot space for experimentation or sending art into space, it’s always an adventure.”
Since opening in 2011, the museum has welcomed 4 million visitors with no cost for admission.