(A) Matter of Significance

Series Description

What matter? What significance?

These are among the questions confronting the viewer of the images in the series “(A) MATTER OF SIGNIFICANCE”. This work-in-progress uses larger-than-life photographs of small, ‘artfully’ arranged, man-made objects juxtaposed with pictures of astronomical structures (stars, nebula, galaxies, clusters of galaxies, etc.) of such immense size that our intuitive concepts of space and distance fail us completely in our efforts to comprehend them.

The presence of parentheses around the indefinite article implies that the title can be read with or without this word, thereby suggesting alternate meanings of the series. The absence of “A” focuses attention on the physicality of the objects pictured. Reading the title with the ‘A’ suggests another meaning of the word matter: the subject of a discourse or deliberation. Thus we may legitimately focus our attention on the pictured objects themselves or on the larger questions they suggest. 

One approach is to contrast the man-made with the nature-made. Perhaps the contrast can be seen as raising the issue of the aesthetics of the two: how does beauty created by man compare with that of nature? Is one innately superior to the other, or are both equally valid? Can we feel the same awe for a handful of artifactual gizmos as we do for the austere and gargantuan structures of the cosmos?

Another issue is one of scale. Does the small command our attention to anywhere near the same extent as gigantic material objects that defy intuitive comprehension?

Another possibility is to see the images as raising the question of man’s place in the universe. Since we — and the things we make — occupy but the tiniest of corners in the immensity of the universe, what is our significance? Or we can reverse the comparison to ask what is the significance of the universe. Does the one have any more meaning than the other? By placing man and his accomplishments in the context of the universe the series implicitly poses the “Are we alone?” question. 

Just as there is no definitive agreement as to the questions raised by these images, there are no commonly accepted answers to the questions themselves. We can see the universe as nothing more than a chance creation of a highly improbable initial event (the Big Bang), or as the manifestation of the man-centered efforts of a divine being (“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.”). We may interpret the universe as indifferent to our existence or as created for it. Our answers to these questions, whatever they are, say as much about ourselves as they do about the universe.

Or one may think these questions inherently unanswerable and therefore not worth the trouble. In that case these images can be valued for whatever decorative appeal they merit, suitable (perhaps) for display over sofas.

Note: All of the astronomy images used in this series are in the public domain. Credits on the specific images are as follows:

  • Image 1 European Space Agency (ESA)
  • Image 2 National Aeronautics and Space Agency (NASA), ESA, Hubble Heritage Team
  • Image 3 NASA, Hubble Heritage Team, Y. Chu et al.
  • Image 4 NASA, ESA, J. Hester
  • Image 5 NASA, Advanced Camera for Surveys Science and Engineering Team
  • Image 6 NASA, A. Zijlstra et al.
  • Image 7 National Science Foundation, T.A. Rector, B. Wolpa, M. Hanwa
  • Image 8 NASA, Hubble Heritage Team, George H. Herbig and Theodore Simon
  • Image 9 NASA, ESA, Robert A.E. Fosbury
  • Image 10 European Southern Observatory, FORS Team
  • Image 11 NASA, ESA
  • Image 12 NASA, R. Sahai and J. Trauger
  • Image 13 Gemini Observatory
  • Image 14 European Southern Observatory, FORS Team