Helen Schell specialises in projects about space exploration and science of the cosmos. For Unbinding the Book, Schell has created a large book about the Moon that will incorporate light reactive Smart Materials.
What attracted you to the Unbinding the Book project?
I came across the application form by serendipity; it appeared on a site as I was looking for other projects. Over the last 2 years, I have been creating large experimental art books about space exploration and the science of the cosmos, so felt this was a good project to apply for. The application procedure was simple and immediate, so I did it there and then. Not only was the format of Unbinding the Book appealing, but also that the project is to be taken to London, New York and San Francisco. I always aim for projects with large and diverse audiences.
What drew you to the book as a medium?
The book format allows me to devise one artwork of related images bound together to create a movable installation work, which can be examined by turning the pages from different aspects. Making a large scale picture book also recalls childhood story books that seemed huge and exciting. A catalyst for designing more experimental books evolved last year when I was ‘artist in residence’ at Gateshead Central Library for the Festival of the North East. This was followed up early this year by a collaboration with the Astrophysics Department of the Royal Holloway University, where I made 3 large books inspired by Dark Matter, CERN: Particle Accelerators and Extra Spatial Dimensions.
Could you explain your practice?
For 7 years, I have been making work inspired by space exploration and the science of the cosmos. When possible, I collaborate with specialist scientists, which has included working with Durham, Kent and Royal Holloway Universities. These artworks take the form of vast paintings, installations and smart material costumes, employing surface pattern making and optical illusions to express the concept of space, both actual, and beyond what we see. The total mass-energy of the known universe contains 4.9% ordinary matter (observable), 26.8% dark matter and 68.3% dark energy (as yet unknown materials). This dynamic field of science affords the opportunity for artists to attempt explain the inexplicable. This work has led to me becoming an ESERO-UK Space Ambassador for the education wing of the European Space Agency and through which I devise a run a series of space themed workshops which have included Centre for Life, London Science Museum, Arts Catalyst, World Monument Fund and NASA.
Could you describe your project?
For 2 years, I have been developing a project, Moon-shot: First Woman on the Moon, which is a series of large paintings inspired by the idea that the next person to put foot on the Moon must be a woman. The Moon Book, which has been created for this project, is the final work completing this series and explores the phases of the Moon and the seas of the Moon through stylised geometric optical illusions and a list of the seas, which reads like a poem. This includes such beautiful names as the Sea of Cleverness and the Sea of the Edge. There are 23 seas and 8 phases of the Moon, and also it has bays, lakes and marshes, but these are not made of water, mostly they are lava and other geological features.
What materials are you incorporating into your work?
My work is mixed media and the content is defined by the art projects associated with each piece. Recent work has involved vast paintings on canvas and paper, but also I make Smart Material ball-gowns, which include dissolvable plastics and hi vis textiles. I have worked for many years using glass as interested in materials that create optical illusions both as surface patterns and as 3D deceptions of the eye and brain.
What are the materials you used in the making of this book?
This is primarily a painted picture book in muted colours referencing the greys and blacks associated with the Moon’s surface. It is also highly reflective, as moon dust has a large glass content, so I have incorporated hi vis reflective Smart Materials into the structure. These can be activated with natural light and digital devices producing intriguing images. The book is about a metre high and made from canvas and fold out boards, with much of it being sewn together.
From your perspective, how would you define a book?
I define a book as an object of any size that may contain a page-like section which folds into a cover-like section. For me, this might include obvious materials such as printed paper and painted canvas, but also glass, metals and wood.
What inspired you to make a book about the moon?
Whilst working on the Moon-shot project, I have been aware that there are more areas to be explored and revealed for artworks. The phases and seas of the Moon are very appealing a book format. Previously, I created a small paper Moon Book for the Sunderland Book Project and have always felt it should be expanded into a more dynamic work. Although there is little written information in this book, generally people do not know much about the Moon, our nearest celestial neighbour, so it is also informative.
How effective are images when it comes to evoking a narrative?
It is integral to the human brain to react to images, and they can tell a story, but also will attract initial attention, encouraging the viewer to ask more questions. Each viewer has a digital device where they can record and communicate their memories of images. The Moon Book is designed to let them transform the image they see with their eyes to a different image recorded on their phones and cameras by using the flash, which causes delight and a continuing narrative.
You work a lot with children. Do books continue to create inspiration amongst them?
As an artist and ESERO-UK Space Ambassador, I have devised a series of space workshops which use the format of the book for teaching space science to schools, community groups and family sessions at science festivals. These involve the creation of diaries, imagining what it would be like to go to the Moon and Mars and how you would colonise it. The participants are asked to design a rocket/spaceship, a habitat and laboratory, spacesuit and robot rover. These are particularly aimed at children who will almost certainly see the first humans living on the Moon and may see a human walk on Mars.