REVIEW | Sarah and Joseph Belknap

Exoplanet Skin (1), 2014 and Deflated Moon Skin (1), 2014.jpg

BMO Harris Bank Chicago Works: Sarah and Joseph Belknap

Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago

The 13th-century Persian poet and Sufi mystic Rumi once said, “Let the waters settle and you will see the moon and the stars mirrored in your own being.” As I’m walking away from the sagging, silicone skins of Sarah and Joseph Belknap, I can’t help but think of this verse. I pause, am I looking at specimens of the universe or, instead, is the universe viewing me? I had to return to the museum for a second look.

There is little distance between the pursuits of artists and scientists or poets even; each explores the universe through a very particular lens with hopes of conciliation or answer that defines the how and why we are all here. The work of Sarah and Joseph Belknap is more than the existential question heavyweights: “how did we get here” and “why are we here,” but more of how are we to “be” here? By dancing with our affections for the worlds that orbit around or near us, the Belknaps exploit not only our desire for understanding but also our need for reconciliation from the distance we feel in that we can never truly comprehend them. These celestial bodies, these places of gods and lore, of romance and danger are, and in many ways, will remain mythical and unknown. Yet, the Belknaps, through contemplation, creation, and de-construction, have exposed them here as substantial containers with answers for us to consider – proving that documentation does not equal knowledge.


After looking at photographs or through a telescope at the moon, the Belknaps hand-carved replicas surfaces of the moon and exoplanets. They then cast the cratered surface out of silicone, a collapsed version of the entity it once encapsulated, resulting in what appears to be a shed skin: a hide that has been peeled in one solid piece and hung on the wall to cure. Each is an engaging inquiry into our curiosities for matters that can only be acquired through an aesthetic response to that which we cannot touch. The nicest surprise of the exhibition is the smell – it is subtle but striking. It acutely wafts over me as I move my face close to the works to get a sense of the landscape and texture of each heavenly, deflated body. I can’t help but think to my childhood for some reason, remembering building solar system dioramas with the same rich colors but covered in glitter. The sensation is the same: a sense of smallness when compared to the vastness that inevitably surrounds me, and a joy knowing that my view goes in the opposite direction. From the other side of the glass, I am, in part, of that which inspires the wonder. As the artist Oksana Rus once noted, “I am the constellation of my own.” These works are a juxtaposition of that reflection of ourselves viewing the universe that is in return viewing us.


The larger site-specific work included in the exhibition is the artists’ impressions of two craters: one from a rendering of the largest impact crater on earth (the Vredefort crater in South Africa) and the largest on the moon (the South Pole-Aitken Basin). Impressive in size, it takes up the entire gallery space; it creates an overwhelming sense of catastrophic history yet without the sense of impending doom. The piece sparkles from the mica used on the surface, retaining the delicate sense of mystery related to these types of scientific events. By combining the two craters, one known and one not, the artists have collapsed the distance between us (people and planet) and the moon (body of dusty rock and magic). This comparison of distance crammed into this space somehow lessens the real scientific impact on display here, what comes before may come again.

4 months of Sun Spots, 2014.jpg

BMO Harris Bank Chicago Works: Sarah and Joseph Belknap is open now through February 24, 2015 at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.

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Images (from top to bottom): Exoplanet Skin (1), 2014 and Deflated Moon Skin (1), 2014, Photo courtesy of the artists; Installation view, Photo: Nathan Keay, ©MCA Chicago; 4 months of Sun Spots, 2014, HMI intensity gram, 9 x 9 inches, Photo courtesy of the artists

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