“It’s ephemeral art in motion. You see something. You look at it. It lasts a few seconds, and you'll probably never see it again,” said Cirque de Soleil founder Guy Laliberté. The French Canadian billionaire, circus entrepreneur, fire-eater, and high-stakes poker player added “space photographer” and “amateur astronaut” to his colorful resume when he spent 11 days at the International Space Station in September 2009. Looking out a small window, he photographed our planet from over 30 miles above the Earth’s surface with a Nikon D3X camera. Forty photographs, published in a book entitled “Gaia,” are now on view in their large-format splendor at Marlborough Gallery in midtown Manhattan. Miles above the earth, vast terrains become marvelous abstractions. Western Mongolia looks strangely fleshy and biomorphic, like a cell seen under a microscope. The Sahara desert resembles the surface of Mars. Cynics might write them off as the vanity project of a high-flying billionaire space tourist, but the photographers are a sight to behold. Laliberté's surrealistic images are also a fundraising tool: Proceeds from their sale will go to One Drop, his non-profit organization devoted to water equality and conservation around the world.
With no small measure of childlike whimsy, Laliberté compared the experience of photographing the earth from space to watching passing clouds: “Like when you're on earth and you're in a park or a field and you lay down on your back and watch the clouds move. Since I was a kid and I watched those clouds. I was always [seeing] animals and characters. This time, I was in the reverse situation. I was in the sky watching earth and looking at all those shapes.” Orbiting the earth, Laliberté witnessed 14 sunrises and sunsets a day. From the zoomed out perspective of space, the profound fragility and smallness of our planet becomes inescapable. The future of the human species hangs in the balance.
“When you're flying up there,” he said, “you have those moments where you're looking at space, at the infinite, and you see that fragile planet, you see that little tiny layers protect it from the void, from darkness, from immense number of stars. And you start to feel a little worried about this planet that looks so fragile in this universe. You know there's life somewhere. We cannot be alone. But so far the human species has not yet achieved the challenge of finding other life or another place where we could live ... you start to tell yourself, well maybe we're just another species passing by. You start to hope that we will start organizing to survive on this planet longer than we would if we don't take care of it.”
ARTINFO spoke to Laliberté about his project before the opening of the show.
Do you feel your career in the circus prepared you for space more than the average civilian?
I would say yes, in terms of the high spirit I brought into this project. Obviously, I knew that there would be a lot of resistance from some of the [space] community, related to space tourists. So I think my background as a street performer and entertainer was a big asset. After I had demonstrated that I was training, that I was focused, bringing humor and entertaining them permitted me to connect with them. That permitted some great bonding with the community. I think they remember me for that, as well as for being great participant because I did everything pretty much right.
Which photographers do you admire? Did any of them inspire this project?
Yann Arthus-Bertrand. He did a book called ‘La Terre Vue du Ciel.’ I spoke with him once, and the state of mind in which he was taking these pictures was a little bit like what I was going through. And yes, he's a professional photographer and it did inspire me. The only difference is that I was higher. Also, Peter Beard is somebody who brings some amazing passion and interaction with the picture. I like people that challenge their art, not only in the purist way, but also in terms of how they could provoke and make something different.
Out of the 40 photographs in the show, do you have a favorite image?
There's one that's very special for me: the one way in the back. It’s just that little blue layer, just like black on black. This is the space equivalent of the green flash on earth. You know there's a green flash when you watch the sunset over the water. If there aren’t any clouds and no humidity, when the sun hits — in the last moment that the sunray touches the waterline — it creates a kind of green flash laser. This is the reverse. Just before the sun rises, there's that little blue [light] that lasts a fraction of a second. After, it just blinds you out. That was a moment I was trying to get but I was missing all the time. That was the most difficult picture that I took and I had to try it everyday. I had to get it right on that moment and, finally, I got it, so I was very, very happy. So that picture, for me, is a little more special than the others.
What about space surprised you the most?
Discovering a community of people. I realized how small this community was when I joined it and how fantastic it was. The community is very restricted. I was number 540. It was like being with people who were the pioneers, the Christopher Columbuses of space. What these guys were risking, putting those firecrackers under their butts and shooting into space in cans. When I was training, there was a lot of interesting technical stuff—a lot of boring stuff too. But the storytelling. Sitting down and listening to those famous cosmonauts telling their stories was the best part for me.
Would you ever visit space again?