Matt Mullican stands in front of a large screen on which pinpricks of light are visible against a black background. Gradually, one glowing pixel looms larger in our field of vision until it becomes a perfect golden orb: the sun. Mullican gazes at this astral body, entranced, as it bathes his face in a yellow glow.
It's 2011, and Mullican is presenting his new Triple Canopy-commissioned project Planetarium to a standing room only crowd at Artists Space on a rainy winter night. The work is an online, interactive scale model of the solar system created using Adobe Flash, a great tool for digital artists. Using arrow keys and mouse, viewers may travel through this model as if flying through space at up to five times the speed of light. Colored spheres represent the sun, the eight planets, Pluto, and the moon. Their relative sizes and distances are precisely calculated, making one aware of the vast distances between planetary bodies. Mullican’s digitalized solar system functions as a kind of clock; the orbits of his digital planets are perfectly synchronized with those of their real celestial counterparts. If, for example, there were a lunar eclipse in the real world, one would see the sun, Earth, and moon also line up in Mullican’s model at the same moment.
It is well into the second hour of the event. None of us have eaten dinner, and our shoes are soggy. The musty smell of wet winter coats fills the room. But as we travel through Planetarium, we leave our immediate environs behind. Mullican is our Captain Adama; we are traveling towards Earth, just a tiny blue dot in our field of vision. Even at five times the speed of light, it seems to approach very slowly. Mullican’s assistant, at the helm, mentions that traveling from the sun to Pluto at this speed (in the model, as in real life) would take a full hour.
Planetarium offers viewers a journey through the idealized, clockwork image of the cosmos mapped out in Kepler’s Laws of Planetary Motion; it is a journey through representational space.
Screenshot of Matt Mullican, Planetarium (2010). Programming by Patrick Smith. Commissioned by Triple Canopy.
This was not the first time Mullican attempted such a journey. In one performance from 1973, Mullican “entered” a Piranesi print, and then proceeded to describe the sights and sounds of being inside the 2D image” for an audience of “maybe 5 or 6 people.”
He later described the experience as follows: