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Under the Stars

Monday 1 June 2020

Gulumbu Yunupingu Ganyu 2009, natural pigments on bark. Art Gallery of New South Wales. Purchased with funds provided by the Aboriginal Collection Benefactors’ Group 2010 © Gulumbu Yunupingu, Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre, Yirrkala. Licensed by Copyright Agency; Shaun Gladwell Planet and stars sequence: Barrier Highway 2009 (video still) (detail), single-channel digital video, colour, sound. Art Gallery of New South Wales. Gift of Peter Lin and Harry John Wilson 2015. Donated through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program © Shaun Gladwell

The Art Gallery of New South Wales is delighted to present Under the Stars, an exhibition that considers our shared attempts to understand the night sky and our place in relation to it. Taking a transhistorical and cross-cultural approach, the exhibition presents stargazing and mapping from a range of viewpoints.

Under the Stars also marks 250 years since Captain Cook landed at Kamay (Botany Bay). For his first voyage (1768-71), Cook had two main missions, to document the transit of Venus and to locate the ‘unknown southern land’. He recorded the transit of Venus in 1769 and reached Kamay (Botany Bay) on 29 April 1770. This exhibition uses Cook’s first aim as a catalyst to bring to light fascinations with and understandings of stars and the night sky.

Cara Pinchbeck, co-curator of the exhibition and senior curator Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art, said Under the Stars is an opportunity to highlight the myriad stories and perspectives of people’s relationships with the night sky.

“At a time when discussions of Cook’s landing are focused on questions of ownership, we remember that the night sky is a territory that is not owned, but rather that connects us all. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have developed knowledge of the night sky over 65,000 years. Under the Stars celebrates this knowledge while considering possible connections across time, cultures and people,” Pinchbeck said.

“A diverse range of works by First Nations artists are on display, including Gulumbu Yunupiŋu’s delicate paintings of Garak (the universe) and Sylvia Ken’s monumental depiction of Kungkarangkalpa tjukurpa (Seven Sisters), which directly relate to constellations, while works by Daniel Boyd consider how navigation by starlight may have shaped the course of history,” Pinchbeck added.

Jackie Dunn, co-curator of the exhibition and special exhibitions curator said observations of the sky have led all cultures to develop complex scientific and metaphysical ideas that contribute profoundly to our understanding of the universe and our place within it.

“Artists and storytellers have long helped make sense of the stars and planets visible in the night sky. We all look to the stars to map our position and understand our place in the world. While the skies provide important information about changing tides, animal movements and weather prediction, they also invite astonishment and wonder,” Dunn said.

Under the Stars presents associations across time and cultures by highlighting the relationships between artworks. For example, the exhibition explores the diversity and the commonalities between a Tibetan Mandala of Avalokiteshvara, Albrecht Dürer’s Melencolia I, Timothy Cook’s paintings of the Tiwi Kulama ceremony, and Dale Frank’s vast and viscous painting, Stephen Hawking and the illusion of size,” Dunn added.

On display for the first time at the Gallery as part of Under the Stars is Earth-Moon-Earth (Moonlight Sonata reflected from the surface of the moon), 2007 by Scottish artist, Katie Paterson. Earth-Moon-Earth (EME), also known as moonbounce, is a form of radio transmission where messages are sent in Morse code from Earth, reflected from the surface of the Moon, and then received back on Earth. The Moon reflects only part of the information back – some is absorbed in its shadows, ‘lost’ in its craters.

Paterson translated Beethoven’s Moonlight sonata into Morse code before sending it to the Moon via EME. Once returned to Earth, ‘fragmented’ by the Moon’s surface, she re-translated it into a new score, with the gaps and absences becoming intervals and rests. Visitors to the exhibition hear the new ‘Moon-altered’ version playing on a digital Disklavier grand piano and can listen to the Morse code score through headphones. This enriched listening experience is made possible with support from the Gallery’s Foundation next generation supporter group, Atelier.

Alongside diverse works from the Gallery’s collection and significant loans, Under the Stars also presents a new work by Gail Mabo. The renowned dancer, actress and painter has created a major new work informed by celestial concepts from her Mer (Murray Island) heritage. Mabo is the daughter of the late land rights pioneer Eddie Koiki Mabo and educator and activist Bonita Mabo. Both her parents have stars named after them, with Mabo’s father’s sitting in the heart of the southern skies constellation Torres Strait Islanders know as Tagai.

Mabo’s new work, Tagai 2020, references the constellation used to navigate from island to island in the Torres Strait. In former times, bamboo star charts detailing water currents and land masses, assisted navigation by Tagai’s stars and Mabo draws on this tradition in her work. Under the Stars displays a short film of Mabo telling the story of Tagai, revealing the centrality of star mapping to the Torres Strait land title claim.

Presenting partner

On view
21 Mar 2020 – 7 Feb 2021
Art Gallery of New South Wales
Art Gallery Road, The Domain, Sydney


Media contact

Sarah Shields
Tel 02 9225 1674