Visual fantasy and science fact

Science Museum

The combination of science and popular culture often leads
to fantasy based in fact – moving further and further from the truth. This
story looks at the work of three artists who have explored contemporary ways of mythologising
scientific fact.

Plate 9, System according to the Holy Scriptures. From Baxter’s Prints of the Muggletonian Universe. (1846) by Baxter, George (maker)Science Museum

Frost’s religious visions of Earth

In early 19th-century London, the public flocked to lectures on astronomical topics. Isaac Frost's book ‘Two Systems of Astronomy’ was an attempt to discredit assumed scientific fact.

Plate 1, The Newtonian System of the Universe. From Baxter’s Prints of the Muggletonian Universe. (1846) by Baxter, George (maker)Science Museum

Newtonian cosmology was the established explanation of the universe at the time. Frost’s imagery depicts a Newtonian solar system as an infinite collection of virtually identical systems.

Among these systems, there is no room for God – and therefore no reason to believe that there is anything special about humanity.

Plate 7, System according to the Holy Scriptures. From Baxter’s Prints of the Muggletonian Universe. (1846) by Isaac Frost (maker)Science Museum

In an image designed to comfort the viewer, Frost displays Earth as the singular entity in the universe. This emphasises the significance of humanity, and places Heaven physically within reach of the pious.

In Frost’s case, ‘science fiction’ is used by a religious group to resist the majority view. Frost’s work apes the language and visuals of scientific study, and his images convey the scriptural path as the most appealing.

One small Step for a man One small Step for a man (1975) by Lawrence, Sandra (artist)Science Museum

Lawrence’s ‘One Small
Step’

The 1960s saw vast and unsettling social change, especially in the USA. Yet one-fifth of the world's population paused to gaze starwards to watch a man walk on the Moon – the largest ever global audience for a single event. The Moon landing continues to astound the public imagination.

TV image of Moon landing, NASA, 1969-07-20, From the collection of: Science Museum
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The ‘folklore’ of the Moon landings has been shaped by images created after the event, and Sandra Lawrence’s bold print embodies this. Her reimagining offers an image that contemporary television transmissions – blurry images in black and white – could not.

One small Step for a man One small Step for a man (1975) by Lawrence, Sandra (artist)Science Museum

As in Lawrence’s work, images of the Moon landings often emphasise the idea of a wholehearted American triumph. Iconography of astronauts has often continued this tradition, playing on themes of American patriotism and masculine strength.

Tales from the Floating World Tales from the Floating World by Phillips, Nicholas (maker)Science Museum

Phillips’ ‘Tales from the Floating World’

In ‘Tales from the Floating World’, Nicholas Phillips offers a reinterpretation of NASA photographs, envisaging a journey from Earth to the depths of space. The title is taken from a 17th-century Japanese poem written by Buddhist priest Asai Ryoi, which expresses the transience of life. Phillips uses space travel to symbolise a journey towards spiritualism.

Tales from the Floating World Tales from the Floating World, Phillips, Nicholas (maker), From the collection of: Science Museum
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Phillips’ artistic practice is based on his own photography, which he uses as guides for his paintings. He sees this method as a way of ensuring his record is entirely objective.

Tales from the Floating World Tales from the Floating World, Phillips, Nicholas (maker), From the collection of: Science Museum
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As we have seen with previous works, there is a clash between fact and fiction here. Scientific photographs should be objective, simply documenting what is visible. Yet, in Phillips’ paintings, the human hand and subjective eye of the artist transforms them.

Credits: Story

All images © Science Museum Group except where stated.

See more art and photography from the Science Museum Group in our online collection.

The Science Museum is part of the Science Museum Group.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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