Building a temple on the moon
“My name is Jorge Mañes Rubio. I’m a Spanish artist based in Amsterdam and I’m currently artist in residence at the European Space Agency. Currently, I’m working on building a temple on the Moon – I would say that this is already quite a nice dream project!” – in interview with Jorge Mañes Rubio, conducted by Etienne Verbist.
Etienne Verbist on behalf of Artdependence: Who are you and what do you do?
JMR: My name is Jorge Mañes Rubio. I’m a Spanish artist based in Amsterdam and I’m currently artist in residence at the European Space Agency. I come from a product design background, so I feel comfortable creating objects that respond to specific narratives and alternative scenarios. My work is very much a combination of research and fiction, a composition of different elements that when assembled together allow me to shine light on a particular subject. I’m interested in addressing social issues from a different perspective, and to do so I use whatever media I feel appropriate, from photography to sculpture, on-site interventions, installations, video…
AD: What’s your goal, and why do you do the work you do?
JMR: My goalis to feel fulfilled by and proud of what I do, to feel that my work serves apurpose and that this purpose is inspiring others and initiating important discussions among my audience. The social impact of my work and its meaning is bigger than the work itself. Without that social component, my work and my role as an artist become kind of irrelevant.
AD: What is your dream project?
JMR: I aim to create bigger and more ambitious projects in the future. I’m not sure yet what shape my dream project will have, but I can see it will involve a long journey and collaborations with many different institutions and individuals. Currently, I’m working on building a temple on the Moon – I would say that this is already quite a nice dream project!
AD: Why do you do what you do?
JMR: The reason why I decided to quit my job as a product designer and pursue other challenges was because I felt I could reach a higher potential through artistic expression. There’s a strong personal component in my work, and in order to keep developing it, exploring it, I do what I do. As I said before, feeling fulfilled and proud of what I do is my main motivation. The social repercussion of my work is the fuel of that motivation.
AD: What role does the artist have in society?
JMR: Many and very different roles. To me, the most important one is to challenge. To challenge what we think as an absolute truth, to challenge our society’s values, to challenge all our preconceived notions and systems. To do so, an artist must take risks, and identify what issues or subjects he feels are important to redefine or reimagine. An artist should work towards providing an alternative truth, and embrace that quest, that struggle. But that’s obviously my personal view. Artists today are also entertainers, part of a market and intricate system that has many other interests and reasons to exist.
AD: What themes do you pursue?
JMR: I’ve recently co-founded a new project in Dharavi, Mumbai, which takes the shape of a nomadic museum, exploring how design could be a tool to promote social change and innovation on a global scale, and aiming to redefine the concept of ‘museum’. We believe that museums, especially new institutions, can and should be defined not only by their architectural glamour, rich collections or number of visitors. Museums should be transparent, progressive, dynamic, and most importantly, encourage diversity. Dharavi proved to be the right place to reimagine a museum, precisely because such an idea doesn’t really fit within its context. I could start from scratch with this project, because the concept of a museum doesn’t exist there yet, not because it is not necessary. When a local kid was asked what he thought this new museum was about, he said: “It’s like a magic show, but with no tricks”. I could’ve never said it better. Dharavi is a place that is far from being perfect, but it is much more than the almost post-apocalyptic scenario that we see on the media or on the internet or in any other slum narratives (such as the movie Slumdog Millionaire).
I pose the question: why is a ceramic artist is so well respected in Europe, while the same artist living in such a settlement is only perceived as providing cheap manual labour? By 2030 some two billion people, or nearly a quarter of humanity, will be living in these kind of neighbourhoods. With this new project we aim to stimulate conversations on how design can help change our perception and response to these locations, encouraging a greater involvement from different organisations and institutions to work towards a more sustainable development of these areas.
From chai cups and water filters to quirky cricket bats later used in a local tournament, the museum has not only organised several exhibitions and workshops in Dharavi, but it has also created an impact in the rest of the world, and so what started as an experimental project has been recognized by the cultural sector. Design Museum Dharavi just won the Leading Cultural Destinations Award in the category of ‘Best New Museum Of The Year – Asia Pacific’ and is nominated for the Beazley Designs of the Year, being part of the opening exhibition for the new Design Museum in London.
Lately I’ve also been interested in the new era of colonisation and exploitation of celestial bodies, its multiple implications and potential consequences. Space is changing, and a permanent settlement out of our planet for me symbolizes a great opportunity to represent an infinity of cultures, nations and ethnicities; it could be the origin of a new civilisation that would embody us all as a human species. What are going to be the motivations and needs of this new space civilisation? What sort of rituals, aesthetics and new cultural artefacts will be created by it? When someone is born outside our planet, what sort of culture we’ll be passing onto him or her? These are questions that I find very interesting to start addressing now, even if the answers will come gradually in the coming years. Oddly enough, the more I look into a future space civilisation, the more I find inspiration into our most primitive ones. That’s why I’m also looking back into the origins of our many different civilisations, rituals, and traditions from a historical, anthropological and even spiritual perspective. Collaborating with ESA is providing me with the raw substance for modelling environments and creating experiences that I couldn’t have imagined before.
Both these two projects, even if completely different one from the other, share a strong vision. I believe that by reimagining what is unseen or forgotten around us we can build alternative worlds, and in this utopian process we will manage to see beyond our own limitations and articulate new social scenarios. When people stop discerning the boundaries between what’s possible and what’s not, that’s when the real journey begins.
AD: What’s your favourite art work?
JMR: That’s a really tough question! If I had to choose one, I’d probably say any of the Skyspace series by James Turrell. And his Roden Crater, even if I haven’t visited it yet, is probably my future favourite. Naoshima is probably my favourite museum/art space.
AD: What memorable responses have you had to your work?
JMR: I remember after an exhibition in China (Normal Pool Level, a journey through the Yangtze River and the remains of the cities flooded by the Three Gorges Dam Project) someone thanked me for telling a story she thought she already knew, but in a completely new way. To come to a foreign land and work with local resources is not always easy, but I think when you work honestly and respecting of the local culture, you can come up with interesting and surprising results.
To quote Italian artist Giorgio Morandi: “One can travel the world and see nothing,” he said, “to achieve understanding it is necessary not to see many things, but to look hard at what you do see.”
AD: What do you dislike about the art world?
JMR: I don’t like the position of privilege and authority that some institutions and individuals practice in order to benefit their own interests and perpetuate that position, but that’s just part of it. It’s important to learn how to create your own opportunities instead of just running after them.
AD: What role does art funding have?
JMR: Art Funding plays a very important role in our society, and it involves a big responsibility, especially when we’re talking public funding in times of financial instability. I can imagine it’s a hard task to keep a balance between supporting a new generation of artists and funding those who are already well established. In my opinion, art funding can be an important part of an artist’s career, but not the only one. To keep your independence and freedom is a number one priority, and sometimes art funding mechanisms can threaten that freedom.
AD: What research do you do?
JMR: Currently I’m researching early civilisations: their rituals, their gods, their myths, their architecture… There’s a very strong and interesting connection among very distant cultures (in both space and time), which becomes apparent when researching golden burial jewellery or ceramics from the Minoans and comparing it to Pre-Columbian civilisations in South America, for example. What I’m trying to do is determine whether a similar approach will be part of a future interplanetary civilisation.
AD: What has changed recently in the way artists engage and collaborate with Space exploration activities or Space Agencies, like how you are currently doing?
JMR: In the past couple of decades, with the rise of contemporary art, artists have engaged in interesting conversations with space agencies and the space sector in general. While before there was only room for artists creating realistic visualizations of spaceships and the such, I feel that today artists can contribute in many different ways, specially conceptually speaking. In my case, space exploration shares with my own practice as an artist a similar drive towards research, curiosity and discovery. The work ESA is performing today allows us to peek into the very limits of our universe and the limits of our human civilization. Very much like art, it aims to find universal answers but at the same time generates new dilemmas and fundamental questions. That’s essentially the part that I’m most interested in. There’s a very powerful synergy between art and science, and my collaboration with ESA aims to reach a wider audience and introduce ideas and stories that everyone as human being can relate to. Today, I feel that you don’t need to be an engineer or a scientist to be interested in space exploration, the same way you don’t need to be an artist or curator to be moved by art or visit an art exhibition. My work is trying to gain freedom from these labels and boxes and create work that can be perceived as universal, no matter what your background, race or interests might be.
AD: Can you tell us more about future lunar colonisation and your Lunar Temple?
JMR: There’s obviously a long way to go in terms of solving many technical issues with regards to our ability to inhabit other planets, but I’m an optimistic person and I believe this is only a matter of time. Once life support is provided, when someone is born outside our planet, the question is what sort of culture we’ll be passing onto him or her? Looking back into our very dark history of colonization, we’ve always tried to impose our culture onto someone else. To me, the Moon Village idea that ESA has recently put out there is extremely exciting not only because of the ambition that it implies, and the need for a never before seen form of international cooperation, but mostly because a permanent settlement on the Moon symbolizes a great opportunity to represent an infinity of cultures, nations and ethnicities; it could be the origin of a new civilisation that would embody us all as human species.
What are going to be the motivations and needs of this new space civilisation? What sort of rituals, aesthetics and new cultural artefacts will be created by it? When somebody dies on the Moon, what sort of burial ritual he or she is going to receive? These are questions that I feel are important to, at least, put out there. Looking back to the contents of the past doesn’t mean that you want to replicate them exactly the same, but it is important to acknowledge that past, especially in the case of many cultures and civilizations that were heavily neglected. I look towards them for inspiration, for those are the traces that make us all human no matter where we come from in space or time.
For example, while travelling through Greece this summer, I came across many incredible artefacts from the Minoan culture, some of them several thousands of years old, exceptionally preserved and showcased in places such as the Heraklion Archaeological Museum. Looking at those zoomorphic ceramics and golden burial jewelry, I couldn’t help but think of Pre-Columbian ceramics or Peruvian Mochica golden relics, for example. How is it possible that two completely different civilizations, separated by thousands of years and in opposite sides of the world, had such similar needs and inspirations? Are we all really that different? For me, the idea behind this project is more like looking back into the future. There’s nobody living on the Moon, so we have no need to colonize it in a historical way, no need to impose our culture onto someone else. It’s very exciting to look at this as a chance to erase all those preconceived ideas, and see this future as a tabula rasa for our civilization.
AD: Does that mean that you’re trying to redefine what a temple could mean in a place such as the Moon? Not only visually but also conceptually?
JMR: Absolutely. Joseph Campbell once defined a temple as “a landscape for the soul”, a place that can be linked to spiritual or collective needs, without being necessarily associated to a specific religion.To me, the temple of the 21st Century could be a museum, whether if it’s a place where I’m learning from a culture that vanished 4000 years ago or if I’m being blown away by a contemporary art installation. But the same way, an observatory that looks into the most distant objects of the universe and gives us a completely new perspective on who we are can also be considered a temple in that way. Both places help me experience something that transcends my own individuality. I understand spirituality as something open and diverse to each and one of us, something that can be found where you least expect it. I admire the plurality and tolerance that many civilizations express through their spiritual beliefs, something that I personally experienced while travelling through rural Japan or while learning from Native American culture, where the spiritual is something that surrounds us everyday and that manifests itself through nature or through our everyday actions.
The Lunar temple and its architecture basically speculates on the idea of creating a building that doesn’t necessarily respond only to life support, scientific research or the exploitation of natural resources (I include tourism on the last one) on the Moon. This building will serve social and spiritual needs or purposes, and it will be 3D printed using Lunar regolith. Using such material and technology will most likely create ‘soft’ structures, resembling the way traditional adobe architecture has been built here on Earth for many centuries in places such as Mexico, Iran or Ghana, just to name a few.
Other inspirations come from Inuit culture and architecture (the temple will be located near the South Pole of the Moon, on the edge of the Shackleton crater) or dome-like buildings such as the Pantheon or Étienne-Louis Boullée’s Cenotaph for Newton, a monument way too massive and gigantic to ever be built. This last example is one of the most influential buildings, even if it was never built, because of the effect that it had on contemporary architects, and the subsequent French Utopian movement from the XVIIIth Century. What’s interesting is that, with 1/6 of Earth’s gravity, what is utopian on this planet, might be possible on the Moon. And I want to think that this concept can be applied not only to architecture but to many other aspects that define what a civilisation is.
AD: You probably won’t live to see such a thing as a Lunar Temple, though. No offense! But what’s the point, then? Why do you want to do this?
JMR: By creating this future fictional scenario I can address social issues that are relevant today, but in a completely different and more engaging way. Space exploration is not just about science and technology, whoever thinks that is wrong. There’s a very important spiritual dimension to exploring heavenly bodies – we’ve been connected to them since our earliest ancestors. To reduce everything to a technological challenge is not very smart. The temple, for example, is designed and located in such way that you can choose to have a connection with Earth and look at it through a specific opening/oculus in the building. But it also allows those who want to be independent to operate inside the temple without the Earth visually interfering. I think both perspectives can be positive. After all, looking at the Earth from Space is one of the most spiritual experiences astronauts go through, probably because you don’t see any divisions of nations or states. That is a very powerful symbol, and I feel the same when I look at the Moon. I see no religions, no languages, no nationalities. I truly hope those divisions will never take place there, and that its colonisation will help us understand that we all come from the same place. The Lunar Temple is a celebration of that universal and mythical idea.
AD: What is the role of the people, the crowd in your project?
JMR: With the project I’m currently working on with the ESA, my concern is to represent all people with the idea of the Lunar Temple. Not only the people who inhabit our planet today, but all the previous civilisations and societies as well. How do we move that infinite amount of information onto the Moon? That’s a very important and difficult question. But it’s also important that not only white, successful or rich people are represented on the Moon someday, but also the whole diversity that we embody. Space and celestial bodies belong to everybody and this should continue to be true in the future.
AD: How can the people or the crowd participate in your project?
JMR: We are currently working on a free digital app so anybody can virtually visit the Shackleton crater and the Lunar Temple.This is important because we want to make people participate in this project, and to be able to virtually experience this incredible landscape. We’re talking about a crater that is more than 4000m deep with some very unique celestial mechanics. Merging art and science into this project is a very interesting approach and I hope people will engage with the project so together we can be part of this very exciting new era of space exploration.
AD: How are you connected with the people or the crowd?
JMR: As an artist, my mission is to connect with the audience somehow, whether you manage to see my work at an exhibition or read about it anywhere else. I hope that this connection is not something temporary but that my work moves the people to look further or look into something with different eyes.