Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin are collecting lunar rocks. Their massive spacesuits are slowing down every movement, every move of the hand. The lunar module is in the background. Yet, Armstrong and Aldrin are not alone. They are joined by the crews of the Apollo 12 to 17 lunar missions, who also move clumsily over the barren ground of the moon, 380,000 kilometers away from the earth. One astronaut is driving a rover, another is taking photographs. All these impressions – and many more as well – can be seen in “lunar explorers” (2019), a work by the artist Michael Najjar. A 20-meter-wide version of his photographic art has recently been gone on display at the event center of OHB’s Bremen office. In an interview, the creator of the work explains how he created a symbiotic composition from 4,000 original photos of the Apollo missions and how astronaut training can serve as a source of artistic inspiration.
At OHB, it goes without saying that we are all space fans. But what sparked your enthusiasm for space travel?
Michael Najjar: I grew up with a fascination for the moon. In 1969, when Neil Armstrong was the first person ever to set foot on the mon, I was three years old. This fascination with the moon has accompanied me to this very day. I expressed my passion with a series called “outer space”, which I started seven years ago. This includes “lunar explorers”, which I created last year to mark the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing. That moment, when Neil Armstrong became the first man to set foot on the moon, is one of the most important events in human history and part of our collective memory.
That’s right. And how did the idea for the “lunar explorers” come about?
Many years ago, I had an opportunity to access over 4,000 scans taken by the Apollo astronauts on their missions. When I sifted through them, I was fascinated by the multitude of scientific experiments that were carried out on the moon and which are largely unknown to the public. The composition “lunar explorers” is celebrating the research conducted on the moon and the twelve moonwalkers of the six Apollo missions. I mean, it’s a unique experience, being one of just twelve people who have ever set foot on another celestial body.
Yes, absolutely! How did the idea become a work of art?
Using the original negatives as a basis, I created a fictitious lunar landscape. The work consists of three components, designed as a triptych. I mounted the twelve astronauts on the lunar landscape. They’re all at work, conducting experiments. The picture is structured chronologically, with Apollo 11 on the left and Apollo 17 on the far right. I wanted the image to be something completely new, something never seen before. The greatest challenge was to develop a coherent composition despite the varying quality of the archive material.
The wonderful lunar composition can now also be admired at OHB. What makes this image so special?
I reworked the original triptych, turning it into a single 20-meter image for OHB. The result is an immersive panorama which engulfs the viewer. I have known Marco Fuchs for a long time as OHB already owns two of my works. One of these is “orbital ascension”, which depicts an Ariane launch carrying Galileo satellites on board. We re-established contact after “lunar explorers” was completed in 2019. As a result, OHB has what is by far the largest work I have ever created.
Can you imagine flying into space yourself?
Absolutely, that’s what I have planned. I have been one of the “Virgin Galactics Pioneer Astronauts” of the US space company Virgin Galactics since 2012 and will soon be flying into space on board SpaceShipTwo. As an artist I am always highly involved in my projects physically as the performance aspect forms an important element of my work. Consequently, I have already completed extensive cosmonaut training in Star City near Moscow – a unique experience that forms the basis for my work.
Respect! What was the greatest challenge you have faced so far in this training?
It’s an incredible physical and psychological burden. I now have a completely different understanding of what astronauts have to go through in their training. The gravitational forces that I experienced, for example during centrifuge training, are not only physically demanding but also pose a great psychological burden. Handling the technological protective covers, such as a space suit, also constitutes a great physical and mental challenge.
Have you completed spacewalk training yourself?
Oh yes – in a giant hydrolab in Star City. Crammed into a spacesuit, I trained working in weightless conditions on an ISS mockup at a depth of twelve meters. The training also involved an underwater photo production, which was of course additionally stressful.
Impressive! Do you also see yourself as a kind of interpreter who makes space travel tangible through art?
Yes. As an artist, I always try to illuminate things from different perspectives. Working with scientists and engineers is enormously important for me. It teaches me a lot about complex technical matters, which I then try to transform into a new visual aesthetic, just as I did with “lunar explorers”. Cooperation between artists and companies can also generate highly inspiring synergistic effects. In OHB’s case, the results are clearly quite unique.