Is there any poetic meaning in Baumgartner’s fall to Earth?
Yesterday, nearly 8 million of us watched another human being jump off a narrow ledge 24 miles above the Earth.
As Felix Baumgartner’s capsule rose into the air, attached to an astonishing piece of balloon engineering, viewing figures rose, those watching communicating the tension and excitement to others. Baumgartner’s face, perhaps, added to the tension. A professional daredevil, his greatest difficulty with the project was his claustrophobia within the spacesuit. Humans are so good at reading other humans’ faces that perhaps we picked up on this, without realizing its underlying cause. But as we watched Baumgartner ascend, go through his pre-jump checks, open the door, and tentatively step onto the narrow ledge above the void, the thrill that we experienced was rather a collective act of imagination: a perception of danger and uncertainty, embodied by Baumgartner, which triggered our brains to release a flood of stress hormones and emotion, despite ourselves being on solid ground.
It has been said that the Red Bull promotion – its endless logo display, the glossy animated video of the jump – removed any poetry from the occasion and any role for the imagination. But clearly our imaginations did kick in, and it is our ability to imagine, and for our bodies to react powerfully to the products of our imagination, that forms one part of the intense experience of art.
When the Arts Catalyst commissioned Simon Faithfull’s Escape Vehicle No. 6, we had a demonstration of a similar act of imagination at work in the audience’s experience. Originally a live event in the first Artists’ Airshow, the audience witnessed the launch of a vast weather balloon with an office chair dangling beneath it. Once the apparatus had disappeared into the sky, they rushed indoors to watch, on a giant screen, a live video relay from the weather balloon as it journeyed from the ground to the edge of space (30km up). Watching the film of the chair rushing away from the fields, roads and buildings, it is impossible not to imagine yourself carried by it as it ascends through the clouds, twitching vulnerably, until it finally arrives in the upper reaches of the atmosphere, where the curved horizon of the planet can be seen and the sky turns into the blackness of space, oxygen runs out and the temperature drops to minus 60 degrees. Suddenly there’s a violent spasm, a leg hurtles off into the void, and the chair disintegrates:
One could argue that it is modern telecommunications media – the ability to relay images from the event, whether Faithfull’s chair, Baumgartner’s capsule, or before this Joe Kittinger’s jump from space in 1960 or Neal Armstrong stepping onto the Moon – that is a requirement in this experience, that the medium is the essential component. But artists have for centuries sought to convey the aesthetic, emotion and meaning of the fall through more conventional media and means. This can be traced as far back as representations of myths of flying in ancient cultures, which almost always incorporated the fall, as a warning to those who aspired to join the gods (humanity’s place was on the earth).
Contemporary artists have often explored and expressed humankind’s dream of levitation, and its nemesis, falling. Yves Klein’s iconic photograph Saut dans le vide (Leap into the void) (1960) apparently shows him hurling himself off a high wall, arms outstretched, towards the pavement. This was the same year as Joe Kittinger’s original space jump, more than fifty years ago but just 25,000 feet lower than Baumgartner’s.
As the space age dawned, artists joined the space dream. In 1959, the artist Takis organised an event in Paris entitled L’Impossible, Un Homme Dans L’Espace (The Impossible, A Man in Space). Wearing a ‘space suit’ designed by Takis, a man was “launched” across a gallery into a safety net.
Today, post ‘space age’, with its triumphs but also its disasters such as Columbia and Challenger, and post 9/11, the image of a falling person takes on new meanings and cultural resonances. Photographer Denis Darzacq’s 2006 series La Chute (The Fall) features impassive 20-year-olds seemingly about to hit the ground at high speed. It was in part a response to the horror of the twin towers attack, but mostly a depiction of the alienation of a generation of French young people. Darzacq felt that France was a place where someone could tumble from the sky and no one would bat an eyelid.
For the Chinese artist Xu Zhen, his performance/installation In just a blink of an eye is a “manifestation” of the globalized market where Chinese workers are symbolically and literally suspended in a state of falling: frozen in a fragment of time. The models are recruited from the local Chinese population of the city in which the work is shown.
Perhaps there is little poetry in Baumgartner’s action, although the team is keen to point out its potential usefulness for developing emergency escape procedures for returning astronauts, but it adds to the store of meaning that we construct around the falling body, and to our perceptions of space, fragility and risk.
The view of the Earth from above is familiar these days, from cameras sent up on satellites, balloons and other aerial vehicles. But the image of Baumgartner’s feet suspended above the Earth’s surface embodied for us the feelings expressed by Apollo astronauts when they looked back at their home planet from the Moon. As Baumgartner stood on his ledge, 128000 feet above the Earth, he recounted afterwards: “You don’t think about records any more, you don’t think about gaining scientific data, the only thing is you want to come back alive”. His last words before stepping into the vacuum were “I’m coming home”.