“Once upon a time there was a boy and this boy was very fond of the stars. Every night the boy looked at the stars from his window and wished he had one of his own.
So begins How to Catch a Star, the best-selling novel by Oliver Jeffers, the multi-translated story of a little boy who sets out to catch a star and befriend him. As the protagonists of his burgeoning portfolio of award-winning, beautifully illustrated children’s books, the Belfast-born visual artist sees our world as a place of endless wonder and vibrant color, a place of ever-changing discovery and adventure. life.
And yet, despite all the visual and intellectual complexities of his internationally acclaimed work as a painter, author, collage and book maker, sculptor, installation and performance artist, he likes to keep it simple.
“There is a lot of simplicity in a lot of my work. I try to be more complicated in what I do simple’
Speaking from his home in Belfast, having just arrived from New York, where he has lived for 15 years, he admits his latest epic-scale project, Our Place in Space is, in some ways, a natural progression from that. beloved first book, published in 2004.
“You could say that, yes. There is a lot of simplicity in a lot of my work. I try to be more complicated in what I make simple.
Our Place in Space, which opens this weekend, is Northern Ireland’s flagship event in UNBOXED: Creativity in the UK, a UK-wide celebration of the creative industries, which runs from March to october. It is designed to reach millions of people, to bring people together through a comprehensive program of large-scale free events, facilities and digital experiences accessible worldwide. Behind the scenes is a massive gathering of some of the world’s brightest and best scientists, artists, technologists, engineers and mathematicians.
Jeffers’ involvement turned out to be a perfect example of unforeseen serendipity.
“Without Covid, Our Place in Space would not exist,” says Jeffers. “We had been living apart in New York for a few years and came back to Belfast when we learned that my father had contracted the virus. Then came confinement and we ended up staying.
“I got a call from my brother Rory [also an artist]. He had spoken to David Lewis [director of communications and digital content] at the nerve center of Derry. They were keen to present a project to UNBOXED and asked me to participate. I told them I wasn’t really interested and they said, “You don’t understand how important this is. I didn’t and I certainly didn’t know they were planning to build everything around me. But I liked the idea of working with a technology partner, so we thought about it together and gave it a try. And here we are.”
Produced by Nerve Center Collective and commissioned by UNBOXED with Belfast City Council, it is one of 10 multi-site, digital creative projects, designed to provide new ideas and possibilities for the future. It’s a 10km walk through the solar system via a colorful three-dimensional sculpture trail set in three of Northern Ireland’s most scenic areas.
Along the way, audiences will encounter all sorts of intriguing interactive opportunities: create a star, compose a symphony for the universe, invent a new mode of transportation, build a planet, or bond with space observers from around the world. whole world. The whole experience is about taking a fresh look at our planet and thinking about how we can better share and protect it in the future.
As creative director of the project, Jeffers worked closely with Queen’s University Belfast Professor of Astrophysics Stephen Smartt – also a Belfast man – and the exciting Irish instrumentalist, sound artist and filmmaker Die Hexen , whose atmospheric and otherworldly compositions have won widespread acclaim. , including film critic Mark Kermode, who declared her “a composer whose name you should know”.
Working together, Jeffers and Smartt developed an engaging way of communicating complex scientific concepts and were inspired by this quote from American author and space philosopher Frank White’s book, The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution “We’re going to have to start acting as one species with a destiny – we’re not going to survive if we don’t.
“The overview effect is a cognitive shift in awareness, which some astronauts report during spaceflight. This is often the case when looking at Earth from space,” says Jeffers.
“The title, Our Place in Space, aims to humanize our experience of the universe, to give scale and perspective to how we view our own place in it. I also see it as an opportunity to talk about Northern Irish politics with distance and objectivity.
“When we were living in New York, it became clear to me that nobody there understood or cared about the politics and geography of Northern Ireland. Physical distancing gives you a similar big picture to that experienced by astronauts.
Jeffers and Smartt argue that as human beings we define ourselves as who we are and who we are not, for example, the team we support, where we live, the things we believe in and what we are fighting for. In the process, we end up operating on an ‘us and them’ mentality – something, they agree, people in Northern Ireland are familiar with.
In an eye-catching video, illustrated with Jeffers’ original handwritten captions and cartoons, Smartt provides the hard science facts. The International Space Station is 240 miles straight ahead. It is from this point that astronauts can begin to experience the big picture effect, where it becomes apparent that our planet is a single, massive system.
He explains that the Moon is a quarter of a million miles away, that our nearest planet Venus is 26 million miles away and about the same size as Earth, that Neptune is the furthest planet about 2.6 billion kilometers away. He rejects Pluto as “a dwarf planet”. To reach the confines of our solar system, we would have to travel 9 billion kilometres.
As Jeffers points out in response, “It’s very hard to imagine how much space there is in space. It is almost impossible to have a scale model of our solar system. If the Earth were the size of a ping-pong ball, the Moon would be the size of a pea, and on the same scale, Neptune would be the size of a small melon.
“So we ask what would happen if we could see ourselves alone on our small planet, the only one that can support life, from the far reaches of our solar system?”
They predict that with enough distance, the notion of “us and them” would simply become “us”.
Jeffers says that when he was writing Here We Are in 2017 for his young son, he became interested in cosmology. During his extensive career, he has collaborated with many scientists and physicists, each experience feeding into his work as an artist. Elements of a quantum physics mission found their way into The Incredible Book Eating Boy, which in 2012 was adapted as a children’s play by composer Conor Mitchell and illusionist Paul Bosco McEneaney, director artistry of Cahoots.
“I’ve always regretted that STEM isn’t STEAM,” says Jeffers. ‘A’ for art is missing and it shouldn’t be’
UNBOXED is truly a celebration of the STEM educational concept, which places academic and curricular emphasis on the disciplines of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.
“I’ve always regretted that STEM isn’t STEAM,” says Jeffers. “’A’ for art is missing and it shouldn’t be. That’s what it means to me as an artist right now. The stories always come first.
Our Place is Space is sure to be a sight to behold in the natural beauty of its three Northern Ireland sites – the River Foyle in Derry, Divis and Black Mountains above Belfast and the North Down Coastal Path – as well as Cambridge in England.
“You’ll walk through a series of giant arches placed along the route,” says Jeffers. “These objects are quite huge. They were made in Greenwich in east London and took over most of the factory. then they shipped it off to be installed in Derry.
“The practicalities of doing this were many and great. Finding a 10km strip of land, going in the same direction, was one of the first challenges. It went from there.
“It’s a fun experience, encouraging people to come together and reflect on life on Earth and their place in it. It invites us to ask ourselves which side we are on and, with a renewed sense of perspective, to ask ourselves if there should be ‘sides’.
Bay Road Park and River Foyle, Derry: April 22-May 22;
Divis and Black Mountain, Belfast: June 11 to July 10;
Ulster Transport Museum and North Down Coastal Path: 17 September to 16 October.
The project also includes an interactive AR application and important learning and event programs. our placeinspace.earth/
UNBOXED: Creativity UK is funded and supported by the four UK governments and commissioned and delivered in partnership with Belfast City Council, Creative Wales and EventScotland.