Michael Moran, Collapsars, exhibition essay, Hazelhurst Arts Centre, 2022

Packed Matter IX, 2022. Gelatin silver hand printed photograph on fibre-based paper, 83 x 124.7cm, edition of 4 + 2AP

Stars are formed when scattered clouds of dust and gases concentrate and begin to collapse under their own gravitational forces. The turbulence within these clouds knot and generate energy, giving birth to a protostar. The protostar will continue to gather dust and gases from its surrounding molecular cloud and may even split into multiple star clusters, which will continue to develop independently. Drawing in more and more mass they will continue to collapse,creating powerful nuclear reactions at their core that fuse hydrogen and form helium. This process will take more than 10 million years depending on the sizeof the star that is formed.

The gravitational force collapsing the mass of the new star is held in balance by the energy expelled by the nuclear reactions it produces at its core, giving heat, light, and precious elements to the surrounding solar system. The lifespan of a star will vary greatly depending on its size, which in turn determines how rapidly its core produces energy. For a small to average star the lifespan may be 10 billion years, for a massive star only a few million.

At a point, the forces expelled by the core will reduce and be insufficient to counter the star’s own gravitational mass.The star will collapse, ending its mature phase. Small stars will eventually become white dwarfs, massive stars will be either neutron stars or black holes. Collectively, these three outcomes are referred to as collapsars.

There is an elemental quality in the work of Ioulia Panoutsopoulos that is attuned to the cosmic lifecycle of stars. It is evident in the commitment to a studio based,analogue photographic practice that has light, space, and time as its core variables and chief generative tools – the same forces that pushed far enough are at the centre of the creation of the cosmos. But it is the shadow of the collapsar – the dead star – that is of most interest. A 2017 study out of Colombia University suggests that 80% of heavy and precious elements have been created by the whirling mass of material ejected from the core of collapsars. This includes silver, the element most intrinsic to light-based photographic printing. However, the interest goes further.

In April of 2019, the astronomers of the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) captured an image of a supermassive black hole, located at the centre of the Messier 87 galaxy (M87), 55 million light years from Earth. This incredible project offered to the world an image that had been considered an impossibility, an image of space time collapse, where matter is so dense that light cannot escape its gravitational force. This image has been a reference point for Panoutsopoulos while creating the Collapsar body of work, both as a photograph and the process that it represents.

The EHT image shows a glowing, red galaxy, with the swirl of matter captured by the telescope giving an impression of gaseous, cosmic movement. The breakthrough of this image was being able to image the bending light at the event horizon of the M87 collapsar. This achievement makes visible the black hole at the centre of the galaxy. The astronomers responsible have referred to the black hole being backlit and capturing its shadow. These are appealing ideas to photographers and certainly to Panoutsopoulos, an artist whose work is forged in the play between light and its absence. It also appeals as a poetic idea. If an object is so powerful that light cannot escape its pull, perhaps you photograph its shadow.

Panoutsopoulos’ images are products of intersecting and overlapping actions. They are layers of tableaux, discreet sets of objects, images re-photographed, and light drawings. They understand the properties of photographic materials and exploit them in pursuit of new photographic languages, and they test the properties of unknown materials in a search for experimental breakthroughs. Light is fundamental as the element that coheres the artworks’ elements. Objects, surfaces, flashes, and marks exist in degrees of visibility that make light seem almost tangible. Voids and shadows appear backlit, brought into vision by the light that bends around them.

There are distant echoes of the unknown, cosmic properties of collapsars in the isolated and enigmatic theatres of the artist’s studio. Whilst separated by vast stretches of space and time they are linked by virtue of being hidden from most, only coming into view via systems of discovery, rendering, and dissemination.

The Event Horizon Telescope, named for the threshold beyond which light cannot escape a black hole, is in fact an array of telescopes located across the globe. These telescopes work in synchronisation to form a viewing device as large as our planet is round. Its method of image capture is about as far from that of a single lens reflex as you could imagine.

The 2019 black hole photo was created by teams of astronomers using vast amounts of computational power to layer and interpret imagery gathered in laboratories around the world. A consideration of this diffuse and networked process has led Panoutsopoulos to develop a complex method of image making. The light and material-based images, recorded on film in the artist’s studio, have been scanned, rendered digitally, and displayed on screen. Here they have been studied, augmented, drawn on, and in some cases used as grounds for further layering and physical collage, before being re-photograph and transmuted back to film. It is a process that acknowledges the malleability of the photographic image, offering what Panoutsopoulos describes as “an open, expanded pictorial nervous system”.

In much the same way as the work in Collapsar make light tangible, the complex layering of images, actions, surfaces, and methodologies mark time in their creation, making it legible in the image. In making light and time legible in this way, the body of work collapses methodology and subject. They are of light and of time and despite the enigmatic images’ refusal to be placed temporally, the process of their creation ensures the works are in time, tied to a contemporary moment.

Cultural depictions of black holes have tended to be dramatic and violent, imagining their gravitational pull to be a rapid destroyer of all matter in their vicinity. It is more likely that the forces at their centre warp space to such an extent that time becomes unimaginably slow. Equally misrepresented is the event horizon as a threshold into nothingness. The increase in gravitational force is likely to be gradual enough that no difference would be noted from one side of the event horizon to the other. Nonetheless the incredibly hot and dense matter condensing and spiralling toward the black hole’s centre makes for an inhospitable environment.

The greatest cultural misconception,however, may be that these collapsars are entirely destructive bodies. In 2021,the EHT captured a second image of the M87 black hole. The image showed huge,bright lines that seemed to radiate from the black hole’s centre. These are thought to be plasma jets, first hypothesised by young physicists Roger Blandford and Roman Znajek, at the University of Cambridge in 1977. Here we have massive streams of energy propelled from the black hole, destabilising the idea that nothing can escape its gravitational forces. The currents of energy extend 5,000 light years either side of the M87 black hole, loosely equivalent of two Eiffel towers radiating from an acorn.

Meanwhile, the dust and debris from their companion collapsars, the supernovae, move through space, forming the building blocks for future generations of stars and planetary systems, and providing the universe with silver.   

Michael Moran is a curator who lives and works on unceded Wiradjuri Country.

He has a particular interest in contemporary photography and is a student of cosmic phenomenon.

Copyright © 2024
Ioulia Panoutsopoulos.
All Rights Reserved.
Using Format