Galileo’s short book Sidereus Nuncius (1610) announced to the world that the moon’s surface was uneven and the sky was more densely populated by stars than previously thought. His groundbreaking flight into space was soon pulled back to earthly corruption, however, when he had to sweeten his heretical findings by naming the moons of Jupiter after the Medici. The Starry Messenger, recreated in The Whitworth after its initial display at the 2013 Venice Biennale, is a loose artistic translation of Galileo’s title. Four centuries apart, the theme that connects the two works is exploratory verve struggling against doubt and disbelief.
Galileo’s telescope spotted wonders; Williams’ dark humour doesn’t permit such luck. In Wylo (Welsh for wailing or weeping), a garden-shed sized observatory contains items that indicate an eager star-gazer has recently left: A stack of books, star maps lining the walls, a flask of tea and a laptop on standby. Without any visible mourner, a low heavy sob repeats over and over. These tears are not celebrating a eureka moment but seem to be shed over the promethean nosiness of modern science, which is too keen on knowing everything. In a comic touch, the laptop’s looped standby screen shows stars whizzing by.
The main exhibit is a surreal film starring Williams as a disembodied head, covered in stuck-on mosaic fragments, giving a short mockumentary about our material connection to space. Clips of dentists’ drills grinding down teeth, cranes crashing into quarries and views of the Milky Way build up to depict the universe as a heap of excess dust, chipped off some great block. Throughout these sequences, his dry voice-over is a mixture of BBC astronomy presenter and mopey victim of alien abduction—a clear example of Brian Cox’s influence.
As we’ve seen recently, Galileo’s modern successors are rewarded for their long study with the prestigious Nobel Prize for Physics. Each year a different underground base conducting incomprehensible research at great expense is given the award. Prof Katija’s neutrino flipping lab, one half of this year’s winners, resembles a metallic torture chamber with a kinky central disco ball, and could easily feature in one of Williams’ surreal works. This show cuts through the dry science of the stars and offers up a playful alternative to the Nobel Academy. If you fancy a bizarre tour through space, then definitely take a look.
Visit whitworth.manchester.ac.uk for more information