Three tapestry artworks displayed in a room bathed in soft blue light.

Installation photo, Sarah Rosalena: Standard Candle, Mount Wilson Observatory, May 20–June 18, 2023.

© Sarah Rosalena, photo © Museum Associates/LACMA, photo credit: Ian Byers-Gamber.

Take a hike with Artlab Editorial to explore a new exhibition by artist Sarah Rosalena, a LACMA Art + Technology Lab grant recipient.

“The poor image is no longer about the real thing [...] In short: it is about reality”

—Hito Steyerl, “In Defense of the Poor Image”

Presented by LACMA’s Art + Technology Lab,"Sarah Rosalena: Standard Candle" is on view through June 18, 2023 on Saturdays and Sundays from 1-5pm at Mount Wilson Observatory.

A wooden direction signpost in the foreground stands against the backdrop of a large white cylindrical building containing a space telescope.

Outside of Mount Wilson Observatory.

Photo by the author.

It takes some work to visit "Sarah Rosalena: Standard Candle," but it is well worth the pilgrimage.

Staged within Los Angeles’s Mount Wilson Observatory, the show is nestled deep in the San Gabriel Mountains. After hiking up from the gravel parking lot overlooking the steep valley, one enters the cool, dark environs of the 100-inch Hooker telescope; the largest in the world until 1948.

As an artist and researcher, Rosalena hones in on the negative spaces that form between disparate vectors of received knowledge—the holes in our history books where whole peoples, stories, and genders slip through. Here on Mount Wilson, the artist zooms in on astronomical history through the lens of these missing perspectives, using traditional Indigenous techniques to interpret data. Among dormant machinery and informational plaques praising various male scientists for their contributions to the telescope, Rosalena has installed woven and beaded textiles inspired by Wixárika weaving traditions passed down through her matrilineal bloodline.

In astronomy, a “standard candle” is any celestial body whose luminosity, or inherent brightness, is known independent of its apparent brightness, meaning how bright it looks to us. By comparing objects in space with these celestial bodies, astronomers can determine an object’s distance from the earth. Such use is the foundation of how maps of outer space are generated. It’s hubris, really, that the hardest data we have on the size and occupancy of the galaxies is predicated on positioning ourselves, quite literally, as the center of the universe.

A vibrant hand-dyed wool yarn tapestry, measuring 71 by 41 inches, features a grid-like pattern of rectangles in black, red, green, blue, yellow and white, crafted by Sarah Rosalena.

Sarah Rosalena, Exit Grid Spectra, Hand dyed wool yarn, 71 x 41 inches, 2023.

© Sarah Rosalena, photo © Museum Associates/LACMA, photo credit: Ian Byers-Gamber.

In short, words can have a gradient of value, even in the sciences. Rosalena physicalizes this fraught dance between hard data and soft work. The large swath of hand-dyed rainbow wool yarn that is "Exit Grid Spectra" (2023) hangs just across from a dormant forklift, painted Tonka Truck yellow and bearing the name “Big Joe.” It’s a matter of perspective, which is itself a shifting concept.

Displaying textiles as information underscores how words like “craft” and “objectivity” have connotations that are at odds with one another. The textiles in "Standard Candle" show the hands of the artist at odds with the perfection of the grid.  If the clean lines of the loom carry the promise of standard output, the soft defects of cloth carry the human reality of the labor that has passed through it. It’s hard to tell if certain irregularities of the weavings correspond to representation of the source material, or if they’re simply byproducts of the craft. The yawning expanse of black weft in the otherwise colorful "VAR!" (2023) implies fidelity to a black hole as seen on one of the photoplates on display. Others stand proudly, if inscrutably, in their imperfection. I find myself wanting to compare the textiles to their photoplate source materials—to the “originals,” so to speak—but of course, the soft fuzz of the cloths hanging as they are under stark light bulbs, as if under interrogation, beg the question: What constitutes originality? What is the source of the knowledge in question?
To that end is Rosalena’s suite of small beaded works, "Expanding Axis" (2022), each only four by six inches and laid out on a lightbox. Funny enough, mimicking their source photographs in scale and presentation only draws attention to how much a bead is neither a pixel, nor a dot of emulsion. The value of the bead may be subjective, but its presence is not up for interpretation. It is irreproachably there.

Ten rectangular glass bead tapestries, each sized at 4 by 6 inches, are arranged on a luminescent white LED panel. The intricate designs on the tapestries gleam under the bright light.

Sarah Rosalena, Expanding Axis, Glass beads, thread, 10 works, 4 x 6 inches each, 2022.

© Sarah Rosalena, photo © Museum Associates/LACMA, photo credit: Ian Byers-Gamber.

So then, a standard candle is a body whose light is known. There is light as scientific data, broken into various relative categories, and then there is light, a little woo-woo term for appreciating someone’s value: "Thank you for sharing your light." In Los Angeles, where the woo-woo is so ubiquitous as to be atmospheric, ideas about value and light are often mixed up with softer forms of lip service, often to ill effect. Here is where science and spirituality meet, and not necessarily on generous terms. To illustrate, a snippet of conversation I overheard between two men exiting the Hooker telescope:

—I like astronomy until some girl tries to tell me we’re not compatible because of it.

—Dude, that's astrology.

—[laughing] Same difference!

Although standard candles generally refer to extant celestial bodies, when black holes merge, the gravitational pull is so strong it produces observable waves that can also be used to measure space. Here is where Rosalena works and writes and weaves—the gaps of history, being made known, will make us know ourselves.

Art + Technology Lab is part of The Hyundai Project: Art + Technology at LACMA, a joint initiative exploring the convergence of art and technology. Read Samantha Culp’s essay about the history of the program here.

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