Oliver Jeffers on bringing solar system down to Earth for Our Place in Space
David Roy speaks to Belfast-bred artist and children's author Oliver Jeffers about creating Our Place in Space, a 10km-long sculpture trail depicting our solar system in scale form which will be unveiled in Derry later this month...
"THIS project is not a scale model of Earth's place in the solar system," explains Oliver Jeffers, "it's a scale model of humanity's place within the solar system."
The Australian-born, Belfast-raised artist and children's author is talking to me about Our Place in Space, perhaps his most ambitious project to date: a 10km-long scale model of our solar system that will appear in Derry later this month as part of the Unboxed: Creativity in the UK festival.
Jeffers (45) continues: "In my picture books, I've always been interested in scale and scope and perspective. When my son was born, I made Here We Are: Notes For Living on Planet Earth and on the back cover of that book, it shows Earth where 'all the people live here' and the Moon where 'no-one lives here'.
"Even though we know scientifically that the Earth revolves around the Sun and the Sun revolves around the Milky Way, Earth is also still the 'centre' of our universe because it's the only place where there are stories told and where meaning is applied.
"We are alone in the universe, but because this is the only place where anybody lives and the only place where people tell stories, it's the least lonely place in the universe."
Space and how it can fuel our imaginations features in several of Jeffers' best-selling, award-winning picturebooks, from his beloved 2004 debut How To Catch A Star and 2007's The Way Back Home to the aforementioned Here We Are: Notes For Living on Planet Earth (2017). It also plays a central role in the forthcoming Meanwhile, Back on Earth: A Cosmic View on Conflict, which has been inspired by Jeffers' work on Our Place in Space – more about which in just a moment.
The Brooklyn-based artist has also experimented with the cosmos in sculpture form before: his 2019 work The Moon, the Earth and Us comprised two large sculptures representing Earth and the Moon and rendered in a scale which accurately depicted their true size and distance from one another.
On his scale model of Earth, the names of every country were replaced by the simple phrase "People Live Here".
Installed in New York City's High Line park and spanning an entire city block, Jeffers described it as "a poetic exploration of the Overview Effect – a cognitive shift in perspective and awareness achieved after viewing the Earth, our home, from a distance vast enough to see it in its entirety".
Produced in association with Derry's Nerve Centre collective and with guidance from Professor Stephen Smartt from the Astrophysics Research Centre at Queen's University Belfast, Our Place in Space finds the artist further expanding and expounding on these themes.
"We were half way through a trip around the world when Covid hit," explains Jeffers of how he, his wife and their two young children scrambled home from Japan to Belfast at the start of the pandemic in order to be closer to his father.
"That was when the Nerve Centre approached me [about participating in Unboxed]. Through meetings with Big Motive, Professor Stephen Smartt, Taunt Animation, the Nerve Centre and various other people, we realised that Northern Ireland is uniquely placed to talk about the dangers of the 'us and them' mentality.
"What's happening globally now is a tried and tested dance that Northern Ireland has been doing for some time: it's far too easy to draw trench lines and blame somebody else for your frustrations.
"Through no fault of our own, humanity has become a species that prioritises being right over being better. And the sad reality of that is, by you being right it means somebody else has to be wrong.
"So Our Place in Space is about trying to apply the perspective of time and distance to problems that seem all-consuming right now – but which, once you move away from them, kind of become a poignant waste of energy and emotion."
As Jeffers explains, he actually spoke to real astronauts about how breaking Earth's bounds had altered their perspectives as part of his research.
"Nicole Stott is a retired NASA astronaut and she used an analogy which I think is brilliant," he tells me.
"She said that we have to somehow switch our global mentality away from thinking of ourselves as passengers on this planet to being crew members – because there's a big difference.
"Everybody needs to know that they can contribute something that is valued, and that they matter."
Work will get underway on creating the 10km-long sculpture trail in the next couple of weeks, with Jeffers on-hand to supervise the creation of each installation. Our Place In Space will make its debut on the banks of the Foyle in Derry before touring to Divis and Black Mountain in Belfast, Cambridge in England and then returning to the north at the Ulster Transport Museum and North Down Coastal Path.
Jeffers will also host Earth Day: In Conversation with Oliver Jeffers and guests at Derry's Guildhall, part of a programme of satellite events orbiting Our Place in Space which will also include a Guinness World Record attempt to assemble 'the most people in one place dressed as astronauts' ("lots of tinfoil – and white gloves" are Jeffers' two top tips for anyone who fancies taking part).
"Each planet will have its own contemporary art sculpture, an arch which houses the planet with a giant illuminated planet name and arrow above it," he explains of the Our Place in Space sculpture trail, which can be explored with the help of an interactive smartphone app.
"Each one is a strong, eye-catching visual spectacle, so you'll always be able to see next planet along from there and make that mental leap. There will be an app element too, which will show some pretty incredible things. For example, at the scale we're working at, normal walking speed is twice the speed of light.
"But this is not a science project: it's an art project that has humanity at its core, so once we've passed Earth and we're heading out to Jupiter and Neptune, we're constantly bringing things back to Earth in some way and trying to gain that added perspective on human events.
"At any point along the trail, you can hit this button [on the app] that says 'Meanwhile, Back on Earth' and it will tell you things like how long it would take to drive to where you are in a car travelling at 50mph and what was happening on Earth that long ago – and it's always some territorial dispute."
Indeed, as well as putting the finishing touches to the Our Place in Space sculptures, Jeffers is also currently hard at work finalising his next picturebook: due for publication in October, Meanwhile, Back on Earth: A Cosmic View on Conflict finds a father taking his children on an adventure into space which involves looking back at Earth and examining various human conflicts since the beginning of time.
"I'm currently finishing the art for that too, so as usual I've bitten off more than I can chew," he tells me.
"But I've genuinely been invigorated by both these projects and how they fit together."
With his picturebooks having captured the imaginations of countless young and not-so-young readers over the past 18 years – "I'm now being approached by art college graduates who grew up on my books," he grumbles – the artist and author is determined that Our Place in Space should resonate with all age groups.
"I've realised that, if you can speak simply enough about anything, you can talk to both young children and misplaced adults alike," Jeffers explains.
His official description of this cosmic sculpture trail reads: "Wouldn't squabbles look stupid from Saturn? Wouldn't violence seem senseless from Venus? Forget about 'us and them' – from the perspective of Pluto, it's just us."
That definitely makes sense, no matter how old you are – or what planet you're from/on.