INTERVIEW: HELEN SCHELL | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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Image: Black Rocket Engine, 160cm x 180cm, 2020 by Helen Schell

Who hasn’t gazed out into space and wondered what it would be like to walk amongst the stars? Sunderland-based artist Helen Schell has probably thought about it more than most. Her latest exhibition at Newcastle’s Vane Gallery, Human Spaceship: Off Balance, explores the bewildering effect zero gravity has on our senses and perceptions.

Off Balance promises to be a bewildering experience. Filled with optical illusions and bright, geometric wonders, Helen hopes to give the viewer a sense of the confusing nature of space flight. “My work isn’t really illustrative, it’s more a feeling.” Helen explains. “Art is about reaching beyond an ordinary existence while space travel poses us an endless series of questions. I love that art and science have this type of mystery about them.”

Helen is an artist who takes her science very seriously; she has spent more than a decade working on art/science collaborations with leading scientists, met space shuttle astronauts and created artworks for several leading universities. “I’m really interested in the humanity of space flight and what it is actually like to be a human travelling in space.” Her interest in this area took her to the Johnson Space Centre where she saw future astronauts training underwater in conditions similar to those they might experience in space.

This attention to the real science of space flight has allowed Helen to be inspired by insights you just wouldn’t think of otherwise. For example, she tells me that in zero gravity your eyesight actually changes. “Your spinal fluid rises through your body and puts pressure on your optical nerve. This means that many astronauts become long-sighted in space.” Yuck. She continues: “I really love science fiction, but to me science fact is more interesting.”

Art is about reaching beyond an ordinary existence while space travel poses us an endless series of questions. I love that art and science have this type of mystery about them

It’s these oddities that we don’t think of that has Helen convinced about art’s central role in space exploration. “When people talk about living on the dark side of the moon, they don’t realise that it is completely colourless,” she tells me. “You can’t judge distances correctly because of the different way the horizon works up there. Art can help with that, adding colour so that you can identify equipment and places.” Artists also play a different role, leading the way in imagining new possibilities. “Going into space is such an epic undertaking, we’re going to need people with different ways of thinking to help us get there.”

That idea of drawing new people into the endeavour of space travel is central to Helen’s practice. She is a big believer in the power of art to educate and recently won the Sir Arthur C Clarke Award for Outreach for her contribution to space exploration. “Children often don’t think of science in terms of numbers, they see it terms of art,” she says. “It’s crazy that children don’t engage with the subject more.” After all, as Helen points out, it’s them who will grow up in this new dawn of space travel.

While all this talk of rising spinal fluid has put me off travelling into space, it’s certainly made me want to go and see her exhibition.

Helen Schell’s The Human Spaceship: Off Balance is at Vane Gallery, Newcastle from Wednesday 7th-Saturday 31st October

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