Oh, Be a Fine Girl/Guy, Kiss Me!

17 May - 29 June 2024



A typical day of work for Annie Jump Cannon at the Harvard Observatory in the late 1890s would begin before sunrise. When weather permitted and it was still dark, she did what had been seen as man’s work: she used a telescope to check on variable stars, noting the date and hour of each magnitude appraisal she made. Daylight hours found her at a desk alongside the other women in the computing room, analysing photographic glass plates. She would write numbers to all the spectra on a plate, then call out each number and also her judgement of its spectral type to a female colleague, who recorded everything. By 1901, Cannon’s star classification system, which simplified two earlier schemes, was already published. Astronomers still use it today: OBAFGKM, each letter designating a class of stars based on their temperature. A wag at Princeton later came up with the mnemonic “Oh, Be a Fine Girl, Kiss Me!”.

Mihai Plătică develops his exhibition starting from the inspiring legacy of Cannon and the other scientists at Harvard Observatory who gave us the first full image of the visible Universe. This is a story about women hired as mere “human computers”, but who “even before they won the right to vote, made contributions of such significance that their names gained honoured places in the history of astronomy”, as Dava Sobel writes in The Glass Universe. The Hidden Story of the Women Who Took the Measure of the Stars [1]. It is a story as well about astronomers who adopted photography as an essential tool of their trade: the Harvard Observatory’s Astronomical Photographic Glass Plate Collection contains over 550,000 glass plate negatives and spectral images made between the 1880s and the 1980s. Above all, it is a story about the systematic study of the sky on a 100-year timescale, about painstaking, tenacious, ingenious work that brings about a whole new understanding of the world through millions of pieces of information.

With their stars fixed in place like tiny insects trapped in amber, a few works in the exhibition – the prism-shaped Glass Plate Universe and the series of seven photogravures titled Stellar Plate, that make use of the now digitized collection of glass plates at Harvard – feel like a direct homage to the stars’ decoders. These are interspersed with five groups of photographs and objects revolving around spectroscopy, birefringence, full-spectrum photography, photoelasticity, and light-reflecting landscapes, respectively. Light, in fact, is the common thread running through Mihai Plătică’s exhibition, his second at Gaep. Having set the mood with detailed images of the sky, the artist takes us on a themed journey: light is separated into its component colours with a diffraction grating (spectroscopy) or into two unequally refracted rays with a transparent calcite (birefringence/double refraction); the entire spectrum of light, from infrared to ultraviolet, is captured on camera (full-spectrum photography); polarized light is used to observe the internal strains developed in photoelastic materials subjected to pressure (photoelasticity); and light is reflected by landscapes that act like mirrors.

Plătică builds the exhibition as a distinctive environment with its own engrossing atmosphere. Our eyes are drawn to landscapes with alien rainbow effects (Photoelastic Stress Glass Plate Mountain) and to intriguing pairings of abstract and landscape images with a vintage vibe (Photoelastic Parameter Panorama). When water becomes sky and vice versa (Reversed Perspective) or when hills and stretches of water appear doubled (Birefringent Sunstone Landscape), the accuracy of our perception is questioned. Subtle chromatic transitions from blue to orange (Gravity’s Rainbow Landscape) and arresting bursts of red and violet (Full Spectrum Nature and Polychromatic Horizon) remind us of the sequence OBAFGKM, in which the hottest stars are blue, and the coolest – red. A spirit of exploration permeates this new body of work. For many images, while continuing to use film and early digital cameras, Plătică employs additional instruments including optical calcites, diffraction gratings, polarizing and full-spectrum filters. Just as stargazers at Harvard embraced photography to advance their data collection, the artist tries out various optical devices to get closer to the true nature of things by making the invisible visible.

An artistic sensibility doubled by an analytical mind sets Mihai Plătică’s visual language apart. His persistent endeavour of examining both the beauty and the complexity of the world around us can be traced throughout the 39 works, all new, that make up the exhibition. From the photographic maps of sky, the X-rays of resin objects and glass negatives, and the images that destabilize our perception, to the large object in the central area of the exhibition space, inspired by a fictional “slow glass” through which light takes a year to pass, Oh, Be a Fine Girl/Guy, Kiss Me! encapsulates a methodical attempt at expanding our vision beyond the naked eye and our curiosity beyond the familiar.

[1] Published by 4th Estate, London, 2016