Lowry Burgess

Lowry Burgess is an internationally renowned conceptual and environmental artist and educator. He is a professor at Carnegie Mellon University where he is a Distinguished Fellow in the STUDIO for Creative Inquiry. For 27 years he has been a Fellow, Senior Consultant and Advisor at the Center for Advanced Visual Studies at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, Massachusetts where he created and directed large collaborative projects and festivals in the US and Europe. Presently, he is part of a team of scientists, engineers, and artists that make up one of the official teams, Astrobotic, aiming for the Google Lunar X Prize. Astrobotic Technology Inc. is a Pittsburgh based company that delivers affordable space robotic products, services, and missions for emerging commercial space markets. Astrobotic was spun out of Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute in 2008.

Since 1966, Lowry Burgess has been involved in large ongoing artwork entitled Quiet Axis. This project incorporates eight major points that have been developed around the major features of the planet, expanding to the outer atmosphere. Having an extended involvement with art developed upon space exploration, his 1989 piece entitled Boundless Cubic Lunar Aperture was the first non-scientific sanctioned payload launched into outer space by NASA. It included holograms and cubes made from all the elements known to science and water samples from all of the world’s rivers. The Quiet Axis is a visionary realignment of the earth and heavens so that new relationships may be ordered to establish a new framework for consciousness.

Bringing Boundless Cubic Lunar Aperture to fruition was a complex process for Burgess. Until that time, artists who wanted to take work into space needed to couch the motivation as having a scientific purpose. However, Burgess wanted his to fly as an official artwork. NASA stipulated scientific worth as the ruling factor for space shuttle programs. The rules for the space shuttle missions at the time did not include non-scientific payload policies and non-scientific personnel policies so Burgess worked with NASA from the late 1970s until 1984 to change its policies to allow shuttles to carry non-scientific payloads. Rather than misattribute his work as science, or redefine that project to fit the requirements of NASA’s existing program, he worked with them on their policies to change the rules to include non-scientific payloads. Out of 200 applications, his artwork was selected because, unlike the others, the whole concept of the work required being in space. He did not create something in a studio and send it into orbit. NASA understood that the work could not be done except by taking it into space. It was scheduled to fly in 1986 on the Challenger, but then it exploded soon after liftoff. NASA was hesitant after this incident and postponed sending his work. Eventually, it flew on the Discovery shuttle in 1989. It was a first, only non-scientific payload launched under the new policies. The form and symbolism of the work are very complex. According to Burgess, “It’s about the release of everything and nothing.” It was a cube inside a 6-pound, 5-inch cube of bronze-tinted transparent glass. When exposed to bright light, holograms of text appeared off two of its surfaces.

He gathered water from 18 of the world’s best-known rivers including the Mississippi, Amazon, Yaw-tze and Nile, and other water sources such as glaciers, geysers, ponds and wells and distilled them in the Dead Sea. He them worked with chemists to add traces of all the elements in the periodic table. This was placed in a hermetically sealed glass cube. The innermost cube was a strong vacuum lined with holograms of nothing, or six exposed but blank glass plates, which floats in the water in the outer cube. The “everything” surrounds the “nothing.” The two cubes referred to each other of course, by inverting each others’ nesting order.

The piece orbited the Earth over 90 times. When the Boundless Cubic Lunar Aperture came back to Earth, it was placed inside a petrified sycamore tree from the Grand Canyon and was embedded in a 400- million-year-old stone outcrop on the grounds of the DeCordova Museum near Walden Pond in Massachusetts where it hovers in a permanent magnetic field with a glass plate on top. He wanted the work to be close to Walden Pond because of the resonance with Thoreau. The work is purposefully not marked at the DeCordova. Two poems are part of the holograms. The top poem, the everything poem, is about light. The bottom one, the nothing poem, is about darkness. The poetry and the piece are about where darkness and light are one eternal presence, a profound sense of connection, the fusion of opposites, a deep inward and outward truth or inspiration linked.

Burgess chose to do the space art for political reasons. He says, “I think it is a positive work coming out of a time (my work started in the 1960s) when socially and politically things were desperate.” The question of what the U.S. was doing in Vietnam was very problematic for him; wondering what his role was and what he was doing on Earth. These feelings prompted his movement into art and space in order to position himself in the cosmos. In space, with zero gravity, weightlessness has an effect on the mind. Linear thinking does not exist any more because what is the first, second and third object without gravity? Perceptions of concepts like “inside” and “outside” change. The zero-gravity experience forces that redefinition on the artist.

Burgess’ artworks have been exhibited at SETI in Mountain View, CA., the Festival of Art Outsiders, and the CNES, the French Space Agency in Paris, as well as a solo exhibition at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh and with his newly formed “Deep Space Signaling Group” in an artwork involving the International Space Station and NASA in April 2008. He continues work on new aspects of his lifework, the “Quiet Axis.” After the destruction of the Buddhas in Bamiyan, Afghanistan in 2001, he authored the “Toronto Manifesto, The Right to Human Memory” that received worldwide endorsement. One of the provisions of the Manifesto has led to the creation of a new global value/incentive for the protection of cultural sites throughout the world. This new value/incentive is in the process being implemented by UNESCO and the World Bank.

Short video documentary on past and current work by Lowry Burgess:

go to top of page

• left: Boundless Cubic Lunar Aperture, 1989, after its return from space, embedded in a 400- million-year-old stone outcrop on the grounds of the DeCordova Museum near Walden Pond in Massachusetts where it hovers in a permanent magnetic field with a glass plate on top.  Courtesy of the artist.

• Hologram from Boundless Cubic Lunar Aperture, 1989. Still image from video documentary, Space Artist: Extended Cut. Courtesy of the artist.

• Artist holding iron “seed” from “Moments In The Infinite Absolute” flown with Zero Gravity Corporation, 2006. Still image from video documentary, Space Artist: Extended Cut. Courtesy of the artist.

• Lowry Burgess, heading a group of artists to create projects for Astrobotic, which is one of the official teams competing for the Google X Lunar Prize. Still image from video documentary, Space Artist: Extended Cut. Courtesy of the artist and Astrobotic, Inc.