Light / Dark mode

Lucy in the Sky with Debris: Where Beauty and Destruction Collide

In the darkened space of the gallery hangs a delicate assemblage of silver shards. Pinpricks of light issue from the ends of thin metal rods, bouncing off the sleek, shiny surfaces of metallic fragments. Like stars in the night sky, the mobile shimmers, blinking in and out of visibility. 

Standing before Isabella Ong’s Errant Stars in Objectifs’s Lower Galleries, I find myself slipping into a state of contemplation. There’s a hushed awe in the air as the other visitors mill around the space at a contemplative distance, occasionally going up close to inspect the workings of the circuit.

Curated by Seet Yun Teng, Ong’s exhibition—of which Errant Stars is a part—emerges from an ongoing, multidisciplinary research and art project. While its title Lucy in the Sky with Debris riffs off the popular Beatles song, the show has less to do with psychedelic visions, and more to do with bringing the invisible to light. 

A sky full of …

Lucy in the Sky with Debris grew out of Ong’s encounter with the issue of space debris in a 2019 New Yorker article. The article recounts the perils faced by astronauts on the International Space Station, as they struggled to manoeuvre their way out of fatal collisions with hunks of space debris.

“Dead satellites, spent rocket stages, and fragments from collisions circle the Earth in rings of debris, where even the smallest paint chip, travelling at astonishing speeds in zero-gravity, bears destructive capabilities,” reads the exhibition publication.

A 0.5mm pit created by micro debris impact in the Solar Maximum Mission Satellite. Image via NASA.

Thanks to the Space Race, militarisation, big tech, and the widespread adoption of satellite technology, the sky is filled not just with stars, but also with man-made machines and their shards. This puts at stake much of the infrastructure that we rely on—mobile communications, Internet access, day-to-day navigation, weather and climate monitoring, business and finance, and military defense. 

But it also presents opportunities for rethinking our relationships to the wider universe. Exploring what it means to see and represent the cosmos, Ong and Seet’s project affirms humankind’s capacity to imagine the world anew, even as we confront the consequences of our civilisational hubris. 

Making visible

In the room adjacent to Ong’s installation is an image of the Hubble Space Telescope. Holes of different sizes mark where fast-moving space debris cored through the telescope’s surface. 

Wide Field Planetary Camera II (WFPC 2) from Hubble Space Telescope, installed in 1993 and removed during servicing in 2009 with cored holes marking impact craters from space debris. Image via National Air and Space Museum, USA.

This photograph is just one artefact amid the abundant research materials presented. There are photos of streaking meteors and the largest radio telescope in the world, astronomical diagrams, interviews with a space archaeologist and a stellar astronomer, books, a hefty research file, and even scale models illustrating different sizes of space debris. 

Installation view of the research room in Objectifs Lower Gallery 1. Images by author unless stated otherwise.

These materials are divided into three segments. “Explosions in the Sky” looks at the impact and unpredictability of space debris collisions. “Streaks in the Sky” considers how light reflecting off the shiny surfaces of satellites interferes with astronomical observation. “Patterns in the Sky” reflects on how charting the stars has always been fundamental to human civilisation—be it as a symbolic means of understanding the universe, or as a practical tool for navigation or time-tracking. 

While the discourse of science and technology dominates discussions about space debris, the breadth of Ong and Seet’s research reminds us that we can look at this planetary issue from a myriad of other perspectives, be they historical, literary, cultural, cartographical, or philosophical. Through the prism of artistic research and practice, Lucy in the Sky with Debris makes visible a reality that would otherwise remain invisible, distant, and disconnected from our everyday lives.

Mapping the cosmos

The Errant Stars installation exemplifies this multidisciplinary approach: while the design of the twinkling mobiles may seem to have been determined by artistic whim, the installation in fact encodes multiple sets of astronomical data. 

Consisting of three separate mobiles, the installation represents three major space debris events: the intentional destruction of Chinese satellite Fengyun-1C in an anti-satellite missile test in 2007; the accidental collision between the commercial satellite Iridium 33 and the derelict Russian military Kosmos 2251 in 2009; and the failed dispersal of nearly half a million copper “needles” released as part of a Cold War plan (Project West Ford) to improve military communications

To avoid further collisions, space scientists and engineers have created databases cataloguing the position, angle, and speed of space debris objects. Drawing on this open-access orbital data, Ong mapped out the paths of specific fragments, translating them into criss-crossing wires which stretch across circular frames. 

Detail of Isabella Ong, “Errant Stars” (2024), suspended mobiles composed of LEDs, stainless steel bars, connectors, cut plates, cables, conductive thread, and custom circuitry.

From these frames hang laser-cut metal sheets, each punctured by holes that recall the damage suffered by the Hubble Space Telescope and other satellites. At the same time, the holes mirror the visual language of punch-cards, which were once used as a data storage medium—specifically, in IBM machines, once used by NASA to capture data. 

The metal fragments also serve as conductors: LED-lights blink on each time one touches a hanging metal rod, completing an electrical circuit. As the flashes of illumination intimate instances of contact and collision, Errant Stars speaks to the violence of space debris events.

Misrepresentations and distortions

Official IAU constellation boundaries. Image via NASA / Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio.

The shapes of these metal fragments also correspond to official constellation boundaries, as defined by the Paris-based International Astronomical Union (IAU) in 1922. A strangely rigid, orthogonal map of these constellation boundaries is on view in the research space. 

But in reality, objects in space don’t exist on a flat plane. If we were to visualise them more accurately, they’d probably resemble what curator Seet Yun Teng describes as a “cosmic durian” in her essay “A Fragment, Moving in a Line, Creating a Hole.” 

A visualisation of Fengyun 1C debris orbits by Rogue Space Systems, captured on 11 January 2024.

During an artist talk, Ong and Seet shared a slide by astronomer John Kennewell that had shaped much of their thinking about the project. Displayed against a densely-packed image of rocks flying through space, in all caps, were the words: “SOMETIMES MISREPRESENTATIONS OR DISTORTIONS ARE NECESSARY TO GET PEOPLE TO THINK ABOUT VARIOUS ISSUES.”

To what extent do misrepresentations shape our views of outer space? And might recognising these deliberate, necessary distortions prompt us to reflect on our relationship with the cosmos? By juxtaposing different and seemingly incommensurable representations of space, Ong and Seet also reveal how reality is mediated by systems of representation.

Different visions of the same sky

Star charts made by different civilisations in the research room.

I particularly enjoyed Ong and Seet’s exploration of star charts and cosmic mythology across Western and non-Western cultures in the exhibition segment “Patterns in the Sky”. Among the research materials displayed is a reproduction of the world’s oldest known astronomical atlas, the Dunhuang star chart, which dates to the Tang dynasty (618–907 CE). 

The Dark Emu. Image via Karlie Noon and Krystal De Napoli’s “First Knowledges Astronomy: Sky Country” (Australia: Thames and Hudson, 2022).

Next to it is a visualisation of the Dark Emu, a constellation known to the Wiradjuri people and other Aboriginal communities in Australia. Whereas the zodical constellations that we’re familiar with (Aries, Taurus, Gemini, and so on) are mapped by lines between stars, the body of the Emu is formed by the dark dust lanes of the Milky Way. For the Wiradjuri people (among others), the constellation’s position in the sky indicates the best season for collecting emu eggs. 

Alongside the project’s catalogue of star stories from various cultures around the world, the inclusion of these maps is an apt reminder that no one should have a monopoly over the visual frameworks that we rely on to make sense of the universe. 

Who’s to say that numerical data sheets, graphs, charts, and telescope photos are truer and more significant to humankind than, for instance, early constellation maps or even Ong’s installation? We make different mental maps of the universe for different reasons—and perhaps that’s the greatest testament to our capacity for wonder and curiosity. 

Ong’s and Seet’s curiosity threads through the show, and beyond. It’s palpable in the care and attention that they have paid to every aspect of the exhibition, from the considered curation and display of research materials, down to silver wall labels which tie together the exhibition design. 

The exhibition publication and the project website similarly bear witness to their sustained, thoughtful engagement, paying equal attention to the granular details (countless space-related abbreviations, historical dates, and technical terms) and the big picture (the fate of human civilization). 

Images from Ong’s research trip are displayed on the walls.

Ong and Seet are also excellent writers. I especially enjoyed Ong’s essay “To Draw a Line,” which documents her journey to the remote deserts of Western Australia where the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA) radio telescope is located.

Her descriptions of the land (“a relentless, hypnotic red”) and her skilful use of metaphors verge on the poetic, transforming what could easily be a dry, data-driven account of a faraway problem into an intimate, almost spiritual pilgrimage of looking up at the night sky. 

Closing thoughts

During my visit, Seet recalled a question that she had received more than once over the course of introducing her project to new audiences: Is Lucy in the Sky with Debris about beauty, or destruction? As artists are wont to do, Seet tells me that it isn’t an either-or binary. Holding beauty and destruction in dialectical tension, the project makes space for both to coexist. 

Research materials on display in the “Streaks in the Sky” segment.

I couldn’t help but marvel, for instance, at long-exposure photographs streaked with white lines, which are really traces of space debris hurtling through the darkness at alarming speeds. Lucy in the Sky with Debris transforms the same photos that astronomers consider “contaminated” (because the streaks obscure planets and stars) into points of departure for questions about civilisation, art, and the universe. 

And that’s what makes the exhibition both strong and sensitive. Even as it confronts the technological developments and less-than-noble exercises of power that have led to the pollution of outer space, Lucy in the Sky with Debris recognises that returning to a blank slate is no longer possible. 

In space, as on Earth, a clean, untouched natural environment exists only in memory and fiction. Our actions have irrevocably altered the planet and its surroundings, and we need to be brave enough to deal with their consequences. Learning, listening, and making are means of keeping our eyes open to other ways of being in this changed, volatile, but no less precious world. As the artist puts it:

“I draw these lines as an act of renewal and making, to resist this narrative of destruction imposed on us by the few in charge — the few launching both the satellites, and the missiles that destroy them. The lines I draw are straight lines, human-made. But remember, we have constructed threads and nets and weaves out of lines, and have made these things beautiful.” 


Lucy in the Sky with Debris is on view at Objectifs from 4–28 April 2024. Visit the project website here.

Header image: Detail of Errant Stars.

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