Artist Interview: Deniz Sözen on Moon Museum for MoonFest

Fri 19 July 2019
Credit: Moon Museum, Deniz Sözen & Collaborators 2019

As part of MoonFest – a nine-day festival celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing at Midlands Arts Centre – Birmingham-based artist Deniz Sözen has collaborated with community groups across the city to produce a tiny Moon Museum, comprised of six brand new pieces of Space Art.

The brainchild of Little Earthquake, MoonFest captures, commissions and celebrates local responses to the iconic global event of the Apollo 11 mission, created in partnership with MAC and The University of Birmingham. Moon Museum, showing in the Hexagon Theatre at MAC from Fri 19 – Sun 21 July, is based on the 1969 tale surrounding six miniature works of art created by prominent artists, that were smuggled onto a rocket, which then landed on the moon.

Deniz Sözen reveals the story behind the work… 

What was it about the tiny Moon Museum story that first inspired you, and why did you want to recreate this piece of history for MoonFest?

I first learnt about the original Moon Museum visiting the Robert Rauschenberg exhibition at the Tate (2016/17). As an artist, I find the idea of imagining art travelling to the Moon (and beyond) very intriguing. Therefore, I was incredibly excited when I was invited to reimagine a contemporary version of the Moon Museum for the MoonFest, curated by Little Earthquake. In our collaboration with six diverse community groups in Birmingham, I was curious to see how different groups would relate to the earth’s and us earthlings’ relation to the Moon and how we might be able to creatively explore the many legends and/or personal memories surrounding the Apollo 11 Moon landing. It was an exciting challenge to imagine ways to translate these collaborative processes into original visual imagery in order to create six miniature artworks which make up the Moon Museum.

How would you describe MoonFest for those that haven’t yet heard about it, and why should audiences come to MAC to experience the programme?

Little Earthquake’s commandment “Thou Shalt Not Bore” strongly resonates with my artistic practice: my aim as an artist is to move and inspire people. I would say that MoonFest is entirely an embodiment of this ethos: there is an incredible range of exciting Moon-inspired activities, screenings and performance events – suitable for space geeks, cinephiles, gourmands, art and theatre-lovers, adults, families, teenagers, parents, grandparents and children. It’s a unique and imaginative festival and once-in-lifetime opportunity to celebrate our shared planetary history in unexpected, fun and creative ways. Not to be missed!

What can visitors to the Moon Museum expect to see?

Inspired by conversations with participants and responding to ideas developed in collaborative workshops with six diverse community groups across Birmingham, my artistic aim was to develop a new and more inclusive version of a miniature ‘museum’ on the Moon. Like the original Moon Museum, the resulting artwork is presented on a tiny ceramic tile, the size of a micro sim card, which I produced in the MAC’s pottery studio.

The six designs on the tiny porcelain panel have been applied using ceramic decal techniques and reflect each group’s ideas, emphasising the idea of unity, hospitality and togetherness as opposed to nationalistic tendencies, colonialism and cultural segregation. An ancient space turtle is flying through space and time, waving at friendly green aliens who enact a welcoming dance around a human embryo on the Moon – dreaming of a new trans-galactic sign language which is made up of human foot- and fingerprints in planet-blue; a rainbow-coloured cardiogram translates the sound of our heartbeat into cosmic sound waves, while a ‘magic Moon carpet’ transforms into a space rocket; and with tremendous courage a Chinese Moon rabbit makes a giant leap from the Earth to the Moon to accompany the goddess Chang’e, who is longing for love and home.

Credit: Original Moon Museum of 1969 (Tampa Museum of Art)

As a Birmingham-based creative, was it important to you to work with local communities to produce new pieces of Space Art?

It’s now exactly 50 years ago that the original Moon Museum – a tiny ceramic tile depicting artworks of six famous American artists – was allegedly smuggled to the Moon. What I find troublesome about the 1969 version of the Moon Museum is its lack of diversity: the artists who were invited to contribute their artworks to the world’s first piece of Space Art were exclusively male, white and North-American. Aiming to be more inclusive, our version of the Moon Museum in 2019 has taken a different approach. I have been fortunate to encounter a variety of perspectives in collaboration with the participants of the creative workshops, ranging from the ages of 5 to 65+ and of differing languages, ethnicities, genders and abilities. Alongside of my own research, it is their ideas and contributions that have inspired the current version of the Moon Museum. Birmingham is an incredibly diverse city and I hope that this diversity of perspectives and the idea of inter- or rather trans-galactic connectedness is reflected in the resulting artwork.   

What does the Apollo 11 Moon landing mean to you, and why do you feel it’s important to commemorate this event in the present time?

Unfortunately, I was not yet living on our planet (at least not in my current shape) at the time of the Apollo 11 Moon landing in 1969. Yet, the tale of the Moon landing has been relayed to me from early age. Both my parents witnessed the Moon landing as teenagers living on two different continents: both my Dad, who at the time was still living in a small village in Turkey, and my Mum who was in Austria, were following the live transmissions of the Moon landing via the radio. I love to imagine my Dad standing outside at night in the middle of nowhere staring at the Moon (excited to see the astronauts and the space rocket up there), while pressing the radio onto his ear.

I personally think that it’s important to look back, remember and commemorate in order to learn from history and imagine better ways to move forward. In our troubled times it is crucial to re-inscribe the notion of belonging: to remember that we all belong to the Earth, this beautiful blue planet – yet the planet does not belong us. In this respect, the image of our planet Earth from afar is a potent visual memory. Activating this image in my mind’s eye, I dare to hope that one day we earthlings will come to appreciate that we are all planetary beings and interconnected in trans-galactic ways.

Moon Museum is a free event, open to all ages, and will be showing in the Hexagon Theatre at MAC as part of MoonFest from Fri 19 – Sun 21 July. Discover the story behind each of the six mini masterpieces, and view the tiny artwork through our special Moon Magnifier.

Join artists Deniz Sözen and Rochi Rampal for a conversation about the creation of Moon Museum and Moon Memories on Sun 21 July at 4pm (free event, no booking required).