Thursday, 22 August 2013

Black Drops From Tahiti

Katherine, one of the volunteers assisting with practical and research tasks in the Conserving Curiosities Project, reports on a recent exhibition in Oxford that references the voyages of Captain Cook.

Map of Tahiti by Lieut. J Cook, showing Point Venus at the top (image from the David Rumsey Map Collection)

Simon Starling’s film 'Black Drop' documents the scientific attempts to accurately record the Transit of the Venus through the past 400 years. This astronomical event, where the planet Venus passes across the disc of the sun, only happens twice every century (on a cycle just over one hundred years), with a short interval of just eight years between the first and second transit. The most recent transits were in 2004 and 2012. Starling was commissioned by Modern Art Oxford and Oxford University to record the transit in 2012 in the artist’s chosen medium of 35mm film, from the historic observation point of Hawaii. His film and two new sculptural works, Venus Mirrors (05/06/2012, Hawaii & Tahiti (Inverted)) have been exhibited at Modern Art Oxford over the summer.

By traveling to the Pacific to accurately record the planet’s movement across the sun, Starling was following in the footsteps of Captain Cook, who, as a newly appointed Lieutenant, commanded the HM Bark Endeavour on the Royal Society’s expedition to record the Venus transit of 1769. This was the year that the astronomer Jeremiah Horrocks had mathematically predicted the phenomena would occur again from his observations in the previous century. Accurate measurements of the time of the transit were desired for use in calculating the distance of the earth from the sun and therefore providing a unit of distance for measuring the universe. A skilled map draughtsman and navigator, Cook was chosen to record the transit himself alongside the astronomer, Charles Green, using the latest telescopic technology at slightly different locations in order to verify the accuracy of their recordings. Cook’s role in history of recording the Venus’ silhouette features in Starling’s film, interwoven with Starling’s own footage from 2012.

While the astronomical phenomenon can be seen from England, the sun sets in the sky before the transit is complete; a trip south to the mid-Pacific enables the planet’s complete movement to be recorded. Captain Wallis had identified the island of O-Taheitee (Tahiti) as a suitable vantage point for astronomical observations during his voyage on the HMS Dolphin between 1766-68, and so this was the destination Cook sailed towards. Upon arrival at the island, Cook chose a projection in Matavai Bay as the most suitable location to build the observatory surrounded by fortifications.

Fort Venus, site of the observatory

Although they had clear skies on the day, unfortunately the accuracy of Cook and Green’s recordings was limited by the ‘dusky haze’ that surrounded the planet making it near impossible to notice the exact time the planet first emerged and later disappeared over the edge of the sun disc. Instead, the boundaries of the planet appeared to partially bleed into the edge of the sun - the black drop effect referenced in Starling’s film title. Therefore, they were unable to provide the accurate measurements needed for further scientific calculations.

Starling traces the legacy of Cook’s ‘black drops’ in his film, interweaving the history of attempts to record the phases of the planet’s movements with the development of film technology itself. Cook was recording by eye through a telescopic lens, drawing the shape of the silhouetted planet as it met with the curved edge of sun disc in a series of sequential drawings produce on a sheet of paper. At the next transit, the following century, astronomer Pierre Jules Cesar Janssen, also sought to record sequential images of Venus to map and time its journey. Instead of drawing images seen through a telescope, Janssen developed emerging photography technology to design his own photographic revolver – a camera that took sequential photographs on a rotating disk.  Widely recognised as a precursor to cinematography, Starling draws out this relationship further by choosing film to record the 2012 transit and as the artistic medium for his historical commentary. 

However, the astronomical observations were only one part of the motivation for travelling across the Pacific in the eighteenth century. European expeditions competed in discovering and mapping new lands, resources, and other scientific discoveries. The legacy of the black drops that represented the failed goals of recording Venus has been matched by a different legacy that Cook is more well know for today: a navigator, cartographer and enlightened discoverer, and, here at the Pitt Rivers Museum, as a pioneer, alongside his crew, in establishing ethnographic collections of the material culture of people living in the Pacific in the eighteenth century.

Cook returned to the Pacific on board the HMS Resolution a few years after the Venus expedition, and it was this second voyage that the Father and son naturalists, Johann and George Forster participated in, and who later donated their significant collection of Pacific artefacts to the University of Oxford. George Forster describes the revisit to Tahiti in 1773: “We now discerned that long projecting point, which from the observation made upon it, had been named Point Venus, and easily agreed, that this was by far the most beautiful part of the island” (Forster 2000 p. 175). The Tahitians living on the island “recognised their old friends” in the returning sailors (ibid.) and a base camp was “established once more on Point Venus, for the purpose of making astronomical observations, as well as for the convenience of trading, wooding, and watering” (ibid. p. 350).

Black Drop and the accompanying sculptures are exhibited at the Modern Art Oxford until the 28th August – an except of the film can be viewed here.


Forster, George (2000) A Voyage Round the World edited by Nicholas Thomas and Oliver Berghof, Hawaii: University of Hawaii Press