The Voyager - A golden record of human achievement.
Updated: Nov 9, 2022
In the 1970s NASA launched four spacecraft that would explore the outer planets and the interstellar void beyond. Each of these craft carried messages explaining who had sent them, and where they had come from, in case they were ever found by intelligent life.
The "Golden Records" carried by the 1977 Voyager missions were engraved with an instruction manual and could also be played as phonograph records. They contained greetings recorded in different languages and encoded images depicting human knowledge of physics and biology. In September 2013 Voyager 1 became the first human-made object to leave the solar system.
Inspired by these first interstellar messages from humanity, I began to compile examples of scientific and technological progress charting the course of human development for my own golden record sculptures. Cast in bronze the two human figures nicknamed "Atom and eV" will be engraved with some of humankind's most treasured discoveries.
From early number systems and geometry to Nobel prize winning research and unsung heroes, the record of equations and diagrams would be carved into the skin of human existence. Their faces formed into parabolic mirrors, used in telescopes to look deep into space, also echo the radio communications dish on the spacecraft.
Amongst the many diagrams and formulae are some encoded messages to be found and deciphered, a bit of extra fun for the interested.
I have been planning this project for around 6 years and finally started work after the death of my grandfather, a maths and physics teacher who inspired a love of science in many more people than myself. So far I have cast six pieces of the male figure in bronze, ready to be joined together into the whole. The larger pieces will be cast at a foundry capable of working at that scale before shipping back to me for welding and finishing.
Below is a time-lapse video showing my first attempt at the making of the clay sculpture. It documents the process from creating the steel armature and building the clay to engraving the images and equations into the skin.
"When you make a mistake you either live with it
or live long enough to go back and correct it"
I made some changes.
This took me a while, not only to realise more work was needed, but to build up the courage and energy I needed to go back and make those changes. So I pulled him back half a step, took away some of his earlier confidence, and left him poised on the edge of motion, reaching for the stars.
My uncle summed it up beautifully "It is a representation of humankind’s restless, and sometimes fearful, quest for knowledge and discovery. The figure literally reflects the universe that has created it, and that it at the same time reflects upon and strives to understand." I have often found myself in awe of the universe, the majesty of galaxies photographed by Hubble, the sheer mind bending absurdity that I exist, and think. I hope he shows some of that childlike wonder and leaves you praying the first small step isn't a stumble.
The scope of the project also slowly changed as, over the years of researching the discoveries celebrated in this work, an underlying, counter-message became clear. I still intend for it to be a Humanist sculpture, a celebration of science and how far we have come, but the finished piece will explore beyond the great names and Nobel prizes, to show the holes left by the forgotten people, the issues of representation in science, and the myth of the lone scientist. Sometimes an absence is more keenly felt, and asserts a more powerful message, than the neat lines of an argument.
I began with the male figure, mainly to reduce the technical issues surrounding my first attempt at sculpting a human figure. I found it extremely difficult regardless, but that choice presented an opportunity. We may stand on the shoulders of giants, but we should stand shoulder to shoulder with our peers. The entire endeavour would be impossible without collaboration, shared inspiration and the support of fellow voyagers, a contribution so easily overlooked in the clamour of accolades. So he will stand on a black plinth, his mass warping the surface beneath his feet; while beside him in stark invisibility, another warps the fabric of space-time, identified by a pair of footprints.
The video below shows the next stage of the process.
The first section involves making the primary silicone rubber moulds. This starts with the pink goo that sets into a tough rubber and takes the imprint of the clay beneath. Silicone rubber is soft, flexible and needs to be supported to keep the shape of the bulk sculpture. I use plaster to create this rigid support with jute fibre reinforcement for strength.
On these primaries I create secondary plaster moulds over a clay buffer. Once the plaster hardens I can remove the soft clay, leaving behind a negative space between the primary and secondary moulds. The liquid wax is confined by these two moulds which produces an even thickness across the piece. This is important to reduce problems due to uneven solidification of the liquid bronze. The wax pieces are now like the two halves of an Easter egg which I can join together with a bit of heat. A final bit of smoothing and they are ready to be sent to the foundry.
At the foundry they attach pouring cups and sprues to the wax pieces. These direct the flow of liquid bronze through the parts of the sculpture. Now the waxes are ready for layers of ceramic investment to be built up onto them. The ceramic slurry assumes the role of the pink silicone goo in the last stage. It takes the imprint of details in the wax and hardens into a shell.
They place these invested waxes upside down in a furnace, here the wax melts and pours out, leaving behind the hollow ceramic which is heat resistant. Where the wax was there is now a negative space which can be filled with molten metal. Bronze ingots melt around 900°C but needs to be superheated to around 1100°C for casting. At this temperature it fills all the details of the original clay sculpture that were captured by the silicone rubber, passed on to the wax, then the ceramic shell and finally the bronze itself.
In this video I grind off any casting "flash", weld the imperfections and generally smooth the surface. Once the raw surface of the bronze is prepared I can move onto the next phases; polishing Voyager's face, and completing the fine detail work to ensure all the designs are engraved cleanly.
A short video showing the process of making the face for my Voyager sculpture. This took many attempts, a huge amount of time, and became the focal point of the entire project. The result is a rough telescope mirror of the kind used in Newtonian telescopes. The mirrored face symbolises all of humanity, the tools we use to explore the cosmos, and our place in the universe itself. Should you ever have the chance to look into it (and I would love for this to be possible) you will stand face to face with yourself.
“Through our eyes, the universe is perceiving itself.
Through our ears, the universe is listening to its harmonies.
We are the witnesses through which the universe becomes
conscious of its glory, of its magnificence.”
- Alan Watts
In this video I use dental tools to re-cut all the engravings on Voyager's skin. The multiple transformations during the process, from:
'Clay' → 'Rubber Mould' → 'Wax' → 'Ceramic Mould' → 'Bronze'
have left the designs in need of a little clean up. There are also some blank areas, left after removing the sprues and vents, into which I can add more engravings. Beyond this point I can move onto the final assembly, stacking and welding the various parts together into a single piece.
The Big Lift.
After re-sculpting the legs I've never been quite sure how everything would finally come together. It was a major risk, which I took for a number of reasons, and this is the point where I can finally see him in roughly 'one piece'. He's not perfect, but I'm happy with how he has turned out. I think I succeeded in changing his pose from confidence into courage, despite the fear of a voyage into the unknown. I hope he shows some of that childlike wonder and leaves you praying that first small step isn't a stumble.
In this video I begin the process of bringing all the separate pieces of the sculpture together. Cast individually to make transport easier I now need to weld them back into a single sculpture. It's tricky work manoeuvring large chunks of metal into the correct alignment so I've taken this stage fairly carefully. The stainless steel internal framework is a load spreader at the interface between the main support pin and the sculpture itself, it provides most of the strength to keep him on his feet.
Now that he's vertical the next stage involves mating this pin into the plinth structure, completing the main welds, and joining the head and left arm.
I'm now in the process of bringing the whole sculpture together. Welding and smoothing the the joins between each part, polishing the surface and setting up the plinth to hold it.
I'm also taking the opportunity to take some fun shots through the mirror face like this...
What are all the designs? Why are they on there? What does a 6000°C electric welding arc look like as it joins this bronze sculpture together?
If you're interested in seeing more of the fun stuff I have an Instagram account @KirkpatrickBronze