They say you have to suffer for your art, and if that’s the truth then German-born and Berlin-based artist/photographer/film-maker Michael Najjar has passed that test quite literally with flying colours.
Michael (50) aims to be the first civilian artist in space – and with financial help from three art collectors he signed up for a $200,000 pioneer astronaut ticket and a seat on Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic maiden voyage – now on course for launch next year.
But Michael doesn’t do things the easy way. No other would-be civilian space traveller on Branson’s spaceship has attempted the physically punishing, mentally exhausting, full-on training, including the notorious ‘vomit comet’ experience.Kinetic Drift © Michael Najjar
Michael has been training in exactly the same way as professional astronauts – for the past four years.
He explains: “I chose to do this because I want to see what the professionals have to go through before they get to go into space. Their physical and mental limits are tested to breaking point and I wanted mine to be similarly tested – the only difference was that I wanted to do this as a performative activity and create video and photographic artwork through the training. I want to be 100% prepared for my out-of-this-world experience.”
After a full year of emails and phone calls his persistence paid off and he was finally accepted at the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre in Star City, Moscow and also for centrifuge training at Germany’s Aerospace Centre.
Liquid gravity © Michael Najjar
The world’s most original ‘Selfie’
As part of this self-inflicted programme of pain Michael flew to the edge of space (clasping a camera) in a Russian MiG-29 fighter jet.
“I must confess, that was a tough session’ he admits with typical quiet understatement. “I wasn’t prepared for what would happen in the ‘vomit comet’. You have to cope with up to 7Gs – that’s seven times your own body weight pushing down on you at twice the speed of sound. Nobody told me that this entails losing colour vision. And of course there’s a substantial risk of losing consciousness – which I almost did twice. And as if that wasn’t enough to cope with, I was also trying to hang on to the camera and get the footage I wanted.”
But Michael got his photo – dubbed by some as the world’s most original selfie.
Gravitational stress at the edge of space © Michael Najjar
He adds: “At that point in the MiG I was looking to where the light was coming from, so I was talking to the pilot, asking him to turn a little bit to the right or perhaps to the left. I told him I wanted video footage as we completed a triple barrel roll at full speed. He was pretty adamant that only trained pilots could go through that – and anyone else would likely black out after just one roll. But I talked him into doing a single roll and giving him feedback…then a second roll and then the full triple. I did almost lose consciousness but I didn’t admit that to the pilot.”
Michael’s space odyssey first started to take shape back in 1988 at the Berlin Bildo Academy of Arts. Renowned media philosophers like Paul Virilio and Vilem Flusser, who studied the power and speed of technological evolution, were major influences on him.
He notes: “Their ideas shaped the way I use photography and machines in relation to the artistic work I create. Everything I do is based on a theoretical concept; then I move to a visual concept and then into the execution mode.”
He adds: “My work always oscillates on a very thin line between reality and simulation. You can look at my work and think ‘wow that looks cool’ but at the next glance you might also think; ‘Hmm, maybe it’s not so real’.”
“I want people to simply question what is reality and what is simulation and can we distinguish between them? I believe the future has arrived already and perhaps simulation may yet prove to be better than reality!”
It took a mountain to convince Michael he needed to stretch much higher. Armed with his trusty Hasselblad 500CM camera (‘We took that old mechanical model because you can’t charge batteries at the top of a mountain when you’re in a minus 30 environment.’) he scaled Aconcagua, in Argentina – the highest mountain outside Asia at 22,838 feet.
The images he took on the slopes enabled him to create a now globally-renowned series of commercial images that made craggy mountain horizons line up with stock market volatility charts.
He says: “I wanted to try and understand how new algorithm and computer-driven technologies affect financial markets”.
But when he finally reached the peak he found himself staring skywards and deciding he just wasn’t high enough. Only space would do.
The first step in the launch of his own journey in to space began with a trip to Cape Canaveral to photograph the launch of the last Atlantis space shuttle to The International Space Station.
He recalls: “This was also the launch point for my ongoing Outer Space series of images/composites and solo exhibitions (the latest one just completed at The Benrubi Gallery, New York) – my own interpretation of space travel development. The fact is that nobody is ever going to have the experience of walking barefoot on the moon but we can use technology and ‘hybrid’ photography to try and show what it would be like.”
But Michael’s plans to be the first artist/photographer in space were thrown into disarray two years ago when the Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo crashed during a test flight over the Mojave Desert, killing one pilot and injuring a second. Richard Branson came close to abandoning the project completely but eventually changed his mind.
Says Michael: “It was a great shock of course but it was also a milestone. The pilots knew the risks they were taking and occasionally these tragedies happen. But we don’t stop. We learn and we rebuild in order that we can improve our technology and make the dream of space travel possible for everyone.”
Earlier this year Michael was given what he describes as ‘an incredible opportunity’ to work for three weeks at the French Guyana-based European Spaceport, covering the launch of the Ariane 5 – carrying a vital telecom satellite that will provide coverage of the Brazil Olympics later this year and also help facilitate improved broadband services for south American people.
“They gave me full access as part of the launch campaign,” he says. “including the assembly of the rockets and the integration of the satellite on the top of the rocket. I also got to fly over the launchpad just hours before the launch.”
Hasselblad in space
Hasselblad of course has its own unique record in space – over many decades. And Michael (now a Hasselblad ambassador) has worked with the company’s cameras throughout his life.
He says: “Even as a student I saved hard to buy a 500CM and the company has consistently been a great partner for me with various projects, including Outer Space.
I have been working with the H4D and H5D for my last shoots. I blow my work up very large so the H4D-60 has been a priceless piece of capture equipment for me. Now I can’t wait to get the new 100MP H6D in my hands This will be simply mind-blowing quality.”
He adds: “Hasselblad for me is the personification of quality. I need large files with extreme resolution to print and produce my very large-scale works. The digital output is just the best I can have – and that is what I need. Working with this kit in extreme conditions means I need ease of handling and stability.”
But he acknowledges: “It isn’t easy to photograph in Zero-g training – you have enough problems just managing your own body in weightlessness, let alone a camera. It is impossible to concentrate on taking a picture.”
Michael is also involved with another space project – but this time it’s with both feet on the ground.
He explains: “The owner of the Kameha Grand Zurich hotel asked me to craft a special ‘space suite’ for him. I agreed to create a ‘space station’ in an empty room so customers can get a feeling for what it is like onboard a space station. I designed a fully immersive area with carpets both on the floor and the ceiling – as there is no up or down in space.
It has a direct internet connection to the International Space Station and guests are linked to the ISS cameras – so they can look both inside the ISS or look down to Earth, as if they are actually in the space station. It’s 2000 euros a night for the experience.”
Hetrotopia © Michael Najjar
And when it comes to Michael’s real-life space trip next year he says the first piece of luggage he will want to pack will be his Hasselblad.
He states: “In my view the best person to be in space is an artist. We have all the tools needed to enable us to translate unusual things based on unique perspectives.
Over 500 astronauts have been in space to date – but they admit they often struggle to properly demonstrate what they do and see to the wider public. But artists and photographers don’t have that problem.”