El recorrido de la totalidad

Paloma Polo

2 July 2010

Projection of 79 slides. Variable dimensions. Courtesy of the artist and Galería Maisterravalbuena, Madrid

El recorrido de la totalidad (The Path of Totality), by Paloma Polo (Madrid, 1983), is a work-in-progress that began to emerge through the study of the history of astronomy, or, to be more precise, of eclipses. The artist honed in on a series of structures that were built as precarious astronomical observatories, and compiled ample documentary material including 79 images from structures built between the mid-19th and early-20th centuries by countries that promoted astrophysical research in that period, such as the United States, France, England and Germany.
Polo began working on El recorrido de la totalidad almost three years ago, as a result of research sparked by finding an archive of images at the Astronomical institute in Utrecht. The archive consisted of photographs of the structure built for the first astronomical expedition to observe eclipses, which took place in Sumatra – then a Dutch colony – in 1901. As a result of this find, Polo embarked on a long exchange with experts in astrophysics, who guided her search through many libraries and archives at observatories and astronomical institutes. Her aim was to compile photographic documentation of the camps and observation stations that were set up to study eclipses. The structures are precarious, erected in places strategically chosen for optimum observation of the phenomenon. Their only aim was to provide the best possible shelter for the instruments to study the astrophysical phenomenon.
The resulting catalogued archive of specific structures reflects the race for political and economic power by the countries that were vying against each other to prove their progress – also in the field of scientific research. All of them had extensive colonial territories spread throughout the planet, although, curiously, Spain was left out because, like Portugal, it had already fallen behind.
To the uninitiated visitor, El recorrido de la totalidad, which is presented here in the form of a slide show, can appear to be simply an archive of curiosities and if its underlying power is not taken into account it can be seen as a series of attractive, whimsical structures. But Polo actually uses these images to lead us into the slippery subject of science instrumentalised by power, a recurring debate throughout history that repeatedly crops up in both art and science.