Artist Agnieszka Pilat is no stranger to working alongside machines. The self-confessed “tech optimist” is best known for her haunting artworks that depict mechanical parts and, more notably, for the three A.I. robot dogs she has trained to paint semi-autonomously. But arriving at SpaceX’s Hawthorne facility in California for an artist residency, she told Artnet News, has been a real eye-opener.
“In this moment of A.I. and the metaverse,” she said, “it’s humbling to see actual big machines being moved around.” Since August, the Polish-American artist has been onsite for her second residency at the spacecraft manufacturer founded by Elon Musk. When I reached her by phone last week, she had just started on her new series of tech-minded works, aimed at reflecting what she called “profound shifts in American culture and industry.”
More specifically, Pilat’s new portraits center on the hatch of SpaceX’s Dragon capsule, the airtight access point of a spacecraft, which is available to her when it is not in use in astronaut training. In the artist’s paintings, the object will be depicted with a hallowed reverence, as her way of drawing parallels between technology and spirituality.
“When you think about religion and technology, they really share the same art of seduction in a way,” she said. “They both have darkness and lightness to them. They both offer a better future.”
The works see Pilat borrow liberally from religious iconography, using gold leaf to create a halo around the illustrated hatch, emphasizing its round form to echo “the promise of immortality,” she said. The portraits are also diptychs, allowing her to explore the dualities of both technology and religion—the promise and pitfalls, heaven and hell.
A number of the paintings are bound for SpaceX’s designer studio and training space, while others, Pilat plans to exhibit in her native Poland, where Christianity has strong roots.
The SpaceX residency, which Pilat foresees will go on through 2024, precedes her upcoming presentation at the National Gallery of Victoria’s Triennial in December in Australia. It’s a major art-world appointment for an artist who has largely been collected by the Silicon Valley crowd and connected with tech companies including Boston Dynamics. Over three months at the Australia show, Pilat’s robot canines will be painting autonomously inside a white cube, executing pre-programmed commands.
These robo-dogs may somewhat serve as Pilar’s collaborators, but in human terms, her work has mostly been solitary. Hence her delight at the camaraderie she’s found at SpaceX: “It’s a committed team. Seeing people keeping their heads down and working always inspires me.”
More so, she has been motivated by SpaceX’s mission—akin to a religious hope and fervor, she noted—to send humans into space.
“People here are really committed to sending men to Mars. I find it inspiring in that I can put my little problems into perspective if something doesn’t work out,” she added. “You know, it’s the Kennedy moment: we’re doing it because it’s difficult. We’re going to the moon because it’s difficult. I really feel it here.”
See more images from Pilat’s residency below.
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