Space 'art' prices reach for the stars

Charles Arthur on Hubble, a hitherto unrecognised talent
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Is it abstract art? Is it a scientific photograph? Art gallery visitors in London don't care - they're prepared to pay up to pounds 1,000 for limited-edition, large-scale prints of high-quality images like this.

The rush to buy will begin on Tuesday, when the Blue Gallery in Walton Street, London, begins a month-long exhibition of abstract images with a difference: they are all of real objects. Each was produced by the Hubble space telescope, orbiting 380 miles above Earth.

The 13 pictures in the exhibition are each available as framed photographs more than a metre square. Prices start at pounds 595 and go up to pounds 995 for those like this, which shows a sunset over the rings of Saturn. But get there and make your bid early: there are only five copies of each picture.

Giles Baker-Smith, one of the gallery's directors, expects to do a roaring business. "Last time we had an exhibition like this, last summer, we sold all 45 prints."

The Hubble exhibition, which runs until 19 July, is a departure from the Blue Gallery's normal fare. "We're usually a painting gallery, for abstract art. Most of our artists are under 40 - three have been shortlisted for the NatWest painting prize."

But the Hubble pictures, which have received widespread coverage in the media since the telescope was fixed in 1993, fascinated him.

"Ever since I saw some of the first ones I've thought that they relate quite well to abstract painting," said Mr Baker-Smith.

"Recently there's been more convergence between art and science. These pictures work on several levels: as a picture, first, but also because they are images telling of extraordinary distances. They are literally awe-inspiring."

As the famous British science-fiction writer Arthur C Clarke wrote in a letter of support: "First look and enjoy - later, think about the implications."

Last year Mr Baker-Smith wrote to the US space agency Nasa, which owns the copyright on the pictures, proposing an exhibition. Nasa was delighted with the idea, and last summer the first such exhibition proved hugely popular.

"We were getting up to 150 people a day coming in to view them. Most galleries are happy to get 10 people," said Mr Baker-Smith. The exhibition starting this week contains new images.

"The sort of people who come aren't the sort who would normally come to a contemporary gallery," he said. It could be that for once, science will have done art a favour.

Ironically, anyone with an Internet connection could view all the pictures for free (at Nasa's web site pubinfo/ Subject.html). But that preview of the show would be on a small, flickering computer screen. In the gallery, even the smallest of the pictures will be a metre on each side, and the largest is 1.62 metres by 1 metre.

"We had to be very careful about which images we chose," he said. "On some of them, as you blow them up larger, the pixellation [the digital "grains" of the original image] becomes clearer. We've had to be sure that the images are very high resolution."

At the same time as this exhibition, the Science Museum is also displaying a set of large-format pictures from the Hubble telescope.

However, despite the high level of interest, Mr Baker-Smith thinks that he will not repeat the show. "I know that people would like us to go on and on, but I don't want to milk it dry," he said.