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The 8cm-tall Belgian sculpture on the Moon
It's a story featuring American astronauts, president Richard Nixon, human envy, greed. And on top of it one Belgian, the Moon and a tiny aluminium figure.
Belgian artist Paul Van Hoeydonck is, so far, probably the only inhabitant of Earth who exhibits his work in space. His 8cm-tall sculpture, The Fallen Astronaut, was brought up to the Moon by the Americans in 1971.
He remembers all details. On 2 August 1971 at exactly 12.18 GMT, Apollo 15 commander David Scott placed a tiny aluminium figure on the dusty moon land at Hadley Rille crater. Next to the figure he placed a plaque bearing names of eight American astronauts and six Soviet cosmonauts who died during space travel or during training in the time of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union.
"I had several successful exhibitions in Europe and so I decided to leave for America," Van Hoeydonck says. "Finding a gallery in New York was no problem. During my second exhibition there I overheard the gallery director talking to someone about placing my statue on the Moon. That day I told them they had to be completely crazy. And you see, a few months later my statuette was really placed there."
A gallery on the Moon
Let’s go back to the year 1969. When Van Hoeydonck asked how they wanted to arrange the cosmic journey of his statuette the New York gallery director Louise Tolliver Deutschman answered honestly that she didn’t know yet, but that she would do her best to arrange it. In the meantime, astronaut David Scott had a similar idea. This idea came to life when Scott met Van Hoeydonck during a private dinner at Kennedy Space Center.
It was only a few months before the start of Apollo 15, and Nasa's requirements were very strict. Eventually Scott convinced Nasa management that it would be a tribute to brave American and Soviet men who died in direct service of space exploration. Their names were to be listed on a small plaque. "The statuette was supposed to symbolise the human endeavour to reach the stars," Van Hoeydonck added.
The final decision lied on the head of the American president of that time, Richard Nixon. "Yes, he had to authorise the export of the statuette," the sculptor adds. "Each astronaut who then travelled to Moon could bring a small item in his pocket. Usually it was some necessary equipment. The astronauts asked president Nixon if they could bring a small figure with them. "The president was just concerned if the artist was a Republican. No, he is a Belgian, they said. The president just swept his hand and said that in such case everything is all right."
In addition to later attention, Van Hoeydonck also received a solid portion of envy. The American art community was disappointed especially because the statuette for Nasa had not been created by an American artist but by some outsider from Europe. In those days the press, including the respected New York Times, claimed it was the most expensive transfer of any piece of art in human history, and that a foreigner did not deserve such privilege.
"The press then was discussing that some European artist received a million-worth commission," Van Hoeydonck recalls. "Americans are big patriots, us Belgians are not like this. Our national consciousness is subtle. To give up a Belgian citizenship is not such a catastrophe for us as it would be for an American. If I had to accept American citizenship in those days, I would do it. I still like the US."
The design of the 8.5cm aluminium figure was expensive. Van Hoeydonck worked on the design together with his son, also an acclaimed artist whose death in 1984 deeply hurt him. Nasa had several requirements. The figure had to be light but strong, made of material that would both endure extreme moon conditions, and would not be a threat to the mission. It had to avoid any gender or ethnic connotations, the colour was also important due to possible ethnic discrimination or due to speculations related to political affiliation. And first of all, it had to be as small as possible.
No commercial gain
The artist and all members of the team were to keep silent in relation to the author of the work. Astronaut David Scott earlier requested that the statuette should not bear the author's name to prevent it from any commercial exploitation. Ultimately a big problem aroused there, as the owner of the New York gallery Dick Waddell together with Van Hoeydonck announced in 1972 that they would like to allow the public to purchase 950 copies of Fallen Astronaut for $750 each. The Nasa board railed strongly against such idea because activities of the national administration forbid such commercial activity.
Eventually only 50 replicas were made. They were reportedly distributed as gifts to various friends, ambassadors, museums, one was carried up to Mount Vesuvius, some others were presented to Flemish parliament — and a 40x magnified copy has been placed in front of the Museum of Fine Arts in Dunkirk.
"Creating the statuette meant considerable financial requirements," Van Hoeydonck says. "We invested a lot. When I read American newspapers at that time journalists criticised us for spending too many dollars, my American lawyer advised me to go back to Europe. I brought home with me one figure. However, the situation in Belgium wasn’t any brighter. Many people hated me. They thought I made a lot of money with the statuette. So I decided I didn’t want my name to be connected with this activity any more."
During our interview Van Hoeydonck insisted that no statuette had ever been sold and emphasised that he had never intended to make any money in this activity. David Scott strongly opposed to commercial use of the moon statuette. Scott himself did not really practise what he preached. It turned out he got involved in an illegal business with stamps specially postmarked on the Moon, which were put into circulation in quite a large number. In those years, astronauts were generally on a pedestal of social esteem, therefore colonel Scott’s punishment served as an exemplary case and he was completely banned from any other service related to space travel.
This story was originally published in Czech newspaper Pravo