Monk by the sky. Aurora and the aerosol society.

October 19th, 2019

fot. Karolina Plecha

fot. Karolina Plecha

Although I rarely fly airplanes, my experience of airspace - excluding breathing - is not exiguous. Dreams give me the most intense experiences of it. Frequently recurring dreams of flying make me realize both the gravitational limitations of the human body and the wish to soar in open space.

I had one of these dreams in my early childhood and it never happened again in this particular form. I was violently pulled up very high up to the Earth's atmosphere by the external, physical force beyond my control. Unlike many other dreams of flying, in this case, the legs did not accelerate from the ground, hands did not wave hard to pretend wings, and the eyes did not look how to avoid electric traction during take-off. My whole body was simply bent in half and sucked into the black, starry cosmic space. Just after that I rapidly woke up to became once again a part of grounded society, I had no idea about at that time.


From that remoted time to the present, when I have the opportunity to experience Norwegian northern lights, I haven’t been thinking much about extraterrestrial spaces. For the first time, I saw the aurora borealis on September 27 th., 2019 from the upper terrace of the “moss house”, as we call the cottage house of Doctor Queen, a doctor from Poland living in Sørreisa, Northern Norway. Then we went high to the mountains, where the night is dark and where you can suck into your lungs less CO2 than in Poland, where I also come from. There your individual subjectivity literary just disappear in the smog, because previous governments, including current right-wing conservative one, don’t give a damn about the environment.


On the top of the mountain, my childhood dream continued as the atmospherographic phenomenon of non-human, or rather not entirely human generosity. The sky was full of colorful, sprayed passages, revealing the ecstatic physical-chemical composition with the edges dynamically changing and blurring the boundaries between emblazed aurora and starry darkness. The figure zone and fairly dark background relationship didn’t exist in this case. I remember that my first thought was that unlike the oceans or mountains, that we used to take for granted so long, the aurora is a pure emanation of the instant - the enlarged, unpredictable, ever-changing detail challenging bilateral nature of human sight. Not always there in the sky – but just in the winter season, under special weather conditions, aurora performs in a nonlinear way the very idea of instability.


Before I saw northern lights, I read that this diversity restoring baroque event occurs when the solar wind gets through the windows of North and South Polars into the Earth’s atmosphere, where it collides with the gases produced in its upperparts. In the Earth’s magnetosphere, the plasmatic solar winds are transformed into visible energy, accessible to direct, however not the entire observation of the humans. Mesmerizingly pulsating, it indicates the material character of the aerial space we commonly imagine as inconcrete and unsubstantial. I also read that northern lights that depend on the activity of the sun, may appear more often along with the rising temperature of Earth’s surface. According to this view, one may presume that more and more extreme temperatures on Earth could result in greater availability of the “wander’s of nature” spectacle.


So what, the art does not reach into cosmic space so often, if this unique phenomenon in the sky, so often slips into modernist framing becoming kitschy, an aestheticized event viewed from a distance of the ground. Our perceptual habits reach the sky with obvious determination. Culturally governed by a regime of aesthetic experience, humans mostly see in aurora the exceptional beauty and the chance for transcendental resentiment of the autonomous human subject. This nostalgia gives space for many sorts of projections, some of which are firmly embedded in the logic of Anthropocene, mingling faith with capitalism.


Researching aurora borealis fun pages on social media, I found photos and comments revealing a) religious desires or metaphysical longing of humans ( e.g. "beautiful divine blessing", “majestic, how beautiful heaven must be!”, "dancing angels", "paradise", “god’s miracle”), b) all sorts of anthropomorphization: "looks like someone stood there" c) animalistic projections "the dragon is going to find his feet" d) supernatural or extraterrestrial (“overexposed aurora looks like UFO or portal”) and many other figurations telling both natural and cultural history of how humans relate to skyspace architecture through myths, beliefs, and storytelling. Japanese, for example, connect seeing northern lights with happiness and fertility and so when they see it, they rush to rent huts and make babies. But most of all, humans tend to slobber over aurora seeing little or no connections with it and their substantial impact on the disturbance in the chemical composition of the atmosphere, the oceans or the condition of the Earth’s surface.

Next to the mountains, Arctic lights are probably the most technologically consumed symbol of Northern wilderness, happily and innocently shared by social media users. Analysis of their pictures and comments on aurora confirms a specific human way of thinking about images. People hunt for its visual representations, which are so precious because difficult to capture by a regular mobile phone camera, not even mentioning of recording its dynamics alive. One of the ways to deal with the problem of documentation is time-lapse photography, as told me Karolina Plecha, the astrophysicist by training and the aurora tour guide in Trømso. I assume that it explains why you may find all sorts of colonization-of-the-sky-based curiosity referring to northern lights, such as  “do you sell prints?”, “Which settings are you using?”, “Love the framing on this one”. 


However, what is particularly interesting to me in the context of the digital-sublime-age revealing so much about the time-specific longing for supernatural, goes beyond designer photography. Monks by the sky – transcendental human subjects facing aurora borealis - not only confirm his/her illusion about the autonomy and freedom but uses northern lights as an excuse to turn his/her face away from global warming and social collapse caused by the climate change (Bendel, 2018). Hence, celebrating aurora the way I described in this text refers to what I would call society in aerosol, comprising of dispersed, atomized individuals giving new life to old stories, myths, and understanding of human’s way of inhabiting on the planet.


Instead of this mode of view, I would rather perceive this sensitive phenomenon as an opportunity to notice a difference in the airspace we used to see filled with smog, gray aircraft exhaust or colorful air show ribbons. It’s not only about the refreshing the perceptional system of humans, but most of all about challenging the imperialistic aesthetic of white man’s images through sensing the human-made effects of the naturecultural aurora. When the dynamics of aurora becomes visible, it’s spatial-temporal character constitutes itself against the very idea of framing or, to be more precise, it moves beyond the foregoing frame valorizing the aesthetic beauty to recalibrate sensual system of humans on other aspects than a need to capturing, grasping or having something in this or that form. For me, the aurora is about letting go of all of what constitutes a human being as an owner and aurora as a sort of celestial property. It is also about a sense of belonging, both personal and social moments of intense intimacy with nature.


Considering the scraps of argumentation I try to perform in this text, indeed aurora is not an entirely non-human organism. Depending solely on the weather conditions, and the circulation of energy between the sun and Earth’s atmosphere, it reflects changing dynamics of the atmosphere and so the climate change fluctuations and imbalances as well. Perceiving northern lights just as the outburst of supernatural beauty, we avoid to see the limitations of humans’ time frame. We avoid the experience of the forthcoming humans’ mass extinction, which is at the opposite pole of the beauty and sublime. Let this perspective shed new light on Friedrich Nietzche’s quote “And those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music”.


TimeLaps, Karolina Plecha.


  • Bendell, Jem, Deep Adaptation, A Map Navigating Climate Change Tragedy, IFLAS Occasional Paper 2, , July 27th 2018 (Polish version of the text

  • Davies, Heather, Turpin Etienne, (eds.) Art in the Anthropocene: Encounters Among Aesthetics, Politics, Environments and Epistemologies, Open Humanities Press, London 2015.

  • Fenge, Terry, David Leonard (eds.), Northern Lights Against POPs: Combatting Threats in the Arctic, McGill’s Queen’s University Press 2003.

  • Fu, Rong; Gao, Xinbo; Li, Xuelong; Tao, Dacheng; Jian, Yongjun; Li, Jie; Hu, Hongqiao; Yang, Huigen, An integrated aurora image retrieval system: AuroraEye, “Journal of Visual Communication & Image Representation”, Nov2010, Vol. 21 Issue 8, p. 787-797.

  • McClure, Jennifer, The Northern Lights; a clue about the real cause of Global Warming?, (access: 10.10.2019).