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Welcome All Citizens of the Universe

In 1967, the hamlet of St. Paul, Canada (population 3,000) built a UFO landing pad in the Alberta prairie. This was the town’s contribution to the year-long celebration of the Canadian Centennial. For this activity, Canada’s Centennial Comity baptized St. Paul the Centennial Star.

Artist Jacqueline Hoang Nguyen got interested in this bit of history when she found a medallion presented to St. Paul to commemorate their achievement on Ebay. She bought it and photographed the front and the back, creating a diptych, Centennial Star, currently on view at ICA as part of the exhibition Living Document / Naked Reality: Toward an Archival Cinema. The diptych shows both sides of the medallion: a star inside a circle with the words “Centennial of Canadian Confederation” written around the edge in English and French on the front, and the landing pad, looking something like a round trampoline with a staircase leading down, on the back. Each image is perhaps ten inches across.
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Jacqueline Hoang Nguyen, The Centennial Star, 2011. Photograph of found ephemera (coin), archival inkjet on paper (diptych). Courtesy of the artist.

Centennial Star is part of a larger, research-based project Jacqueline is working on. When she traveled to St. Paul to interview its inhabitants and tour the site, she was struck by the impulse behind the landing pad. St. Paul hadn’t experienced any recent UFO sightings in 1967: “It wasn’t built in response to a need,” she says. Rather, the landing pad was intended as a symbolic gesture of the town’s hospitality, tolerance, commitment to diversity, and openness to all. For Jacqueline, the landing pad becomes a “conceptual vessel” for the exploration of issues around multiculturalism: how broadly, for instance, you can think about what “alien” means. (You can—and should—listen to Jacqueline talk about the project here.)

On her way to an artist’s residency in Banff a couple of weeks ago, Jacqueline came to ICA to work with exhibition curator Jennifer Burris on the installation of the diptych. I stopped by as ICA’s Chief Preparator, Paul Swenbeck, was opening the cardboard carton Jacqueline had brought with her. Layer by layer they undid the package: cardboard, bubble wrap, tape, brown paper. “Did you fly with it?” Paul asked.

“No. I took the train.”

Wearing white art handling gloves, Paul lifted each photograph onto blocks, where they leaned against the wall. Jennifer wanted to place the diptych directly across from the entrance to the gallery, so it was the first the thing you’d see when you came in.

“I don’t have a preference for which goes where,” Jacqueline said, as Paul carefully adjusted the placement of the photographs, centering them on the opposite door. Jennifer and Jacqueline backed out of the gallery and peered through the entrance, consulting and considering.
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Jacqueline and Jennifer considering The Centennial Star

“I wonder if the star should be on the right?” Jacqueline said.

Paul switched the images.

“A bit more distance?”

Paul took out his measuring tape and moved the photographs two inches further apart.

“That’s better,” Jennifer said. The images weren’t too crowded. The way the staircase was situated drew the eye in.

Now the conversation turned to lighting: exactly how dim (in candles) the gallery would be, the type of glass used in the frames, whether snoods were needed. Jennifer was pleased. “The idea is that the piece is lit so it looks like the moon,” she said.

Suddenly it was time for lunch. Paul climbed a tall ladder and began manually switching off lights. Against the wall, the two medallions leaned, the wooden blocks under them splayed out like feet, the coins and their white frames glowing in the dimness. Meanwhile, out in the galaxy perhaps, patient spaceships zipped and glided, looking for a fabled landing spot somewhere on the Canadian prairie.

ICA, too, welcomes visitors from everywhere. People come from Chicago, California, Berlin, Japan—why not from a distant planet orbiting a faraway star? In our upstairs gallery, the image of the landing pad calls to them.

Don’t miss Jacqueline’s performative lecture 1967: A People Kind of Place, on Wednesday, February 29, 6:30pm at ICA.

Living Document / Naked Reality: Towards an Archival Cinema will be on view at ICA through March 4.

To sign up for Miranda’s mailing list, email rpastan@ica.upenn.edu.