Annabel Elgar / Cheating the Moon
One of the myths surrounding the Apollo Moon Landings is their supposed construction. That the giant leap for mankind was a well-polished hoax on the back of NASA and other organisations is a familiar line: one that permeates conspiracy theories across the planet.
So perhaps it is not so strange that within any context of ‘authentic’ evidence, there is a stand-off with a counter-narrative of a spurious nature. Acknowledging this, my project, Cheating the Moon, takes the stolen and missing Goodwill Moon Rocks of the Apollo 11 and 17 missions as its point of departure. Of the 270 moon rocks that were given to the nations of the world by the Nixon administration shortly after the expeditions, approximately 180 are currently unaccounted for. Within those that remain at large, beyond the researchers and hobbyists that have tracked down some of the specimens, a culture of emergent forgery and theft has high-jacked proceedings. In 1998 an undercover federal law enforcement operation, code named Operation Lunar Eclipse, was created to identify and arrest individuals selling bogus moon rocks and dust.
Under the auspices of such an undercover investigation, my project presents an archive of moon rock findings that refers to both factual and fictitious sources, where discerning one from the other becomes a complex proposition. In parallel with the corruption that has pervaded the rocks’ distribution, the slippery nature of truth is given a wide berth in the various locations and contexts that make up this series, some of which are outlined here.
For Jaymie Matthews – now an astronomy professor at the University of British Columbia – his especial circumstance of possessing a moon rock was short lived. As an ambitious 13 year old, an underage Matthews applied for and won an international youth ambassador contest for 17-21 year olds which culminated in a trip to Florida to witness the launch of the Apollo 17 mission. As the student ambassador for Canada, it was decided that he would receive Canada’s Goodwill Moon Rock as a gesture; a gift which he subsequently kept in his bedroom. However several months later he was asked to return the fragment to the Canadian government at a ceremony in Ottowa, which he duly attended, receiving a book entitled ‘Birds of Canada’ in exchange.
Of the Goodwill Moon Rock that was gifted to the Dutch people in 1969 by the United States ambassador to the then Dutch Prime Minister Willem Drees, the Rijksmuseum received it posthumously from his estate in 1992. It was exhibited at the museum for more than a decade and insured at one point for 500,000 Euros, until it transpired following scientific analysis in 2009, that what had been assumed to be a rare lunar sample was in fact just a piece of petrified wood.
Pär Eklund, retired professor of meteorology at the University of Halmstad, Sweden, contacted the Natural History Museum in Gothenburg in March 2007 when he found what he thought was an oversized precious stone at the back of a fly fishing trophy cupboard at the Fristad Fly Fishing clubhouse in southern Sweden. Testing the rock to determine its geological composition, the conservation team at the museum approached NASA to verify whether the specimen was in fact of lunar origin. Following their own tests at the NASA Research Centre, head of the laboratory research team, Mitch Cooper, made contact with Operation Lunar Eclipse, whose records were able to verify that the rock had in fact been presented to Sweden after the Apollo 11 mission and had been reported missing in 2002.
A typewriter containing a ransom note was seized by the FBI in the basement of a furniture warehouse in Midland, Texas in June 1981, following a tip off from warehouse cleaner, Jimmie Burnham. Burnham had become increasingly suspicious of co-worker, Carl Putman, who was seen returning to the premises at unsociable hours on several occasions. Witnessing this from an adjacent bar upon completing his night shift, Burnham contacted the local police. Having already been debriefed by senior investigators about a wave of intimidating calls and letters that had targeted the staff of a local science museum in reference to a supposed moon rock theft, Midland Police decided to approach the FBI, who carried out a strategic raid two days later. Various objects were removed from the premises including a cassette recorder, a dictaphone, a semi-automatic pistol as well as the typewriter itself. Putman, caught in the act, was sentenced to twelve years for extortion, possession of firearms and blackmail with intent to harm.
Annabel Elgar is a photographic based artist who lives and works in London. She has an MA in Photography from the Royal College of Art and her work has featured in many international exhibitions and publications throughout Europe and North America. She was one of eight nominees for the Prix Elysée 2014 with her project ‘Cheating the Moon’.
Annabel Elgar’s work has been shown at the Musée de l’Elysée, Lausanne; in Theatres of the Real at the FotoMuseum Antwerp (accompanied by a book published by Photoworks) and in the book and exhibition New Photography in Britain at the Galleria Civica di Modena, Italy. She has had two solo shows at the Wapping Project, London and has also exhibited at, amongst others, Metronom, Italy; Kunsthalle Lophem, Loppem, Belgium; Zephyr Centre for Photography, Mannheim, Germany; Sweet Briar College, Virginia, USA (in a three person show with Gregory Crewdson and Justine Kurland); Galerie Polaris, Paris; the Museum of New Art, Detroit, USA and Error One, Antwerp, Belgium. Elgar’s work will be included in a group exhibition at the Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio in Modena in Autumn 2015.