Stephen Hawking believes we need to colonise Mars. The theory goes that the effects of manmade climate change are irreversible, and can get worse, resulting ultimately in the Earth becoming uninhabitable. Therefore we should be expanding our limited resources on an escape plan. Other commentators, like David Attenborough and Donna Haraway, reject this response, although they accept the nature of the forces at work. They would rather see us fight for our home and try and adapt to new environmental conditions. Even if we ultimately fail, it will be nothing but what we deserve.
Canadian artist Kelly Richardson’s The Weather Makers (at Dundee Contemporary Arts until 26 November) is, in part, an artistic response to this problem. It’s something most of us have grappled with (if only during spells of intense melancholy at three in the morning), and which most of us will have to confront with increasing regularity, if recent political and environmental trends continue on their current trajectories.
For Richardson, part of the problem is that it’s difficult to get a proper perspective on “now” because “now” is still happening. It doesn’t have a beginning or an end, and is both infinite and finite. It can’t be comprehended narratively or visually because it has neither an ending nor a frame. Part of her project, therefore, is to allow us to take “retrospective” stock of “now” by making it “then.” Her three large multi-channel video installations are rich; curved to take up more of our visual field; and accompanied by subtle soundtracks, all to help us project ourselves into her landscapes, and thereby into her futures.
What is in store for us, in Richardson’s futures? The works are curiously ambiguous on this point – in both Orion Tide (2013-14) and Leviathan (2011) the only decidedly human presence is ours, and we are only a disembodied eye. Orion Tide is not necessarily devoid of human activity; there is some illumination from an unseen source, and the incendiary projectiles leaving the surface for the starry skies could well be some form of space travel – but who’s to say it’s human? And who’s to say it’s in time? They look like asteroids flying upwards – it’s a surreal, counterintuitive visual, and makes for an arresting artwork.
Similarly, Leviathan is not necessarily devoid of all life – there is nothing to suggest the wonderfully atmospheric cypress forest (in the marvellously and appropriately named: Uncertain, Texas) is dead – though there is equally nothing to suggest we are not watching it die. In this piece the glowing swamp water is also ambiguous – is it radioactive, or is it bioluminescent? Is it both? Richardson’s future “now” is as infinite as our own, and just as unwilling to admit definitive answers.
By way of contrast, the third large video installation in the exhibition, Mariner 9, is full of the signs of human activity. The Martian landscape, tangibly and accurately rendered using topographical data in collaboration with NASA, is littered with broken human technology – the technology of space exploration and possibly colonisation. Some of the detritus is still barely functioning, some glows, suggesting that we eventually tried to use nuclear power to reach the stars.
The ambiguity here lies in the question of whether this represents final failure – are we seeing this through the eyes of another probe? It is unclear. It is also unclear whether this would be grounds for hope; after all, the littering seems to indicate that we haven’t changed our methods of interacting with our environments at all and we’re still calculating risk and reward in exactly the same way. It is possible this probe, too, will fail and become the space junk it observes.
Less immersive and less ambiguous but no less arresting are Richardson’s Pillars of Dawn prints (2015-17), which depict crystal encrusted trees in a colourless night-time landscape. The crystals are grey as ash and coat the trees like a close hugging fungus. The night sky is liberally sprinkled with stars, beautiful but disconcerting in proximity to the crystalline structures on which they shine. There is no light pollution; there are no people.
The medium and format enables her to play with time in a different way – harking back to the age of romanticism – an ironic twist on the activity of imagining a future itself; the romantics looked on the landscapes of present as already being ruined, filled with “dark satanic mills” (William Blake) yet they were also the generation of the chemical revolution, whose relationship with nature had a great deal to do with how we got to where we are today.
The artist Yves Klein wrote in 1961 that “it is not with rockets, Sputniks, and missiles that modern man will achieve the conquest of space. That is the dream of present day scientists who live in a state of mind romantic and sentimental enough for the last century.” Is this still something which can be said of those who think we should colonise the stars? Richardson doesn’t give us a direct answer, but the image of the detritus covered Martian landscape and the ominous metaphoric implications of asteroids – those famous disaster-causers – flying from a planet out into space, is certainly a possible takeaway here.
The beauty of this exhibition is that though presenting us unambiguously with the aftermath of “ruin on a sublime scale” (Exhibition Guide) Richardson allows us our subjectivity. We are not allowed to question the fact of the disaster, but we can meditate on it as a physical reality from a temporal distance as individuals. To step into one of her future landscapes ought, at least, to provide food for thought (as well as a visual feast) for anyone wrestling with the implications of the Anthropocene, of climate change, and of human actions in time and space.