In John Milton’s epic Paradise Lost, we are presented with the age-old story of the fall of man; partially due to satanic influence, partially due to our own temptations. What saves Milton’s work from sermonising is not just his poetry, but his acute awareness of moral ambiguity and complexity. When Satan rouses his fallen angels or ventures through the abyss, he does so with Milton’s sneaking admiration. When he is propelled blazing through the cosmos, he does so as a tragic figure in every sense of the word.
For all the commanding boom of his blank verse and the puritan atmosphere of his time, Milton’s most intriguing implication is almost a whisper to the reader, that this doomed rebel Satan is, at the very least, an anti-hero. It is a vision and a message that springs to mind viewing Kelly Richardson’s quietly stunning Haunted at the Void Gallery, Derry. Here we have humanity’s glorious ambition on display and also, intertwined and perhaps inseparable, humanity’s propensity to destroy itself and everything around it.
We enter the first and largest work on show here, Mariner 9 (2012), down a darkened corridor. There is the sound of rumbling drones, the clicks and whirls of hydraulics, the wind across desert plains. The effect is oceanic. It is a disconcerting and thrilling introduction. As we emerge into the room, our eyes become accustomed to the strange light of another world. Before us, projected on to a screen, Richardson has constructed a 13 metre panorama of Mars. Using Terragen software and adhering to Nasa’s footage from the Martian surface, she has created a life-size landscape that seems almost possible to step into; the shadows of our silhouettes from the projected light reminding us of our Earth-bound viewpoint.
For all the immediate impact of this created space, it is curiously, and perceptively on Richardson’s part, the question of time that justifies the ghostly nature of the exhibition’s title. The size and hyper-real accuracy of the work impress, but left simply at that and Mariner 9 would be a science-centre spectacle or a modern version of the Victorian attraction to camera obscura and magic lanterns. In itself, that would be interesting, of course, but there is real conceptual and philosophical depth to Richardson’s piece. It reveals itself when we notice the age of technology scattered around the landscape. These are future ruins.
Beneath the unnatural blue glow of our once-familiar sun through an alien atmosphere, the rovers are still at work. Lights still blink and radiate, transmitters and gyroscopes still spin. Yet the metal from which they are made is visibly rusting. Other traces of decay and abandonment permeate throughout, from a corroding network of industrial pipes to a strange twin monolith on the heights, a crumpled capsule to what might be – and the uncertainty is telling – scattered waste or wreckage. The Martian winds come in waves, slowly eroding everything. It is a hauntological scene; a glimpse of a possible future or rather a post-future; debris from an odyssey or a colonisation. The machines probing the soil for signs of life, as Richardson notes, might be relaying their findings back to a cold dead Earth. These are clockwork artefacts, winding down and fading away from a lost civilisation.
With Orion Tide (2013), there is a related sense that our species’ great triumphs come bound together with catastrophe. The projected scene is that of desert scrub with the suggestion of a secret remote section of the American Midwest. Above the horizon are constellations of stars. The silence is soon interrupted by the manmade thunder of rockets being launched into the cosmos. The absence of explanation gives the work its regret and its power. Are they some brave armada setting off to conquer other planets? Are they abandoning a world they have destroyed? Or both? A more worldly reasoning could be that they are not rockets in the space-shuttle sense, but nuclear missiles, launched from subterranean silos in an act of mutually assured destruction. Whatever the explanation for blazing a trail through the night-sky, the image of Milton’s rebel angels cast out of heaven burns brightly in the mind.
In the third section of this video triptych, Exiles of the Shattered Star (2006), we are greeted, with deceptive serenity, by the sound of birdsong. Again, we face a scene without trace of humanity except for the possible aftermath of our actions. Here is the Lake District in England, the area eulogised by the Romantics. In the midst of the bliss of cultivated nature come slowly falling balls of fire. It is a scenario both biblical and futuristic; the result of a vengeful god, a technological malfunction or a calculated political decision. It would be a mistake to judge the piece as contrived, given that that is essentially the point, but the overt symbolism and the uniformity of the falling debris seem marginally less convincing than the two earlier works. Would birds remain in such a scene? Would the landscape not be scarred? Admittedly though, the uncanny meditative quality to the piece proves spellbinding and renders the literary allusions perhaps unnecessary. The work carries itself.
There are many other thoughts that return to the mind after viewing Haunted and reading Gregory McCartney’s enthralling accompanying volume, Abridged. The quality and colour of light changing on the Martian surface almost like Monet’s Rouen Cathedral. The rusting droid that seems almost arachnid, like a post-human evolutionary creature. The beacons as landing lights or an SOS message to the stars. The idea that many possible futures were abandoned by the reining in of Nasa space exploration in favour of the expansion of calamitous military ventures. The connotations that spin off from the last piece, which recall the Challenger disaster, will-o’-the-wisp and the tongues of fire of the Holy Spirit. These are added elements to the central resounding theme of human salvation and damnation at our own hands. It seems we’re all Satan now.