Orion Tide
‘Orion Tide’, Kelly Richardson 2013-14. Photo Ruth Clark

‘The human agent has grown to the dimension of a natural phenomenon (comparable, if you count in terawatts, to plate tectonics) but it has not become more natural for all of that.’ [1]

The ability to understand weather as a metaphor—for a divine elsewhere or sublime outside of human activity—is troubled in the Anthropocene, simply because Earth’s geology, plant life and atmosphere all profoundly reflect our impact upon them. As such, certain distinctions have been lost. The reality of a major weather event, for example, is always immediately accompanied by a call and response encompassing stances on industrialisation, climate change and relief efforts. This was clearly illustrated by the raft of proclamations following tropical storm Harvey and Hurricane Irma. [2] The weather is troubled, and we see in it ourselves, our actions and follies, and, crucially, omens for the future. Kelly Richardson’s The Weather Makers is located within this Anthropocenic territory that seeks to describe a new relationship to nature.

One enters down a matt black corridor, on one side of which a series of five dark arboreal C-prints, entitled ‘Pillars of Dawn’ (2015-2017) depict dead crystalline trees. These are odd nocturnes, both sad and surreal. Turning the corner from the line of trees, three screens are placed together in a corner showing the tranquil scene of an uninhabited swamp. In ‘Leviathan’ (2011) a soft wind rustles hanging lichens, and light from a clouded sky plays over shallow waters. Diagonally opposite, two screens show an entirely different scene. In ‘Orion Tide’ (2013-14) rockets or flares blast off from a spaghetti western desert floor, and disappear off-screen, their destination unknown. A low frequency and unsettling soundtrack accompanies their rhythmic launches. In a separate room, ‘Mariner 9’ (2012) presents a Martian panorama replete with broken and pathetic space probes troubled by dust storms.

Pillars Of Dawn 1
‘Pillars Of Dawn’, Kelly Richardson 2015-17. Photo Ruth Clark

In all the films, one is never sure of the exact state of the landscapes or the existence of a continued human direction in their activities. ‘Leviathan’ could be a green zone, the planet post-flooding, or a prehistoric swamp. The purpose of the rockets in the deserted military-industrial zone of ‘Orion Tide’ remains unknown. And is Mars unpopulated because we have lost interest or due to some other failing?

Throughout Richardson’s works, humanity remains present even in its absence. As Bruno Latour comments, ‘Human action is visible everywhere — in the construction of knowledge as well as in the production of the phenomena those sciences are called to register.’ [3] With this in mind, there is a great deal of narrative potency in simply isolating and presenting the objects of the world effected by human activity. A good example of this is Gabriel Orozco’s, ‘Sandstars’ (2012) in which the detritus from the Isla Arena wildlife preserve in Mexico was collected, catalogued and displayed. The objects outline issues of pollution, tides and currents, and the sensitivity of ecosystems. Object-oriented ontology is the source of the work’s critique and poetry. [4] Another example is the exhibition ‘Don’t Follow The Wind’ (2016) conceived by Tokyo collective Chim↑Pom. A series of commissioned artworks were placed within the Fukushima Exclusion Zone, remaining unviewable to the public due to dangerously high radiation levels.

These works deal with contemporary environments from which humans have excluded themselves, either by design or disaster: one a wildlife preserve and the other a post-nuclear site. Kelly Richardson’s work is also concerned with such deserted sites and the philosophical questions they throw up. As Roy Scranton points out in his book, Learning to Die in the Anthropocene, ‘The greatest challenge we face is a philosophical one: understanding that this civilization is already dead.’ [5] The idea latent in ‘Sandstars’and ‘Don’t Follow the Wind’ is that environmental disaster has already arrived, and stating so is not overly dramatic.

By contrast, Richardson does not aim to develop a dialogue around specific sites, but instead uses technical data—CGI technologies and Terragen software—to create static views of embellished or imagined places. As a result, the uncanny realism of the aesthetic mimics that of contemporary video games or Hollywood science fiction.

Marnier 9 1
‘Mariner 9’, Kelly Richardson 2012. Photo Ruth Clark

Thus Richardson’s concern lies not with actual sites but with the aesthetic language of images of the future, and our ideas about what lies in store. The works are not about the necessity of finding ways to live in the ruins of our industrial activity and consumption. Rather, they are detached encounters which indulge our apocalyptic visions of the future, employing scientific data and image tropes. And, more specifically, they explore the way in which our own activities, climate change and global crises are now part of our collective fantasies.

They are not sublime, but take on the dark timbre of sober predictions, or the sad dreams of guilty liberalism. Their curious flatness or lack of drama results from the idea that the apocalypse is the expected norm, a predicted outcome.

Their very concern with invention, however, diminishes their potential political urgency. The works make the matters of ecological change and damage seem somehow far off and elsewhere, on screen rather than already present and persistent. They are not, therefore, quite in Roy Scranton’s death grip, but are concerned with reflecting our collective oscillations between fear and nostalgia. Screened in HD; in terms we can understand.

Calum Sutherland is an artist living in Glasgow. He also writes for artforum.com. His work and writing can be found at http://calumsutherland.co.uk

[1] Bruno Latour, ‘Anthropology at the Time of the Anthropocene – a personal view of what is to be studied’, 2014 (p.5)
[2] Lisa Friedman, ‘Hurricane Irma Linked to Climate Change? For Some, a Very ‘Insensitive’ Question’, New York Times 2017
[3] Bruno Latour, ‘Agency at the time of the Anthropocene’, New Literary History Vol. 45 2014 (p.6)
[4] This philosophical framework, introduced by Graham Harman, focuses on developing ideas, systems and hierarchies that are not simply defined by the relationship of the human subject to the world, but also account for other relationships, for example, those between objects.
[5] Roy Scranton, Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: reflections on the end of a civilization, (San Francisco: City Light Books, 2015), p. 23