Life on Mars: Kelly Richardson on NASA, the apocalypse and the north-east

By Ben Miller | 26 March 2014 | Updated: 25 March 2014

Artist's Statement: Canadian artist Kelly Richardson on bringing her giant panoramic vision of Mars to Newcastle

A photo of a female artist standing in front of a large screen showing a scene from mars
© Colin Davison
“The main idea behind Mariner 9 is about our search for life beyond our own planet while, at an accelerated pace, destroying entire ecosystems we know to exist on Earth, to the point of threatening humanity itself.

It's not a political statement about space travel. It's about arguably the greatest paradox of who we are and what we're capable of.

Its influences include historical painters of the Apocalyptic Sublime, and what I would call the genre’s return within cinema over the last 10 or more years, with an unprecedented 70-plus films produced illustrating some form of apocalyptic end.

As the effects of the Industrial Revolution undoubtedly played heavily on the minds of the public in the 18th and 19th centuries, so too must the consequences of widespread, unchecked industrialisation which have brought us to this point.

I'm also influenced by the function of science fiction, which arguably provides the only window through which we can see ourselves in our current landscape with some measure of hindsight and clarity.

I didn't work with NASA in an official capacity. At some point during my early research for this piece, I discovered that NASA had the topographical data for the whole of Mars which they had made available to the public.

Theoretically, this data could then be used within a 3-D software program to recreate the lay of the land faithfully. This is what I set out to do.

During the development of the landscape, I also was put in touch with the lead animator at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at NASA, who visualises their missions, such as Curiosity. Mariner 9's premiere was timed to coincide with the landing of the Curiosity in August 2012.

He was kind enough to provide feedback on the progress of my version of a Mars landscape, which I was trying to produce as realistically as possible, and offer advice on the data conversion that I was struggling with.

Interestingly, the results that I was producing within Terragen - the software program that I was using to produce the landscape - inspired him to start using that program again after a few years’ hiatus.

I was also in touch with HiRISE - the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment - at the University of Arizona. They offered further assistance and advice with data conversion and The Planetary Society about any audio recordings of Mars – of which there are none.

I describe it as a huge, panoramic view of Mars 200-300 years in the future, the life-sized landscape of which feels as though you can step onto the surface of.

With no indication of a continued interest in the planet, the landscape is littered with the corroding remains of various missions to Mars in the centre of a dust storm.

Some of the spacecraft are still partially functioning, still attempting to find signs of life and transmitting that data back to a planet where no one is listening.

I was and still am genuinely shocked at the level of response Mariner 9 had in the north-east during its premiere. It's not an exaggeration to say that it was and still is the highlight of my career thus far.

The Laing has numerous activities planned for The Late Shows, which should be good fun. I will be there to have informal chats with people about the work, answer any questions they have or just have a drink with.

Mariner 9 has had a fantastic run of international exhibitions since its premiere here, many of which are a result of the tremendous reception from the public and press. I am hugely grateful and proud of the area for that."

  • Mariner 9 is at the Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle-upon-Tyne from May 10 – September 7 2014. The artist will be appearing at The Late Shows as part of Museums at Night 2014. Follow her on Twitter @richardsonkelly.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

A photo of an art gallery showing a projection of outer space
© Colin Davison
A photo of a vision of the landscape of mars
© Colin Davison
A photo of a female artist smiling at the camera while standing on grey concrete
© Sally Ann Norman
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Loved her work for TULCA Festival in 2012 ( Looking forward to seeing this exhibition.
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