July 11 – August 31, 2014
The Contemporary Art Gallery presents a survey exhibition of work by Canadian artist Kelly Richardson, best known for her immersive projection works which create environments prompting a questioning of our relationship to the natural world.
The universe Richardson constructs can seem somewhat bleak, devoid of all but the strangest forms of life, and notionally touching upon issues within ecological discussion and environmental debate. Yet if we consider nature not as omniscient, but mediated, appropriated, subjugated and vulnerable, then by examining any simple concept of the “natural”, Richardson actually makes the interrogation even more urgent. Immense and unsettling projections show animated scenes of primordial swamps or forests, desolate moonscapes or eerie holographic trees flickering in and out of view. And yet the videos are open-ended, drawing us in to develop our own narratives for these unsettling scenes, which could be humanity’s last attempt at caring for a ruined planet. Even though she leaves the questions unanswered, it’s clear that she is suggesting we should project farther into the future than we’re comfortable doing, a quality enhanced in understanding how these works are made. A particular quality in Richardson’s videos– in addition to technical facility and her embrace of beauty as a way to prime us about the disturbing undercurrents snaking through her otherwise seductive work – is the way she seems to look back from the future.
The exhibition comprises a selection of recent major projections and photographs. In the large-scale, multi-screen installation of Leviathan (2011) we are confronted with an all-encompassing projection. Through the image and its reflections on walls and floors, it occupies or rather infiltrates the space, implicating us as audience as we simultaneously behold and are contained within the image. It asserts itself, with its Biblical title, as suggestive of some kind of apocalyptic flood, the swirling water appearing to almost envelop and swallow up the viewer. The works too are in many other ways absorbing; they elicit a terrible beauty through the seduction of surface. And yet this slow, churning motion becomes almost hypnotic, a narcotic mesmerizing image, an illusion perhaps not at odds with the evocation of a notional poisonous or toxic liquid; a substance that is at once of our world but at the same time transforming, of becoming somewhere else.
Richardson’s work touches also on the notion of the sublime, that mixture of awe, hope and fear that reveals something uncomfortable about the depth and darkness of human desire. While technically pristine, in part through the process of computer manipulation and invention of form, her work has precedents in sources as seemingly disparate as the romantic landscape paintings of the late 18th century or the B-horror and science-fiction films of the 1970s and 80s. She has stated: “I’m interested in that contradiction at this critical time in human history when current predictions for our future are not just unsettling, but terrifying.”
The notion of the artificial is brought to bear in contemplation of what might be considered natural, in part reinforced by the visual polish of the moving images, which reach the point where most viewers are unable to distinguish between what is real and what is computer-generated. In Orion Tide, (2013) we see rocks and foliage littering the ground, convincing us of some form of scrub land. Then an eerie, distant sound warns us of that which follows, the slow eruption of a lit pod from the surface. Trails of flame and smoke lead the eye up through the dark sky and then out of sight, followed by another and another and another. Are they escape pods —final humans abandoning all hope— or are they a death rattle of a dying planet? Richardson deftly avoids simplistic environmental and sci-fi cliché with a painterly sense of narrative mystery.
The exhibition is developed in collaboration with the Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art, UK; Grundy Art Gallery, Blackpool, UK; Towner, Eastbourne, UK and Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo. An extensive monograph accompanies the exhibition.