“In 2004, the American space agency NASA launched a mission of two rovers to prospect the surface of Mars. The twin vehicles named Spirit and Opportunity were designed to roam the planet for 90 sols (90 Martian days corresponding to 24 hours and 40 minutes each), collecting data on territory, evidence to provide clues on ancient life and water, and other findings that might brace hypotheses of future habitability. Spirit fulfilled its mission and ceded its functions in 2011, outliving its estimated lifespan by seven years, while Opportunity is still wandering the planet today. Able to clean its solar panels from dust swirled up during Martian storms, the rover was assigned new scientific missions originally unintended and unforeseen. Among the outcomes of these are multiple images taken by Opportunity as it looks back over its path and photographs its own tracks, which are held in NASA’s publicly accessible archives. Auspicious and pioneering as future visions of life on Mars may seem, the images of a lonely rover roaming the surface of this faraway planet, long after completing its mission and abandoned by its twin, evoke a sense of anthropomorphic solitude.
For the work Opportunity, Nelson reproduced one of Opportunity’s photographs in bromoil, a 19th century technique which became popularized by the pictorialist movement. Depicting the deserted Martian landscape, the work evokes both the nostalgia of hand-created, rather than recorded, bromoil photographs, and the futuristic endeavor to make this barren planet inhabitable. Looking at the black-and-white soft-contoured image, brought out by Nelson’s ink brush touching the photographic surface, we may think of humans longing to touch, and eventually inhabit, this extraterrestrial landscape of craters and sand dunes—a longing harnessed by the “pioneers” attempting to create a new habitat for those adventurous and wealthy enough to partake.”
Glass plate reflective holograms
On Sol 5,111, or June 10, 2018, the Mars Rover Opportunity sent its last image to Earth. By that date, it had been roaming the planet for fourteen years, whereas its original NASA-designed mission was only to last for ninety days. Surpassing its lifespan by almost 1.5 decades, Opportunity wandered the planet alone after its twin Rover, Spirit, died.
In June 2018, a dust storm on Mars covered Opportunity’s solar panels, disabling its ability to clean them and leaving it without any source of electricity. The last picture it transmitted to Earth ends midway, as the signal to the Rover ceased before it could send the entire image. The photograph is divided into two parts, an upper section of grey static, and a lower section for which visual data was lacking, rendering this part of the photograph black. The resulting composition is reminiscent of the traditional proportions of a landscape photography.
For her new series of works titled Opportunity Last Image (2020), presented at Die Ecke Arte Contemporáneo, Brittany Nelson appropriated this image and developed it 42 times as silver gelatin prints. Utilizing the historical photographic process, still appreciated today for its tonal range attained by silver halide crystals in the paper, Nelson presents the image with different exposures. The range is achieved by regulating the amount of light coming into contact with the paper and silver crystals. Some prints are almost entirely black, while others seem to disappear as ghostly silhouettes. The series is mounted on the wall with silver mylar tape, the same kind that NASA uses in its space missions. Presented in a methodical line, Nelson seems to be searching for meaning in this last transmitted image, attempting to reveal, through different amounts of light, some clue or hidden message.
Installed on the floor of the space is Opportunity Starry Rift (2020). The work is comprised of four mounds of black aggregate of different scales, with prints produced in the photographic process of bromoil lying loosely on top of them. Bromoil was used by the Pictorialist art movement in the early twentieth century and revered for its aesthetic proximity to painting. In this process, silver gelatin prints are bleached and, in a subsequent step, ink is applied by hand with a brush. The darker parts of the print absorb more ink, thus creating a photographic image that seems almost painterly. The photograph Nelson used is the same last image sent from Mars by Opportunity. The ink blots are applied in different intensities on each of the prints. The varying degree of hues of black spots covering the paper, as well as the differently scaled mounds of black rock on the ground, are reminiscent of the way the Rover’s solar panels were gradually coated by dust.
Circling the space is the reflection of a light that scans the walls like a searchlight. The moving spot calls to mind the search for a sign of the lost Rover, or possibly the Rover’s wandering through space. A lesbian artist, Nelson considers the Rover as a gay icon of a lonely traveler in search for a companion. The title of the exhibition, The Starry Rift, is inspired by the science fiction writer James Tiptree Jr.’s collection of short stories from 1986. The title refers to an area of the sky which is soaked in darkness, without any stars visible. Tiptree was the pseudonym of the author Alice B. Sheldon, who adopted a male pen name to insulate herself against the misogyny in science fiction circles, and to be able to write about her own lesbian desires. Many of Nelson’s most recent works are inspired by her research into Sheldon’s legacy and persona. In introducing Sheldon into her photographic work, Nelson pursues the path of queer abstraction, of that which cannot or does not want to be represented, to evade capture.
Sol 4,999, Silver-Plated Gelatin Silver Prints, 2018
10 x 8” each, Installation of 20 images
“Sol 4,999 references a picture taken by the Opportunity mars rover as the sun rises for the 5,000th time during its extended mission, long after the vehicle was to be discontinued. Appropriating the image, Nelson created a series of halochrome prints, each repeating the same photograph. Bleaching and redeveloping silver gelatin paper, the halochrome process tones black-and-white prints by fusing colloidal silver into solid silver. This chemical stabilizing process raises questions concerning permanence, both of human and other life as well as of artifacts cast in rigid materials for future generations to find and marvel at. The prints also call to mind the way alien artifacts are imagined widely across popular culture, as metal objects with shiny surfaces. In depicting images of the sun, the work points to the medium of photography as a capture of light, while the repeated images formally resemble a fragmentary calendar, an attempt to measure something as abstract as time passing on a desolate planet. For Opportunity, the sun rose and set 5,000 times during 14 years of solitude on Mars. The title of the show points to another form of isolation. WarmWorlds and Otherwise references a science fiction short story collection by Alice B. Sheldon,who wrote under the male pseudonym James Tiptree, Jr. In obfuscating her identity, Sheldon insulated herself twice, both protecting herself against the misogynist attitudes cultivated in science fiction circles, and allowing her write about her own lesbian desires. Warm Worlds and Otherwise, the book and the exhibition, highlight desires to tap into other worlds, the serendipity in searching for the unknown, and exercises in abstraction that elude preconceptions while sounding other possible futures.”
And I Awoke and Found Me Here On The Cold Hill’s Side, 2018
Gelatin Silver Prints, 20x16”
“And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side is a series of six images created from scans of book pages of a short story by James Tiptree Jr. Tiptree’s writing was celebrated for its direct tone, ardency, and fearlessness. The writer Robert Silverberg’s introduction to the 1975 edition of the short story collection Warm Worlds and Otherwise praises Tiptree’s language as one which could never be achieved by a woman. And yet, Tiptree was the pseudonym used by Alice B. Sheldon, a female author indulging in fantastical and dark psychological cosmic journeys inspired by pulp tales and lesbian sexual desires. In Tiptree’s short story And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill's Side (1972), a reporter interviews a captain of a spaceport, who describes how sex with aliens has ruined his and everyone else’s lives. He warns the reporter to leave immediately to avoid contracting the same addictive obsession with travelers from another world. Tiptree’s short story has been ascribed to her repressed homosexuality. In writing under a male pseudonym and through the voice of a male protagonist, she insulated her subjectivity twice and achieved freedom to discuss her desires under these terms. In exposing the scanned pages as negatives in the darkroom, Nelson made the text on the back of the paper seep through to the front. Using a flashlight for exposure, with fast strokes of light caressing the photosensitive surfaces, she revealed the front and the back of the pages simultaneously, rendering the words illegible and conflating fore and rear, before and after.”