Are we noble savages or simply savages?
TEXT: Andew Ütt
PHOTOS: Nicholas Kahn & Richard Selesnick
Kahn & Selesnick, an art collective from the US and England who have worked together for over twenty years, recently embarked on a project to imagine what a human civilisation would be like on Mars. Provided with images from NASA from their first rover on the surface of Mars, Kahn & Selesnick have adapted the modern Mars into a broad spectrum of relics of past civilisations and future utopias.
The ultimate question of human existence that hovers above us is – are we noble savages or simply savages? It is this question that defines our morals and ethics and how we treat others and our world. As noble beings we see utopia as a possibility – almost a probability. But as savages, neither utopia nor dystopia exist in the future. The savage relies upon destruction and consumption as moral right.
“We are part bonobo and part bad chimp,” states Nicholas Kahn. “We can dream and plan for amazing things, but petty human jealousies and tribalism almost always undermine any utopian dreams.”
200 million kilometers away
Kahn and his art partner-in-crime, Richard Selesnick, recently explored our noble (and savage) existence in their series Mars: Adrift on the Hourglass Sea, which takes images of Mars, captured by the NASA rovers Spirit and Opportunity, to build a future world that recognizes the failings of civilisation’s past.
It was shortly after presenting their series Apollo Prophecies, about an Edwardian journey to the moon, that Kahn & Selesnick were approached by Bert Ulrich, NASA’s Media Relations contact. He asked them to create a panorama artwork about their mission to Mars (with Spirit and Opportunity) and provided them with high-resolution images taken by the rovers of the surface of mars. The panorama soon grew into a larger series of works about a future, habited Mars.
The final product is a collection of images that are constructed through actual Mars images and other, earthly images, mainly taken from the Utah landscape in the United States. The process of construction took many months to not only compile pieces of images, but also to create completely new objects through various textures. “Richard created a lot of surfaces from scratch,” acknowledges Kahn. Accompanying the images are various sculptures (props) and drawings based on the inhabited Mars world.
In 1659, the first documented surface feature discovered on another planet was titled The Hourglass Sea. It is a crater on Mars now known as Syrtis Major – a shield volcano, black from the volcanic rock and lacking the signature red dust of Mars. The original name of this area on Mars inspired the investigation into the appearance and the lack of appearance of time in Kahn & Selesnick’s story.
“We were interested in trying to give the viewer a sense of vast geological time periods,” says Selesnick in an interview with Wired Magazine. “This sense of a kind of geological detective story came especially clear to us photographing in Utah when we came across hematite deposits similar to those found on Mars.”
In Mars: Adrift on the Hourglass Sea, time takes on an essential role. Much like Kubrik’s film 2001, time is skipped, lapsing a complete history of existence on Mars. But many questions arise – did these new inhabitants come to this new planet and find these ruins or are they the descendants of these ruins? Are these images from a long distant past or a soon-to-be future?
Utopia – a woman’s world?
The new inhabitants of Mars are two women who have learned how to reproduce without the need of men. They wander the landscape, admiring the relics of the past – large sculptures that acknowledge the existence of others before them. The women live both in their present (or future) world while learning from the downfall of the past. To Kahn, the Mars project reflects an earthly issue concerning our vision toward a utopian future and that of dystopia.
“It feels like we’re in a grand empire, but we’re also on the verge of some wonderful possibilities. Whether the force of possibilities can win through the fascist corporations sucking the planet dry. It also feels as if we’re on the verge of a huge ecological collapse and there will be ruins of our civilisation and all these possibilities. The Mars series is a sort of warning about this collapse.”
“I see the Mars series as a possibility of exploration and doing something good – re-greening Mars,” Kahn declares. “Bringing it back from the brink of where it was. I hope for the best and fear the worst.”
So, would the world be better with less men?
“It would be more likely,” says Kahn. “If the world was rid of men, there would be more utopia.”
Both Kahn & Selesnick grew up with scientific inspirations and alternative worlds that exist just after the apocalypse. Planet of the Apes is the result of the demise of human civilisation and the rise of Apes, Logan’s Run analyses the future attempt to regulate overpopulation through the willing execution of people on their 30th birthday. And in Margaret Atwood’s 1985 book A Handmaid’s Tale, the future tells a sobering story of the obliteration of the US government and subsequent conversion into a theocratic, male chauvinist society where women lose all their rights.
“It’s unlikely it could truly work. Though one senses that the world would be a better place (without men) – there wouldn’t be so much war without male desires,” says Kahn.
The future of Mars
As the Mar’s rover Curiosity actively roams the surface (having now discovered the former existence of water), Kahn & Selesnick have begun thinking about adding to their project Mars: Adrift on the Hourglass Sea.
With new color photos in high-resolution, they plan on shooting new Earth-based images to accompany those from Mars and to complete the project with a book. Hopefully next fall we’ll see the launch of a new set of artworks.
In the meantime, you can check the duo’s Mars: Adrift on the Hourglass Sea website as well as their personal site with examples of past artworks. Or you can see their artwork in person at one of their numerous planned exhibitions in the next year.
The Field Museum
Chicago, Illinois, USA
January 6, 2013
Los Angeles, USA
January 22 – August 5, 2013
Salt Lake City, Utah, USA
Denver, Colorado, USA
Mars: Adrift on the Hourglass Sea
Carroll and Sons
Boston, Massachusetts, USA
Animal vegetable mineral
Florence Griswold Museum
August 31 — December 17, 2013
Ulrich Museum of Art
Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art