One of the Laing Art Gallery’s biggest rooms has been plunged into darkness to accommodate an artwork of eerie magnificence.
This is Mariner 9 by Kelly Richardson, a Canadian artist who lives in Whitley Bay.
Last seen at the Spanish City in Kelly’s hometown back in 2012, the digital realisation of an imagined Martian landscape has since been impressing audiences overseas.
It has been a hugely popular attraction at the Toronto International Film Festival, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York, and the Natural History Museum in Vienna.
More than 10,000 people saw the dramatic artwork in Whitley Bay and Kelly says the total viewing figure must now easily top 300,000.
At Nuit Blanche, a frenetic all-night art festival in Toronto, it was exhibited outdoors and was viewed, Kelly reckons, by crowds up to 1,000-strong.
The pull of the work has been extraordinary. After Newcastle it is off to Northern Ireland and then, in the autumn, it will return to Canada for two major art festivals.
It is a measure of the high regard in which Kelly is held internationally. She’s a star, albeit a down-to-earth one, and we are lucky to have her here.
Mariner 9 – sponsored for this showing by the Newcastle Institute for Creative Arts Practice at Newcastle University – was commissioned by the Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle, as part of its Pixel Palace digital arts programme.
This was an astute bit of business for it means they are the proud possessors of one copy of Mariner 9 – the one we see here – which was produced in an edition of just three.
The other two copies have been acquired by the Albright-Knox Art Gallery and the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa.
At the preview in Newcastle Kelly said: “I didn’t really think it could travel as much as it’s doing for purely practical reasons. It is quite an expensive piece to exhibit but people are finding the money for it and it’s really nice to see.”
Laughing, she said: “Even though it’s finished it has become a full-time job just managing this single piece.”
Mariner 9 depicts the imagined surface of Mars 200 years into the future when it is littered with the sad, abandoned and mostly defunct remnants of past Martian space probes.
It is the planetary equivalent of a popular picnic spot after a bank holiday. Against the dust-blown red surface, reflecting in places the light from celestial sources, various wrecked machines flash feebly or wave a mechanical arm.
Kelly looked at Nasa images of Mars and was also in contact with its jet propulsion laboratory when gathering material for the piece, which she made after mastering a computer programme called Terragen.
The resulting image is thrown from three projectors onto a screen running along the gallery wall. That it appears seamless is a credit to gallery staff, according to Kelly who was delighted with their efforts. Even temperature changes have been known to send the projectors out of synch, she said.
Kelly said she had feared the work might be “too sci-fi” to appeal to the art world but galleries have found it compelling.
There can have been no better setting than the Laing. Next door are paintings by John Martin, the 18th Century Tyneside artist with a penchant for the apocalyptic, of whom Kelly is an admirer.
Next door in the other direction, meanwhile, hang paintings by JMW Turner who, you feel,would have understood this artist’s work perfectly. He depicted the drama of the Industrial Revolution while in Mariner 9 we see the dramatic effects of man’s efforts to extend that revolution into outer space.
Later in the year, as Mariner 9 heads for Canada, Kelly will be bound for Detroit. She is one of four artists chosen to launch a new art residency in the troubled American city which is looking to reinvent itself after the ravages of recession.
In terms of new work, Kelly revealed she is planning a major piece focusing on recently extinct plants. “I want to create something really lush and beautiful,” she said. And she will, you can be sure.
Mariner 9 is at the Laing until September 7. Admission is free. Kelly Richardson will talk about it at the gallery on May 14 at 2pm – call 0191 211 2121 or email firstname.lastname@example.org to book. She will also be present on May 17 (7-11pm) as part of The Late Shows.