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Crowds flock to Mariner 9 exhibition at Spanish City in Whitley Bay

IF you want to see what Mars will look like in 200 years’ time, go to Whitley Bay.

Mariner 9 can be see at the Spanish City, Whitley Bay, until August 19
Mariner 9 can be see at the Spanish City, Whitley Bay, until August 19

ENORMOUS excitement greeted this week’s safe landing on Mars by Nasa’s robot rover Curiosity.

It will spend the next two years trundling around looking for signs of past life on the red planet.

Charles Elachi, director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, told the BBC: “Tonight was a great drama that was played. I felt like I was in an adventure movie but kept telling myself this is real.”

This will have been music to the ears of artist Kelly Richardson whose Mariner 9 artwork – part science, part science fiction – is drawing curious crowds to the Spanish City in Whitley Bay.

I joined them yesterday at the end of a Kelly Richardson tour of the region, also taking in the National Glass Centre and the Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art in Sunderland, where the artist also has work on display. On a super-wide screen on the site of the former funfair you can see Kelly’s imagined surface of Mars in 200 years’ time.

It is not a particularly pretty picture although it is a highly dramatic one. Kelly’s Martian landscape looks like a building site after a storm with the detritus of dozens of Curiosity-style missions lying around.

Some of them are still flickering and twitching, carrying out their redundant duties even in their death throes and maybe sending back signals to ... well, who knows?

Will our descendants be listening? Indeed, will the human race still be around to hear? Will Earth, by then, look like this too?

Kelly Richardson is from Canada and hugely respected as an artist there and in the United States. But what better way to introduce the locals to your art than with a world premiere?

Mariner 9 is presented by the Tyneside Cinema and North Tyneside Council.

Despite being a work of the imagination, it is founded on fact. Richardson used Nasa data to produce her video recreation of a Martian landscape, its surface illuminated by the pale light of a distant sun and swept by swirling dust storms.

With its atmospheric soundtrack, like a wind on an empty fell, you could say Mariner 9 is a curious attraction for a seaside resort in August.

But it is not entirely at odds with the adjoining exhibition beneath the Spanish City’s famous dome which charts the history of the building. Here, too, there are as many questions as answers.

Will the Spanish City and the Whitley Bay seafront ever recapture past glories? Both looked very nice yesterday with the sun shining.

My day began, though, at the National Glass Centre, another building where ambitious plans are afoot and explained on giant display boards. Here in the contemporary art gallery you can see Orion Tide, a large luminous colour photograph showing a desert scene against a night sky.

The photo shows 10 rockets heading skywards, or rather the fuel burning beneath them. Seen another way, they could be 10 stalagmites with glowing tips.

We can assume there has been some sort of disaster because in the accompanying text the artist refers to the popularity of films depicting catastrophe.

“Science fiction is one of the best tools we have to visualise and experience to some degree what life might be like,” Richardson has said.

“Given the state of things environmentally, culturally etc, I would argue that there has never been a more important time to visualise our potential futures ...”

Much more of Kelly Richardson’s work can be seen at the Northern Gallery of Contemporary Art, on the top floor of Sunderland City Library on Fawcett Street.

This was my second stop yesterday and it was an engrossing one. Legion is the first major UK exhibition of Richardson’s work and it includes early video works from the 1990s and more recent pieces, epic in scale and displayed on multiple screens.

The first thing you’ll see as you step into the main gallery’s gloom is a piece called Leviathan.

Displayed on three screens, it looks like a primordial version of the Everglades. From the text we learn that it was filmed at a lake in a Texan town called Uncertain, which is apt.

You can’t be wholly certain what has happened or is about to happen here. Richardson likes that ambiguity in her artworks, or, as she puts it, having “multiple collapsed narratives deliberately worked into them”.

Our most famous landscape painters – Turner, Constable – gave us their interpretations of what they saw out in the fresh air. Richardson gives us her interpretation of what she sees in her head and recreates on a screen.

In Exiles of the Shattered Star, made in 2006, an idyllic Lake District scene is viewed through a storm of falling meteors, fiercely ablaze. It’s beautiful and awful at the same time.

If you want to see the house where Kelly grew up, you can. It features in a short film called Ferman Drive which shows a very nice Canadian suburban street, all nice and normal except for one home spinning wildly.

The Erudition, on three screens, gives us another landscape which disturbs because it looks nearly real with its swaying blue trees and barren landscape. It’s nature as imagined on computer.

Don’t forget to pop into the Project Space to see one of the most intriguing exhibitions, nine suspended screens, each showing a Canadian forest scene with appropriate soundtrack of birds and insects.

Nothing apocalyptic about that? In fact, this is the only exhibit which hasn’t been digitally interfered with. Why, then, is it called The Destroyer?

Because eventually you will hear noises – a chainsaw, gunfire. One of nature’s great mimics, a male lyrebird, is what we hear but it tells us the sounds of human encroachment are not far away.

Wit, humour and trepidation are staple ingredients of Kelly Richardson’s work which can also be appreciated for its technical brilliance.

:: Mariner 9 can be see at the Spanish City, Whitley Bay, until August 19 (Mon-Fri, 12 noon-8pm; Sat, Sun, 10am-6pm). Admission free. Orion Tide and Legion can both be seen until September 29.


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