There comes a point in our lives when the incessant cavorting, energy expulsion, and general themes of youth come to a crawling end. Associated with the recognition of these moments are a series of mid-life acknowledgments. First, if one takes up the standard biology-the coupling, work, and family routines, the dissipation of specific energies fades. Certain impulses recede, leaving one to entertain the tasks associated with provision, and responsibility, and in so much, creates a vacuum for intellectual life under the continuum of the duress of manufacturing sustenance for oneself and others. Generally associated as a condition of the 20s, 30s, and 40s, this period is a period of great focus, and it leaves little room for much else. These are the family and work years.
Though some of us try to muster some will throughout this experience for our creative lives, the energy and freedoms associated with inner creativity are compromised by the reality that, like a dying star heaving its last pulses forward, held inept and deeply in the gravitational pull of ever-expanding darkness, that we are groomed by a rotation that sees more short days than long ones. I have always associated what follows this part of life as the beginning of the significant period of doddering and acceptance. The great period of building and growing comes to a close, leaving a slow roll down the hill on the other side in the shadows. This is the moment when stability becomes less the reality, and the trajectory associated with our lives enters something of a final orbit, where things are less secure. The children are grown enough to be somewhat self-administered. The routines, if we are lucky, have become cemented in daily life. There are fewer periods of rising and falling tensions, outside of possible relationship dissolution, minor cancers, grandchildren, and so forth.
As I can only speak for myself, I tend to relate this period of consolation and consolidation to a condition associated with post-child rearing. However, I consider it from a male-dominated POV, for better and, quite possibly, for worse. Having spent the more significant part of my adult years surrounded by collectors in some way or another, I tend to see the lay of the land as heavily demographied by men. This is not to dwell on imbalance or the nature of gender and collecting or doddering, but particular pursuits seem to filter through toward the acquisitive male mind at scale. If I had to guess what the phenomenon relates to, it’s that those collector men in this position tend to drop their biological pursuits. As children flee the nest, there is less direct reliance on provision though the male of the species seems to find time to dodder or get involved in their “great projects.” The self-reliability of the children requires less provision and daily protective caregiving, leaving the empty nesting male to consider at length other pursuits and other fathoms. Perhaps it is time to write that book, add a floor to the house, take up flyfishing, and maybe fix up some fuel-emitting nonsense vehicle. A man born; a man cave universe inspired.
What does this have to do with Mars and photographic images sent back from various rovers? In truth, not much other than an excuse to unburden myself of a feeling of tedium regarding the subject matter itself and its focus group of doddering. It won’t win me friends, and of course, friend counts are also not something I am overly concerned for at my age of oncoming august nature. Of the listed examples of doddering projects I mentioned above, one pursuit that I have also qualified as a pursuit that men tend to reach for in their multitudes at a certain age is that of a keen obsession with astronomy. I could also suggest cartography here, and the two, for the purposes of this writing, are interlinked. What else could it be if astronomy is not mapping the heavenly terrains?
Perhaps astrography might be a good use of terms in considering the images that have come back to us from our various celestial colonization programs. My only direct experience of this comes from the crossover between the dodderers who collect images of space and their big projects. I had the experience of working with a photographic dealer whose interests in space exploration are well-noted. I was, through him, able to see several interesting images related to the various campaigns to the moon and general celestial geographies. In truth, I do not find it interesting. I find it and the technological fetishism of it all embarrassing. But this is me, and perhaps it is a perversion of intellectual life that I react so strongly to it.
Further, my position does not disallow me to understand the nature of why people gravitate towards such things. For me, the concept of space is simply an abstraction, and I loathe math. I am filthy in so many ways. I probably sacked Rome once and decreed an absolution to several minor, perhaps major, demons. I find the stars a series of blemishes staining the night sky, distracting our course, like religion, from the here and now, the essence of being right fucking here, right fucking now. From Earth Rise to images of the Apollo landing, in a former life, in my capacity as a director of a photography gallery, I had to endure the dull routine of examining and selling exorbitantly-priced vintage NASA photographs to clients on the wall of the Hoxton Square gallery where I worked, and at Parisphoto, the collective home of doddering tweed jackets and lipstick-stained champagne glasses, air, and ass kisses. I suspect you can guess from reading this which demographic purchased such images. This experience left me a bit cold.
With all of this negatively stated, I can, in a plea for fairness and objectivity, empathize with collectors, artists, and enthusiasts who collect or gravitate toward these associated materials and interests. After all, I am a collector and have been since an early age. We’re all looking to fill in something in our lives, whether intellectual, spiritual, or material. I can make only base assumptions about why these matters interest myself or others, and I can dangerously put gender to that at will and at consequence. I’m sure there are many women and the theys who love stardust and can imagine banging a line or two up their beaks to get a little out of orbit and a little closer to the sun. I just find myself metaphorically without a trajectory, stranded on the launch pad, my only companion, some half-wit chimpanzee in a matching space suit pissing itself and heckling at me every time I try to imagine my place amongst the stars, or more likely, imagine being returned to a state of ordinary human verticality, instead of being held in a priapic star tube waiting to fuck the sky. Failure to do something or other.
I have outlined this as it regards the work of Nicolai Howalt and his new book A Journey: The Near Future, published by Fabrik Books, and despite my alarming lack of interest in the matters of Mars or space itself, I can admit that I am taken with the consequence of the production of the book itself, if less the subject matter, which still has, despite my stated claims of aversion and seething annoyance, some exciting prospects at its base. It would be bad manners not to look at Nicolai, a respected Danish artist, and his work with anything but respect. I had to set the stage/launchpad/etc. for the reasons that I cannot gush about Mars itself- a piece of shit planet from what I hear anyways. Does it even fucking have covid? What kind of planet doesn’t have fucking covid in 2023? Waste of a perfect pangolin virus if you ask me.
First and foremost, the images from within the book are black and white, drained of color, and highlighted by silver ink, a color that we more often associate with the moon. Silver and the moon have a rich history (one that I learned against my will, clearly), so the choice of printing is peculiar, but I cannot say that I disagree. I find it beautiful, alluring, and resolutely thoughtful of the artist and publisher to work with the reflective silver-on-black page coordination. Perhaps, a metallic copper ink, if even available, might have been an ideal option, but we are really splitting hairs on that. If you have seen Richard Mosse’s The Castle (MACK, 2019), you will understand the effect of printing. Silver on black paper has a long history, and recently I have found that the Japanese, particularly in photo magazines from the 1970s, were quite fond of the combination. The latter book from Mosse is one of the few books that I have kept that, ethically, I find obnoxious at best. That stated, I have kept it as it is a beautiful book that, ignoring the obvious ethical flaws, can be marveled at with production in mind.
In Howalt’s book, there are a few great things worth mentioning. I do not want to get tied up in the questions of colonizing the universe and what that means for people, so I will casually leave this as the only mention of it. I don’t have a horse or a chimp in that game. Before they are tendered my way, bioethics and cosmic voyaging arguments leave me drier than a land crab’s sandy crack. I am optimistic that if Sun-Ra were here, he would be able to pen something about it, and if he did, I would listen cause Sun-Ra. At its base, what I find enjoyable outside of the production of Howalt’s book is the agency given to non-human photography and optical feeds that send the images back to the hopeful and initiated back on earth. I enjoy the idea of non-human photography and think the implications of it are fascinating in the context of its corruptibility after the acknowledgment of its dangerous will to control is outlined. CCTV on Mars, Ring doorbell alarms on Uranus, only a matter of time, pal…
Howalt has chosen through the editing to make sure not to limit the presence of the Mars rover’s white removed shadow. Perseverance, Spirit, and Opportunity (I can hear someone chanting Say their names, say their names!!!) are responsible for the returned images. We see their outlines in the foreground of the images Howalt used as illustrations (photos, non-photos, code). They are reminiscent of early 19th Century images where one sees the shadow of the operator in the image, the tripod for a brief second looking like some stilted walking alien making the scene in front of it paralyzed with fear, if but for 1 second. In thinking about the absence/presence of the machine (shadow) and the human interfacing (artist) who interprets and assembles them, some interesting conclusions about authorship and interpretation can be drawn: these images, if we may call them that, are stateless. We move the torch of ownership from automation back to human agency and from the realms of digital code to analog photographs to printed books. There is something profound in that exchange where the author essentially asks the technology to be reverse-engineered, shuffled from optimum technology back to silver salts and darkroom enlarger, Mars in retrograde, Venus in tears.
Further, despite my hesitation towards cartography, the panoramas in the book are pretty spectacular to behold in their jagged silver prints. They look like some awkward long saw blade, perhaps an amputee saw looking for a phantom cosmic limb, perhaps like a precarious grill adorning the mouth of infinity. Though I know that I am asked to look at this terrain vague that I substitute like everyone else as a stand-in for an aesthetic understanding of a big pile of frozen dirt 63 million kilometers away, I admit that I am seduced by the overall form if not the content of the images of Mars. I will politely tip the hat to Howalt for giving me an angle into the work that improbably piques my interest. I will file his efforts in the same mental cabinet as I file Timothy O’Sullivan’s Wheeler Survey photographs from 1871-74. Admittedly, I would love to see a petroglyph turn up on Mars.
Books on the photographic survey of Mars do have a precedent from 2013. Though this material and the conceptual overtures from Howalt are entirely distinct and in line with his interest in form, repetition, and time (Old Tjikko), it would be unfair for me not to mention French conceptual artist Sebastien Girard and his book published with Xavier Barall in 2013, This is Mars, which are images (also printed in the darkroom) of the topography of Mars’ surface from above from the MRO (Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter), as opposed to Howalt’s interest in the horizons presented by the rovers. They are entirely complimentary books and should perhaps be seen together despite the different artists and their interpretations of data received from their Martian muse.
Despite my old man grumblings about the subject of the heavens, I would say that Howalt and Fabrik have done a brilliant job of making the subject matter aesthetically hard to deny. Though I don’t much care for the topic, I believe this is a fine photobook, and if you are at all imperiled by the onset of astronomiphilia, this will undoubtedly be for you. We live in unparalleled times when it comes to space and its explorations. It makes perfect sense that such a book is of our moment as much as the moon was culturally regarded in the 60s. On grounds of production and overall merit, the book is exceptional. Highly Recommended.