Sci-fi effects meet landscapes in Kelly Richardson's Legion

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At the Contemporary Art Gallery until August 31

Curiosity, awe, terror—Kelly Richardson’s “hyper-real” video installations stimulate a range of responses from viewers.

In her eerie conjoining of documentary footage and sci-fi–style digital effects, Richardson updates Romantic landscape traditions and their notions of the sublime, especially the “apocalyptic sublime” of 19th-century British painter John Martin. Where Martin’s dire fantasies played on fears of the industrial revolution, Richardson’s desolate landscapes propose a future in which it’s possible that environmental catastrophe has depopulated the Earth. Or perhaps we’re looking at other planets entirely, scenes of future, failed colonization. Possible, perhaps, and maybe abound in discussions of Richardson’s videos, which are ambiguous and open-ended, inviting any number of interpretations.

Born in Canada and based in England, Richardson is an internationally acclaimed media artist with an extensive exhibition history. Still, the Contemporary Art Gallery is the first to mount a solo show of her work in Vancouver.

Consisting of two audio-visual installations and two still photographs, it provides an engaging introduction to her imaginative powers and technical accomplishments. The exhibition guide notes Richardson’s exploration of the sublime, which it eloquently defines as “that mixture of awe, hope and fear that reveals something uncomfortable about the depth and darkness of human desire”.

Leviathan, which takes its name from the biblical monster of the deep, is a room-filling, two-screen depiction of a ghostly swamp, accompanied by an ominous soundtrack—part soughing wind, part mechanical hum, part unidentifiable roar. Here, dark cypress trees, draped in Spanish moss, rise out of a flooded landscape, whose sleazy liquid is suggestive of either primordial ooze or environmental cataclysm—beginning or end. In fact, the work was shot in 2011 at Caddo Lake on the Texas-Louisiana border, the site of the first over-water drilling for oil. (A century later, oil still floats on the lake’s surface.)

In the video, a gentle wind plays in endless ripples across the polluted body of water, and Richardson has digitally complemented this movement with shifting and shimmering rings of yellow light, which amplify the eerie effect and suggest something monstrous lurking beneath. (Not a creature, perhaps, but oil and our planet-wrecking greed for it.) Mostly reduced to brackish monochromes, this landscape lacks signs of human presence or, for that matter, any other orienting feature. Without spatial or temporal markers, it seems to go on and on—just as the video goes hypnotically on and on, without any definitive action or narrative structure.

Orion Tide, on the other hand, is filled with action—inexplicable and unsettling. This single-screen HD video, whose title evokes NASA’s Orion manned-spacecraft program, opens with a shot of a seemingly unpopulated desert at night. The foreground is scattered with pale rocks and scrubby, parched vegetation; low, jagged mountains outline the horizon; hundreds of stars fill the blue-black sky. Suddenly, we hear a low, rumbling boom and witness an explosion of brown dirt, as some kind of snub-nosed rocket erupts from beneath the desert floor. Glowing white-hot, shooting up out of the frame, leaving behind a gradually disintegrating column of smoke, it is quickly followed by another rocket and another and another, exploding out of different spots in the desert and soaring into the unseen.

Critics and curators have speculated that these rockets are “escape pods”, possibly the means by which a remnant of humanity abandons our ruined planet in search of a new home. Or perhaps these soaring shapes are long-dormant aliens bursting into malign life. Or maybe this is the biblical rapture, and these are human souls, not rockets, catapulting heavenward. Whatever is going on, its representation here is beautiful, mesmerizing, and disturbing, blurring the divide between reality, fiction, and metafiction. Probing the possible, the perhaps, and the maybe. Messing with “the depth and darkness of human desire”.

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