By Sarahjane Swan & Roger Simian. Originally published in Film Panic Magazine, issue 7, December 2018
Growing up in Guelph, Ontario – “a university city known for its programs focused on agriculture and the environment” – has obviously had a deep influence on the works created by moving image artist, Kelly Richardson. She is known for her vast and mysterious, digitally manipulated landscapes. Her painstakingly constructed video artworks and installations offer a fully immersive experience which speaks of the transitory nature of experience: that “Unbearable Lightness of Being” familiar to every species of Life.
In a work such as Erudition, the rocks and the earth have permanence; the stars move so slowly that they exist in a state somewhere close to the infinite; but the ghost-like trees, meanwhile, which flicker into view and disappear just as quickly, are as impermanent and short-lived as human lives in relation to the vast expanses of space and time. In Twilight Avenger, meanwhile, a ghostly deer seems as impermanent as smoke when contrasted with the solidity of the forest. Both of these works can be sampled on Vimeo.
Following undergraduate studies at Sheridan College and Ontario College of Art and Design, in Toronto, Richardson moved east to Halifax, Nova Scotia, in 2002, to study for her MFA in Media Studies at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design University. The following year she relocated across the Atlantic to the North East of England, where she remained for 14 years, completing her Masters studies at Newcastle University.
Richardson now lives and works on Vancouver Island, off Canada’s Pacific Coast, where she is Associate Professor in Visual Arts at the University of Victoria.
We first became aware of her astonishing work as a result of her first solo exhibition in Scotland, The Weather Makers, which was installed at DCA (Dundee Contemporary Arts) between September and November 2017.
SJ&R: Can you tell us a little about your background? Where did you grow up? What was it in your environment that led you to Art?
KELLY: I’m not entirely sure what lead me to art but growing up in a city which was heavily influenced by the environmental research being conducted there certainly played a huge part in shaping me and ultimately my artistic practice.
SJ&R: Were you always interested in moving image work and installations or did you begin your creative journey at a different point? What media did you use to create your earliest artworks?
KELLY: My earliest artworks were drawings and paintings. That’s actually what I studied in my undergraduate degree. Upon graduating I questioned why I was focusing on that particular media, which was arguably the wrong time for such an inquiry but nevertheless it lead to an important personal interrogation as to why I was making art and what I had to say or make work about. From that point I approached all projects through ideas which in turn dictated the medium used to realize whatever idea I was working with. Moving image entered my practice at that point and eventually became the dominant media used alongside digital prints.
SJ&R: Who were the artists or filmmakers who really grabbed your attention when you were younger? Do you see any correlations between their work and yours?
KELLY: I have a wonderful memory of encountering one of Tony Oursler’s installations and being simultaneously enthralled and weirded out by it, in the best way. Tall Ships by Gary Hill had a similar marked impact on me early on. Diana Thater’s ability to transform a gallery space through light and projection was also intriguing, as was her interest in grappling with threats to the natural world.
Correlations between experiencing simultaneous conflicting sensations within both Oursler and Hill’s work and my own strategies of making are probably pretty evident although I must admit that I hadn’t really made that connection until you asked. Funny how the obvious can often sit just out of view. Thater’s interest in transforming spaces along with her ability to poetically wrestle with environmental issues relates strongly to how I developed as an artist, particularly within the last decade. I think what I do is rather different than all of them but certainly the influence of these artists is visible to some degree.
SJ&R: What led you from Canada to the North East of England and what impact did this new landscape and culture have on you? How has it influenced your work?
KELLY: That’s a really great question. I would be able to write a dissertation on it alone but I’ll try to keep it brief. I left for England partly to experience what it was like to live and work there. I had been working full-time in Toronto and finding the juggle between that, making art and being active within the art community an impossible one. What I quickly discovered in North East England was an ability to work as an artist in many capacities, through gallery outreach and education, research projects and various commissions. There was a strong appreciation for the arts in general which I found incredibly refreshing, as evidenced by the multiple ways artists could support themselves. I was very time-rich as a result, which translated to many more studio hours and in turn facilitated a much more rigorous practice thinking, exploring and making. That period of research and production was essential to how I ended up developing as an artist. Without it, it’s difficult to imagine what my practice would look like now but I’m certain that it would be nowhere near as developed.
Moving to a quieter area of England where there were few distractions or powerful institutional influences also allowed me the space to take some significant risks within the work. Had I not reached a point where I gave myself permission to do that, again, my practice would never have developed in the way that it has. I’m eternally grateful for the 14 years that I spent in the North East and for the support that it provided in assisting with that growth. Who I am now and what my practice looks like was largely made possible by it.
SJ&R: Would you mind giving us a brief history of your major works, what these involved and where they were first presented?
KELLY: Exiles of the Shattered Star (2006) was the first work that I produced which focused on conflicting sensations, being both mesmeric and slightly terrifying. Prior to it I had almost always used humour as an entry point to the work. The risk with the earlier work was that viewers might not experience the work beyond the joke, which was ultimately what I was interested in. It was also the first high definition video that I produced in combination with visual effects which were pretty challenging given my limited resources. The first substantial exhibition that it was included in was The Cinema Effect: Illusion, Reality and the Moving Image at the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden (USA) in 2008.
Mariner 9 (2012) is arguably the next major work as, like Exiles, a new way of working was introduced with it. With every video installation prior to Mariner 9 I began by filming an existing landscape somewhere in the world within which I would digitally insert visual effects in post production. As this piece is set on Mars, in order to produce a convincing, topographically accurate interpretation of a landscape on the planet, I employed software typically used in the gaming industries to create realistic terrain. It was the first work then that I produced which was generated entirely through digital means. The landscape itself took many months to develop which was one element of the work. Various spacecraft which have made it to Mars along with those which haven’t were digitally crafted and then inserted, along with a dust storm which I was warned on a few occasions by industry professionals would not be possible to produce. The addition of 5.1 surround sound helps to convince viewers of my proposed, future landscape on Mars. Eleven months later, working seven days a week, Mariner 9 premiered in a derelict space in Whitley Bay, England, one day before Curiosity Rover landed successfully on the planet, which was great considering it featured in the work. Given its location, I thought that perhaps upwards of 100 people might have seen Mariner 9 in its two week long exhibition but incredibly, over 10,500 visitors came through.
SJ&R: How much, if any, inspiration do you draw from the landscape painters and photographers of the past? Do you see your work as being part of that tradition?
KELLY: Another great question. While living in England in 2005 I visited the National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh and found myself mesmerized by a number of historical landscape paintings, the most memorable of which was Salvator Rosa’s Desolate Landscape with Two Figures (1660-63). Unusually for the time, the subject of the painting along with presumably the intention of the artist was to evoke the awesome grandeur of nature. The figures were tiny and secondary to the main protagonist, the landscape itself. The feeling that the work inspired was powerful for a number of reasons, particularly as it was something that I hadn’t felt in some time within contemporary art. To that end, that visit offered a significant trigger within my thinking around how I wanted to shape myself as an artist. What followed was a fascination of practitioners of the Apocalyptic Sublime, a sub-genre of Romanticism. In particular, painter John Martin who was from North East England.
I very much see my work as part of that tradition, albeit a contemporary continuation to the conversations initiated in the late 18th century. The conflicted feelings the work inspired through a classic exploration of the sublime was a clear interest, as was the speculation on how and why the movement came about: anxieties around the birth of the Industrial Revolution, its impact on the natural world and what the future might look like as a result.
SJ&R: What do you want your audience to feel when we immerse ourselves in your work?
KELLY: I want viewers to be aware of themselves in these future landscapes and the sensations they inspire, which are often at odds with one another. They offer a calculated ambiguity where there are always multiple ways to read the work. In some cases, the scenarios could be read as positive with an associated feeling while other understandings are terrifying. I’d like viewers to feel the implications within each landscape, to think and feel deeply about the future and through that lens, fully appreciate our current landscape – all that we still have and how we continue to squander it.
SJ&R: Do you think of the landscapes you create as being inhabited or abandoned?
KELLY: Both really. They are abandoned for the most part, or in the process of being, while one lone inhabitant remains: the viewer.
SJ&R: Can you tell us a bit about your artistic process?
KELLY: It changes from project to project depending on the idea and the manipulation required. I usually start each work not knowing how to produce it on a technical level. Each idea introduces a new problem or set of problems, in terms of how to produce the effects required to render them. My process typically involves exploring different software packages early in the research and development for each work, in order to assess their capabilities to produce the desired effect. That process of discovery then determines which software is needed. The effects are then developed much more fully over many months. At the same time I either explore existing landscapes to film as the setting for the work or in cases where visiting those landscapes would be impossible, I create them digitally.
SJ&R: It feels to us that environmental themes are important to you. In a work like Twilight Avenger, in which a ghostly deer is contrasted with the permanence of the forest, are you speaking about the vulnerability of individual species?
KELLY: Yes, I’ve explored deep concerns about the environment for the last 20 years really. On the whole I’m speaking about the vulnerability of all species, including us, as we continue to race towards incredibly uncertain futures characterized by the fallout of climate change.
SJ&R: What projects are currently occupying your time and attention? What will you be working on over the next year?
KELLY: I’m nearing the end of production on a big body of large-scale prints and videos entitled Pillars of Dawn which will exhibit in the UK this year at Southampton City Art Gallery, Seaton Delaval Hall and the Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art. The works present trees, forests and desertlike terrain which have been entirely encrusted in crystals as a result of a future, undetermined atmospheric shift. As with so many of my works, Pillars of Dawn presents a scenario which suggests that we may need to look beyond our current planet for refuge and raises myriad questions about how we arrived at such a moment of environmental crisis and where we might go from there.
Following that, this summer production begins on a new large-format moving image commission which will premiere in IMAX theatres in 2019. It’s the first time that I will have worked with a film crew which I’m incredibly excited about, particularly as the Producer and Cinematographer is Christian Kroitor, the grandson of IMAX inventor Roman Kroitor.
The commission will feature old-growth trees on Vancouver Island where I now live. Last year the University of Victoria brought me to the island to give a talk and while here, I visited Avatar Grove, an area of ancient forest recently protected through the efforts of the grassroots organization Ancient Forest Alliance. Imagine 16 foot wide trees and heights equivalent to a 23 story office building. They are utterly phenomenal. Being in the presence of these 1000+ year old giants was incredibly moving and humbling. So much so that despite loving my life in the UK, I decided to move to Vancouver Island and join UVic’s Visual Arts department to be closer to the old-growth.
I won’t give too much away but what I’m interested in within this developing work is why we continue to define progress through conversion of nature. It’s still the dominant, ruling worldview despite the fact that we’re facing widespread, devastating repercussions for it through climate change. It’s madness.
Given our nature, it’s hard to believe that these gigantic trees still exist. Very few do though, with over 90% having been logged in the valley bottoms where the largest trees grow. Ancient forests are vital to sustaining unique endangered species, climate stability, tourism, clean water, wild salmon, and the cultures of many First Nations. The small pockets that remain are still largely unprotected by British Columbia, and the logging continues.
Find out more about Kelly Richardson’s work at www.kellyrichardson.net