On Mars Wanderings

Between the lines of a watery maze and the layered striations of condensed planetary photographs, Anna Bogatin Ott transforms a gallery at the Delaware Art Museum into a space for peace and contemplation in Our Red Planet. Her painting Mars Wanderings invokes a whole archive of photography documenting Martian environments, and yet I was most inspired to reflect on the ecological relationships that define life on this blue planet.

The title “Mars Wanderings” alone conjures some of the familiar NASA photographs of our neighboring planet. But what images come to mind exactly? Is it the ones of Mars taken at distance to reveal a vermillion, desert-like orb suspended in space? Or perhaps we easily recall Exploration Rover images that depict a rocky and arid Martian terrain. As mystifying as these images are, the environment seems wholly inhospitable. Yet even as we wander through the exhibition space, the Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover is drilling for samples of rock and soil, searching for signs of ancient microbial life. The linear paint strokes in Ott’s Mars Wanderings are reminiscent of the grooved tracks left behind by Perseverance’s four predecessors, the only “bodies” from Earth that have actually traveled across Martian ground. The repetition of these lines suggests the iterative and redundant process of all five rover missions. The way they overlap might even emulate how those paths have crossed one another over time. Inspired by the work of abstract artists Agnes Martin and Barnett Newman, the paint strokes may also imitate the Mars horizon while the gradient tonality of red suggests shifts in its atmosphere and soil. As we think about our mission to find signs of life on Mars, Ott’s title also sparks wonder about the forms of life that have previously wandered its landscapes.

Without setting foot on the planet, how familiar can we truly become with the Mars environment using only soil samples and photoimaging technology? While this question partially underpins scientific investigations of the Martian climate, Ott cautions us against repeating the same extractive behavior that has distinguished the age of the Anthropocene––or the Plantationocene as Donna Haraway and Anna Tsing have astutely offered–– from other geological eras. Why venture into the solar system in search of more resources instead of repairing our relationship with the environment we currently inhabit? In the case of Martian sediment, studying soil samples might reveal the lifeforms that formerly supported its ecosystems. On earth, soil science reveals a whole ecology of microscopic agents that work together to prevent erosion, cycle nutrients and water, and aid the regenerative process of decomposition. Naturally, it provides insight into the most foundational layer of an environment, but what if we were to adopt a perspective scaled to the sediment? What if we began to look at things from the microbial level?

image Mars Wanderings (detail)

When we look at Mars Wanderings from a distance, it is easy to view each panel as its own bodily whole, but as we get closer, we notice how each paint stroke becomes its own being. We also become aware of the scattered specks of glitter that evoke the glimmer of sand or glint of minerals. These individual agents assemble and animate Ott’s work so that, when viewed from afar, we see one whole embodied network, yet up close we see how multiplicities of bodies work together to create a new abstracted image scaled to their size. Like viewing through a microscope, the abstraction from this magnified vision provides a perspective that may be more productive in thinking about the future of life on our planet.

I borrow this concept from Art historian James Nisbet who offers environmental abstraction as a useful way to visualize environmental crises and pollution. In his 2017 article, “Environmental Abstraction and the Polluted Image,” Nisbet argues that the prolific images of pollution tend to oversimplify ecological situations. He reasons that sometimes ecological phenomena are not always visible to the eye. So, too, are the inner workings of systems and industries that pollute the environment. To his point, sometimes it is better to view at the abstract, microscopic, and microbial level.

At the microscopic level, we can observe the minuscule organisms in our soil that are responsible for the larger and often invisible processes that are crucial to sustaining life on this earth. And so, I return to the question of what happens when we take the perspective of microorganisms and when we incorporate a bit of abstraction in our looking? We begin to understand that we are not as disconnected from one another as we tend to believe.

Anna Bogatin Ott’s artwork asks us to reflect on the global impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine. I think we can recall the image of coronavirus’s viral anatomy, that spikey orb which seemed to circulate as much as the disease itself. And over the course of a few years, we became hyper-aware of how infection occurred through invisible, microscopic droplets. In many ways, we had to think about how we occupied spaces and operated in terms of one another’s safety. The war in Ukraine presents a similar phenomenon. For example, technoscience scholar Michelle Murphy illustrates how the toxic fallout and pollution of modern warfare chemically and metabolically imbricate us all within these global conflicts, though we may not witness them directly in our backyard.

These examples are not cause for alarm but are a way to reflect on the benefits of understanding how events transpire even at the microbial level. We begin to realize how interconnected we are to our collective environments and understand our actions as part of a deeply entangled web of networks shared not only between humans but non-humans as well. Mars Wanderings does not offer Mars––nor any other planet in our solar system––as a solution for resolving our environmental crises here. Rather, I argue it provides another way of looking that might lead us to greater change. Perhaps, the terrain and soil of Mars offer us a key lesson in the value of contemplating how change occurs and involves us even at the microscopic level.

Carolyn Hauk
PhD Student, Department of Art History
University of Delaware

Images: Mars Wanderings, 2023. Anna Bogatin Ott (born 1970). Acrylic on canvas, each panel: 62 × 62 inches (157.5 × 157.5 cm), overall: 62 × 124 inches (157.5 × 315 cm). Courtesy of the artist, Larry Becker Contemporary Art, and Margaret Thatcher Projects.