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On February 18, 2021, NASA’s Perseverance rover made its highly anticipated landing on the floor of Mars’ Jezero Crater, an area scientists believe was flooded with water over three billion years ago. The car-sized rover is designed to spend at least one Mars year (about 687 Earth days) exploring the geology of its landing site in the hopes of discovering signs of ancient microbial life. But, according to a NASA press release, not only will the $2.7 billion rover collect data on the geological history of Mars,1 Perseverance will also set the stage for further missions, “test[ing] new technology to benefit future robotic and human exploration of Mars.”2
Most of the articles I read about the mission conveyed a breathless optimism awed by either the technological bravado, the prospect of life on Mars, or both. “1%,” a video released by Greta Thunberg’s Fridays for Future movement, sums up my cynical feelings toward these narratives. Presented as a satirical tourism ad, the video lampoons the zealotry surrounding Mars. After extolling the virtues of moving to an “untainted planet,” the video ends with this message: “And for the 99% who will stay on Earth, we’d better fix climate change.”3 The ad echoes the concerns of other activists who fear that space is being packaged as a luxury commodity, attainable only to the mega-wealthy.
In her solo show Above Below at Blum & Poe, interdisciplinary artist Sarah Rosalena Brady poked holes in the heroic space explorer narrative, recontextualizing the race to Mars as a cautionary tale—one that carries the risk of repeating the ongoing history of colonialism and climate devastation. Including 11 works ranging from textiles to ceramics to 3-D printed objects, the show was independently organized by Mika Yoshitake as part of the Galleries Curate initiative (a pandemic-era collaboration between a group of international galleries).4 I was immediately drawn to the series of double-sided tapestries that appeared to float in various corners of the gallery, as if defying Earth’s gravitational pull. Resembling topographical maps, the series depicted craggy umber landscapes interrupted by midnight blue basins, purple ridges, and chalky mists. The designs evoked both an aridness and a cosmic excess, teleporting the viewer to a landscape that spans the real and the artificial. The closer I moved toward the tapestries, the more the geography scrambled into red and blue static, the land collapsing into a swarm of abstract dots and lines.
Brady often fuses Indigenous craft techniques with AI in bold ways. For this series, she programmed Jacquard looms to weave satellite imagery of ice from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, a spacecraft that has been studying the atmosphere of the red planet since 2006. The loom transformed pixels into thread, a reversal that subtly interrogates the rendering of nature into data and points of extraction. Brady’s lush textiles, which recall Huichol weavings made using backstrap looms, transform these space maps into a fibrous material. During an Instagram live conversation with Yoshitake, Brady described the works as “machines reimaging landscapes,”5 but instead of reinforcing colonial logic, her machines dissolve their borders into earthen materials, the land refusing to be categorized and flattened. Engaging with the intricate web of thread conjures the physicality of the land, disrupting narratives that cast it as an inert resource. Mars isn’t an untainted planet ripe for the picking; it contains its own histories and processes that we must honor if we wish to avoid the violences of the present, where Black, Indigenous, and Brown communities still remain the most vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change.
Transposing a Form (2020), a series of ceramics displayed across five platforms of varying heights, combined Indigenous coiling techniques and 3-D printing. Rust-colored with streaks of gray, the clay for these works seems sourced from our own Californian desert, but is in fact made from a synthetic Martian soil (made to mimic the planet’s surface in scientific studies). Some of the forms, which look like elongated phonograph horns, are stacked—totem-style—on top of each other. One sculpture, an outlier, folds in on itself as if melted by extreme heat. Together, these sculptures gesture toward ceremonial vessels and their attendant Indigenous epistemological systems such as animism, which argues that all objects and natural phenomena possess a soul. By melding contemporary technology with Indigenous tradition, Brady rewires our relationship to the land and its history.
Brady’s hybrid ceramic objects, with their raised grooves that recall the pixelated deserts depicted in her tapestries, return us to the land rather than sever us from it. Despite her integration of futurism and aerospace technologies, the works inspire a profound spiritual connection with the Earth and her attendant organisms. Brady treats machines like techno-trickster spirits out to rewrite the conquest narratives around geography and space. She presents us with clay inhabited by restless souls and maps attuned to the textures of dust and ice, hinting at the perspectives erased from the stories that frame space colonization as our millennium-era Manifest Destiny.
This review was originally published in Carla issue 24.