The scent of fresh ink permeates Brittany Nelson’s ‘10,000 Light Years From Home’ at Chicago’s PATRON Gallery. Scrape marks demarcating the edges of the print Greely Haven (2019) recall the tracks left by the palette knife in both intaglio and monotype processes. Yet the work’s tarry blacks and hazy grisaille are produced instead through a method of exposing paper prepared with sensitized gelatin to photographic negatives first pioneered in the 19th century. Greely Haven is one of three prints in the exhibition produced through the Bromoil process, a 20th century refinement of this method; at over 106 by 170 centimetres, they are likely the largest Bromoil prints ever produced.
The trio might be easily mistaken for works of pure, moody abstraction, but the vision they afford is a celestial one: the Richmond, Virginia-based Nelson has re-presented three of the scores of images by the Opportunity Rover, which surveyed the Martian landscape from 2004 to 2018. In Tracks 1 (2019), the rover has turned its gaze backwards towards its own tracks in the dust. What compels a machine designed for documentarian purposes towards such an act of self-reflection, with startlingly melancholic results? Or is this anthropomorphic interpretation driven by wishful empathy?
Sharing the space of the gallery’s bright front room are a series of six small silver gelatin prints entitled ‘And I Awoke Found Me Here On The Cold Hill’s Side #1-6’ (2018). Each presents a page of a book, printed in the negative and photographed to reveal the text on both sides of the page, backwards and forwards sentences merging into white smudges. Dark nebulae produced by the flashbulb Nelson used to produce each image further obscure the already largely illegible text. Though eerily similar to the translated version of the Opportunity Rover’s last message to NASA – ‘My battery is low and it’s getting dark’ – the series shares its title with the 1972 James Tiptree, Jr. story the pages purvey.
Nelson’s exhibition is both a rumination on and a contribution to a tradition of animating the queer imagination through science fiction. Writers such as Octavia Butler and Samuel R. Delany employed the genre to envision alternative sexual and social structures that more canonical literary forms would not allow. ‘And I Awoke…’ is a tale of forbidden passions between human and extra-terrestrial beings; Tiptree was the pseudonym of Alice Sheldon, a prolific science-fiction writer who lived her entire life as a closeted lesbian.
A darkened room at the gallery’s rear isolates the six-part series ‘Tiptree’s Dead Birds’ (2019): the hellish glow of each work comes not from within, but from holograms of Sheldon’s notebooks trained on the glass surfaces from six red beams above. Marginal annotations and scribbled-out words betray the revisionism to which Sheldon was likely well accustomed in maintaining her multiple personae. ‘Dead birds’ was her grim term for women who had rejected her. Remarkably, Sheldon chose to write even these private pages under her male pseudonym. As she observed of Tiptree, ‘His pen was my prick.’
In utilizing nearly extinct 19th and 20th century photographic techniques to reframe the dispatches of a solitary robot on a barren planet as well as those of a brilliant woman deeply uncomfortable in her own body, Nelson performs the dynamics of projection and surrogacy upon which both science fiction and ‘hard’ science rely. Science fiction is famously prescient in imagining what technology is not yet sophisticated enough to realize – or, in the case of authors like Sheldon/Tiptree, what society cannot yet accept. The Opportunity Rover is a human surrogate in a place no human has ever been. Nelson succeeds admirably in conveying the urgency of these yearnings without romanticizing the desperate sense of nonbelonging that often spurs them.
Brittany Nelson, ‘10,000 Light Years From Home’ ran at PATRON Gallery, Chicago, USA, from 29 June to 18 August 2019.
Main image: Brittany Nelson, Tracks 1 (detail), 2019, bromoil photograph, 106.7 × 170.2 cm. Courtesy: the artist and PATRON Gallery; photograph: Aron Gent
Lauren DeLand is a writer, critic, and curator based in Atlanta, Georgia. Her essays and criticism have appeared in TDR: The Drama Review, Performance Research, Criticism, The Art Newspaper, and regularly in Art in America.