New York

Leah Gilliam

The Pathfinder mission to Mars five years ago produced only some soil samples and a week’s worth of grainy stills showing a broad red desert that looked like the inner reaches of Nevada. Yet NASA’s scientists, eager to establish the history of Mars’s formation and the potential for further exploration there, were thrilled. And the rest of the world fell in love, crowding around TV screens and jamming Web pages in record numbers to ogle the planet’s never before seen contours as recorded by the vessel’s little roving camera, Sojourner.

It is this moment of fascination and longing that Leah Gilliam reframes in “Agenda for a Landscape.” The darkened gallery featured three video projections: In Rover Transmission Archive, 2002, the red landscape crackles into view in images interspersed among digitally generated washes of color and Gilliam’s own shots of American fields and valleys that resemble Mars save for the occasional building or car; Broken Transmission, 2002, flows and flashes with stratified color and morphing pixelated forms, offering glimpses of desert, sky, and giant pylons amid the bright visual noise; the third projection focuses solely on the transmission log.

Formally, Gilliam is reimagining the genre of landscape painting. While the projections were in many ways painting’s opposite—active rather than static, baldly testimonial rather than illusionistic or stylized—they invoked the historical medium by appearing on deep, custom-made wooden supports about the size of easel paintings, which “hung” at eye level. Composed mostly of puddles, weedy lots, and cracked mud, Gilliam’s landscape is neither inviting nor sublime. The Mars shots are primarily dose-ups of dirt, which often makes it impossible to tell the difference between the Red Planet and earthly locations like the Hudson River Valley or Harlem.

Yet the works were so pretty and cinematic that it was easy to forget that this is “new media.” Indeed, Gilliam needs to be more vigilant in holding apart the poles of her project: the traditional terms and concerns of nineteenth-century landscape painting and the discursive potential of digital video. The less the relation and tension between the media are foregrounded, the more the project feels like a fantasy sequence from The X-Files. The exhibition’s sound track—whistling wind, rhythmic hissing, and muffled tones of string instruments being plucked—would not feel out of place on the TV series.

More than art history is at stake for Gilliam, who leads a parallel inquiry into history itself. Looking back at Sojourner’s brief career, she keys in not only to the recent Pathfinder-inspired mass excitement but also to the historical moment of abolitionist Sojourner Truth. As a machine named after a liberator but enslaved to its scientist masters, the rover is a study in critical contrasts. In Gilliam’s hands, Sojourner is “freed,” becoming a cocreator of painterly landscapes and a vessel through which we can see anew our own manifest destiny. But the sense of entitlement that underlay the nineteenth-century landscapists’ compositions and leads the way for interstellar exploration and perhaps colonization, still seems to ooze unchallenged from Gilliam’s installation; and with that, the distinction between traditional landscape painting and Gilliam’s revised version collapses still further. As the bleak Martian landscape demonstrates, what lies at the end of a long journey is often the same as what was left behind, in terms of both physical appearance and power relations.

Nell McClister