View of “Katja Novitskova,” 2014.

View of “Katja Novitskova,” 2014.

Katja Novitskova

View of “Katja Novitskova,” 2014.

The always-increasing pace of technology has left us adrift on an ever-stormier ocean of digital imagery. How do we stay afloat? By training ourselves to become more attentive, proposes Katja Novitskova, who was born in Tallinn, Estonia, and lives in Amsterdam and Berlin. After all, this is what has enabled human survival since time immemorial. When there’s a branch on the ground, we tend to see a snake: We err on the side of caution. But how to do this today, amid a flood of digital images? Novitskova is interested, she says, in how “media actively redefines the world and culture, and everything,” and this investigation was at the heart of her recent solo exhibition “Spirit, Curiosity and Opportunity.”

Growth Potentials (Mars) (all works cited 2014), consists of five bright-red arrows—digital prints on pieces of very artificial-looking film roughly cut to match their outlines and encased in clear urethane—mounted on the wall. With their eye-catching color and sinuous shapes, they immediately grab our attention. But what are they? They seem to echo directional signage, but they could just as easily represent snakes or flashes of lightning. When you spot flies trapped in the urethane, you might even wonder if they are fossils of some kind.

Facing these arrows, at the center of the room, stood the giant red head of a scarlet ibis, composed of a photograph taken from the Web that Novitskova had enlarged and then printed on an aluminum sheet, which she positioned on a hillock of clay pellets and pebbles. The creature looks archaic, despite its smooth surface, like a sinister apparition out of a digital fairy tale. With its big, bulging eye, this odd bird vies for our attention—and it is sure to linger in the memory for a long time. In general, the animals in Novitskova’s installations seem to lead lives of their own, challenging the human beholder’s sense of dominion over nature.

This digital fairyland is called Approximation Mars I, an allusion to the exhibition’s central theme: Its title cites the names of three of nasa’s Mars rovers. What kinds of pictures do they send back to Earth? Recently, one of the vehicles made headlines when it transmitted a photograph in which some thought they discerned a humanoid alien creature. Others have allegedly spotted UFOs in the Mars rovers’ images. In the exhibition, the red planet’s rugged surface appeared on a screen; ordinarily hostile to life, it was here populated by a strange marabou-like creature and a red arrow resembling a dancing cobra. That’s because this projected image, Live Broadcast of Pattern of Activation (on Mars), came not from one of the Mars rovers but from a camera set up in an underground parking garage beneath the gallery. The lens was trained on a theatrical arrangement: Novitskova had set up the marabou and the red arrow in front of a photograph of the planet’s surface, blown up to enormous proportions. Pattern of Activation (on Mars) is the title of the installation itself. All in all, the artist’s exploration of the digital visual world yields marvelously colorful pictures that exude an atmosphere of lighthearted cheer. But there are darker reminders, too, that images can’t be trusted. Be on the alert: Letting down your guard to enjoy them could be risky.

Noemi Smolik

Translated from German by Gerrit Jackson.