It’s a well-worn truism that photographs lie to us, and yet it bears repeating now more than ever. Since its inception, the medium has been burdened with misplaced expectations that it should be objective, though it is anything but. Sometimes its falseness manifests as outright deception — as the peculiar story of a surfing photojournalist’s fraudulent images of war recently reminded us — but more often it involves a tacit agreement on the part of both the makers and the viewers to willfully suspend disbelief and call the thing we’re looking at accurate. This fuzzy zone of magical looking is where Estonian artist Katja Novitskova operates, and her current exhibition in New York’s City Hall Park is a wonderfully incongruous reminder that all our photos are manipulated.
EARTH POTENTIAL, a Public Art Fund exhibition, is that rare outdoor photography show that actually works. Instead of the usual billboards or placards clumsily affixed to a wall or fence, Novitskova’s photographs are printed on freestanding aluminum panels between six and eight feet in diameter, lending them sculptural dimensionality. Most combine two elements — one astronomic, the other microscopic — printed on separate, custom-cut supports.
However, to even call them “Novitskova’s photographs” seems slightly misleading; these works all feature images from scientific agencies and articles, created through elaborate imaging systems that deviate sharply from anything the human eye might observe. “Earth Potential (Earthworm, Earth)” (2017), for instance, pairs a photo of our planet made up of satellite imagery manipulated to highlight life-sustaining natural forces (ocean currents, fresh water sources, etc.) with an extreme closeup photo of an earthworm, another vital element of our ecosystem not visible in such detail from orbit or even ground level. Other works juxtapose an intensely magnified image of the infinitely regenerative hydra with the smoldering surface of Venus, or a nighttime image of our planet assembled by a NASA satellite over the course of 312 orbits with two cuttlefish caught mid-embrace. The initial absurdity of these combinations underlines a further absurdity: the fact that we are able to “see” these things and phenomena at all.
Two of the seven pieces in EARTH POTENTIAL feature just one scientific image rather than a pair — one is a bulbous cluster of orange stem cell embryos, the other a towering, pale pink strand of E. coli bacteria — and they are the show’s most abstract and ambiguous. Without the humor of juxtaposition and jarring shifts of scale of the other pieces, they confront us with the enormous power of scientific imagery and the frontiers of microscopic photography. They also hint at places where the boundaries of human knowledge are butting up against the limitations of human morality. After all, both E. coli and stem cell embryos are tools in the development of genome editing processes that could pave the way for designer babies and other scenarios formerly considered the province of science-fiction; the spider-like hydra featured in one of the works nearby is considered a key to biological immortality.
In these playful, popping works, Novitskova prods park-goers to consider the ethical enormity of current scientific developments and the blurry boundaries of what we consider a photographic or objective image. More likely, considering the typical attention span for public art, she has provided City Hall workers and tourists with some strange and surprising sights — images that seem alien and yet strangely familiar.
Katja Novitskova: EARTH POTENTIAL continues at City Hall Park (Broadway at Barclay Street, Financial District, Manhattan) through November 9.