EYES AS OARS. A visual Journey to Mars.
Of all the senses, sight is the most dominated by impatience.
Since ancient times and in many cultures, Mars has been the subject of myths, fears, observations and hopes. Only since the 1960’s has the NASA program to explore the planet begun to reveal, through increasingly high-resolution images, the reality of a place where man has never been, a place we still cannot touch but can now explore with our eyes. This reminded me of the vertigo experienced in 17th century by those who watched the first magic lanterns and spectacular optical devices hosted in fairs and city squares, which allowed people to see distant places where they had never been and probably would never have the chance to visit. That era ushered in a feature which would be fully deployed in the postmodern age: that of an experience increasingly vicarious and immaterial. Although by now we are now fully accustomed to this, we relive the emotion of that ancient experience through the NASA images: sight as a tool of exploration. The latest rover currently on Mars is therefore not just a rover, but can be a metaphor of the human eye, that wants to see, understand and know; it is the curiosity of man that, since the origins of history and still today, wants to explore and colonize with his eyes.
17th century man, after recently discovering his non-centrality in the universe, had new tools to feel powerful and travel with his eyes. He had the microscope to penetrate matter and optical astronomy to see outside it, thus multiplying the limited faculties of his optical organ. But Mars is far away, between 55 and 144 million kms from Earth, depending on their respective positions. Although Galileo Galilei was the first to point the telescope on the red planet in 1609, we had to wait until 1877 in order to create the first detailed map of Mars. Virginio Schiaparelli, its author, devoted himself intensely to studying the planet, publishing 3 volumes of illustrated observations. He gave names to Martian lands (names which remain in the current nomenclature), documenting the existence of channels on the surface of the planet, hundreds of channels, carefully drawn and annotated in each observation. Schiaparelli's studies were soon translated in English to be shared with the rest of the scientific community.
The Italian term used by Schiaparelli, canali was however incorrectly translated as canals (man made) instead of with the correct word channels (general meaning). This misunderstanding gave rise to the spread of the belief that the planet was covered with canals built by someone. By whom if not by man? Thus was born the myth of the Martians. A strong advocate of this thesis, the American astronomer Percival Lowell, opened and observatory to study these canals, publishing his observations in 3 illustrated volumes between 1895 and 1908. This gave credence to the belief in the existence of alien beings which grew exponentially in the collective imagination, magnified by literature and cinema. Humanity will have to wait until 1964, when NASA probe Mariner 4 (the first probe to return the first close-up pictures of the Martian surface) will definitely made clear that the channels Schiaparelli had noted for years were the combined result of an optical illusion and a weakening of the astronomer’s sight.Too late: the myth of the Martians had meanwhile spread all over the world.
For centuries observers have wondered if Mars was inhabited or covered with vegetation. The response came only in the 1960’s, when the NASA probes gradually revealed that it was like a frozen desert, with huge extinct volcanoes and deep canyons, polar ice caps expanding and contracting with the changing seasons on Mars. Evidence of ancient rivers and vast oceans testify to a warmer and more humid past. How wet was the planet and for how long, and when? What eventually happened to all the water in a liquid state?
First the probes, then the landers and the rovers have been there for us, as extensions of our arms, legs, brains, and eyes. During thousands years of observation and study of Mars, the curiosity about this planet has remained intact, enhanced from day to day by new NASA images, with higher resolution, many more details and a more precise mapping of those places. But despite the continuous improvement in knowledge, outer space is still today, as in ancient times, a province of the mind’s eye where dead seas, buried civilizations and unknown inhabitants are waiting to be discovered; in brief, a place where we still project mystery and charm, the fear of the different and the hopes for a better future. For this reason, in this book, the scientific photographs and documents illustrating the history of the observation of the planet and the imaginary that followed, have been also enriched with personal suggestions. Different kinds of images have been included in order to relive the emotional relationship that man has had through history with the discovery and exploration of the unknown and its attempts to imagine and depict this.
Lamia. Woodcut from the book "The History of four-footed beasts and Serpents", by Edward Topsell. Image courtesy Special Collections, University of Houston Libraries
In the background: Mars, the Kasei Valles, the largest and longest flood spillway on Mars. Image credit: NASA/JPL/Arizona State University, R. Luk
Today we see thousands of images coming from Mars. For the uninitiated they are difficult to fully understand in their scientific significance and for this reason they allow for other aesthetic and original interpretations. They invite us to dream in our own way about this planet, seek tracks, formulate hypothesis, look for similarities with Earth’s landscapes, integrate them with associations of ideas and imagine life. Juxtaposing archival pictures and documents of different eras and sources, found on the Web and in the Public Domain, this book retraces the milestones of the observation and exploration of planet Mars through the centuries and combines them in another, imaginary dimension. Images are lands opened to imagination, immaterial places where the viewer can surf freely. He who travels through them is here seen as an explorer open to marvel, one who uses his eyes to move among archipelagos of real and symbolic images, mixing individual fragments and mentally rearranging them into a larger entity.
This project is a tribute to Mars, to the history of its exploration and of its imagery, a proof of the tight and permanent cultural bond we have built with the red planet. It is an homage to explorers – in flesh and blood or merely visual – and to those who over the centuries have dreamed of discovering a world identical to ours. Eyes as Oars is a book about Mars, but also about the Web as a place to explore, as a land for personal paths. The Web as a place in which to retrieve images and breathe new life into them through associations and new sets of meanings. Extensive captions are gathered at the end of the book in order to stimulate the viewer to keep travelling with his eyes in the space and time of our cultural heritage.