Katja Novitskova Conjures Urban Alienation with Public Art Fund

Taylor Dafoe

Katja Novitskova
Katja Novitskova and her "Pattern of Activation (on Mars)," 2014. Photo by China Hopson.

Given her penchant for disorienting juxtapositions of scale and subject matter, it’s fitting that Katja Novitskova’s first outdoor exhibition, “EARTH POTENTIAL,” is installed in lower Manhattan’s City Hall Park. A peaceful pocket of green space beset by looming skyscrapers, it embodies the alienation of modernity and the paradox of city living—despite being surrounded by people, we’re all alone.

Fortunately “EARTH POTENTIAL” isn’t all so bleak. In fact, it’s actually quite fun. Opening on June 22, the Public Art Fund-organized installation is comprised of seven freestanding digital prints on aluminum, secured to a steel structure and scattered throughout the park. Each features Internet-sourced images of planetary bodies combined with terrestrial and aquatic species as well as molecular organisms.

Standing upright like cardboard cutouts, and lit dramatically from below, Novitskova’s sculptures look like props on the set of a B-level science fiction movie. They evoke a long history of futuristic films set or shot in New York City, from classics like Soylent Green and Planet of the Apes to budget productions such as C.H.U.D. and The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. Indeed, movies such as these were part of the Estonian-born artist’s first introduction to the city. “In preparing the show, Katja talked about how her experience of New York growing up was through Hollywood sci-fi films,” says curator Emma Enderby. “She wanted to bring some of those ideas out into the exhibition. New York has been the center of sci-fi films since the very early days of the genre, and very much still is today. It’s a perfect setting to think about the future, because the future is embedded in its infrastructure—it’s always propelling itself forward.”

Novitskova’s subjects may look alien, but they’re actually very much of this planet. In fact, they show us that science fiction is actually rooted in reality. For instance, one work depicts the Hydra, a species whose ability to self-regenerate allows it to avoid death. In another is the round worm, the first animal to have its neural network digitally mapped by scientists, allowing them to literally read its brain. If the images seem unrealistic, it’s because of the artist’s experiments with scale and resolution. Some of the photos are hi-res, the product of cutting edge image-making technology; others become soft and pixelated when blown up, signifying the limits of photographic replication. They mix the macro—planets millions of times large than Earth—with the micro—organisms barely perceptible to the human eye. In Novitskova’s pairings, as on the computer screen from which they were taken, the images share roughly the same amount of real estate, further dramatizing the translation from the digital to the physical.

“Novitskova’s work explores how new ways of image production are increasingly entangled with the way we navigate the world today,” says Eleonore Hugendubel, a director at Greene Naftali, the New York gallery which began representing the artist last year. “Her work defines itself through exploration. She steps into new frontiers that require an open mind and receptivity to surprise.”

Mixing the vernacular of infographics, stock imagery and advertisements, the works point to the disparity between the real world and the one abstracted from the vast amount of images we consume every day.