It’s not too hot or too cold. It’s just right. That’s the Goldilocks Zone, or the galaxy’s habitable planetary zone, that has been beckoning us with its possibility of life in the cosmos for centuries. And Mars, that mysterious red planet, sits squarely in the middle of that Goldilocks Zone. It’s pretty far-196.52 million miles from us on an average day, minding its own business as it rotates around our shared sun. Could this distant planet harbor molecular nuggets of life in its ochre rocks? Could Martian creatures really inhabit that planet, or could they have lived there in the distant past?
In a mind-boggling recent occurrence, smack in the middle of a global pandemic, we humans have landed a spaceship on Mars. It’s called the Perseverance Rover, an apt name given the patience involved in traversing those miles. We may eventually be able to bring home rocks from that seemingly barren landscape, a stunning human achievement. Real Martian rocks. Let that sink in. Of course, potentially finding signs of life would be profoundly consequential for the future of the world. But what if we stumble on Martian life but can’t see it? What if we don’t have the perceptual apparatus to sense the existence of a novel life form?
You might say that’s preposterous. We’re mighty humans after all. If we can’t see it, it’s not there. But just as there is a Goldilocks Zone for habitable life in the galaxy, there is a “Goldilocks Zone” for human perception of reality. And outside that zone, in no man’s land, all bets are off. There is a whole teeming world out there, on our very own planet, that lives beyond our perceptual powers. We can’t sense those molecules or organisms unless they wreak havoc on us humans or make themselves known in some other way. Perhaps other creatures can sense their presence, but we can’t.
Of course, bacteria and viruses are a prime example of this swarming underworld. Too small to be seen by our naked visual sense, these seemingly alien earthlings can only be seen by high powered electron microscopes. And viruses, so seemingly extra-terrestrial that they hover on the border between life and non-life, can wreak havoc on the entire human race as tragically shown by the Coronavirus. Such a powerful force, and yet we can’t see it and it’s barely categorized as life. Almost sounds Martian, doesn’t it? And yet here it is, on our very planet. And there is evidence all around us of a world beyond our sensations. What about a dog’s superior ability to analyze a scent? How does the dog experience smell? Are there multifaceted organic molecules that tickle their nose, and that perhaps are sensed in other ways? We can’t possibly grasp it because it’s beyond the limits of our perception.
It’s a juicy philosophical question, this question of what else is out there that our perceptual abilities can’t grasp. It’s mere hubris that allows us to believe that the only lens through which to see life is ours. There are millions of other lenses on an array of earthly creatures, each with unique zoom lenses and aperture sizes that are capable of capturing a parallel reality that we aren’t privy to. Yet if we arm ourselves with the power of imagination and wonder that defines art, maybe we can catch a glimpse of this hidden world. This world beyond the grasp of our naked senses, one that almost has an extraterrestrial feel, is made visible in the exquisite organic drawings of InLiquid artist Gregory Brellochs.
Effluvium (2013), a graphite and paper drawing, seems to capture the imaginative shape of a molecule that lies beyond our perception. An effluvium is an unpleasant or harmful odor, secretion, or discharge. We can sense that putrid existence through olfactory channels, but it evades our other senses. Perhaps other creatures such as dogs have such strong olfactory sensations that those molecules carrying scent become a complex swirl of tactile, visual, olfactory, and even gustatory and auditory sensations. It’s impossible for us to know or speculate how it feels for another creature to encounter a particular scent, given the limitations of our own sensations. This intricately detailed drawing takes a sensual concept (a smell) and makes it accessible and visible. As explained by Brellochs: “Like Niels Bohr’s self-titled model once served to make the concept of an atom’s structure visually and conceptually accessible, so too am I interested in employing my art and the process of drawing as a way of visualizing…concepts which speak to a layer of reality beyond the senses…” This works seems to illustrate that veiled reality that exists beyond the surface of what we see on a daily basis.
Just as there are sensations that can only be imagined visually (such as a scent), there are elements in our world that only a magnification of our vision reveals. Lichen XV (2019) seems to show us the details of an ordinary piece of lichen, an aspect of the natural world, that like so many others, is hidden to us. Believe it or not (and I did look it up) there are fascinating, complex structures that exist in a microscopic view of a simple piece of lichen. It’s a jam packed world of organic shapes and convoluted beauty that we merely step on as we’re hiking in the woods. And Brellochs intimately conveys that hidden wonder, replete with sensuous, bursting donut-shaped tentacles that seem to grow from stems as if they were alien flowers. Who needs to travel to Mars when we’ve got such a bounty of clandestine micro-curiosities on our very own planet?
His other drawings of lichen, including Lichen XXII and Lichen XXIV convey various iterations of the fascinating unseen splendor of this symbiotic plant form. Each drawing is finely detailed, as if gazing at an electron microscopic image and yet infused with creativity. As Brelloch adds: “I see image-making as a way of creating not just physical relationships to concepts, but a sensual and emotional one as well. I want my work to be felt, not just experienced. I want the concepts that I am exploring to resonate with the viewer on a basic visceral level.” And that sensual, emotional aspect comes through, in the luxuriance, the lushness and richness of these undulating organic forms which speak to the shrouded intricacy of our natural surroundings.
Gregory Brellochs’ meticulous, detailed drawings pull us in to another world, one that lies parallel to our own. They invite wonder and amazement as they allow us to glimpse a realm that is untethered to our mundane perceptions. In Brellochs’ hands, art illuminates a sliver of that obscured reality, one that is immersed in science with liberal sprinkles of incredulity and imagination. Gazing at these alien earthlings is almost as eye popping as it would be to embark on the Perseverance and arrive at that distant red planet. Hmm. Well, maybe not, but in truth all we would see on the surface of Mars would be barren red rock. The rest might be shrouded by our own perceptual limits. And yet here, right in front of us, we have a universe of hidden earthly wonders.