In early 2021, NASA’s Perseverance rover began transmitting images from Mars. Although these were not the first photos we’ve seen from the planet, they remain tremendously interesting. One of the first things that struck me about the new photos was their similarity to abstract art. Most of them are directly shot from above, either from extremely far away or extremely close, in an unusual arrangement which makes it hard to understand what we’re looking at. These images captured by a robot do not have the careful and balanced composition that we’ve grown accustomed to throughout most of art history. They do not have a clear subject matter, and appear to be taken haphazardly and somewhat at random.
The image above, with its eerie high-angle composition and dull grays, reminds me of Dust Breeding (1920) by Man Ray. Perhaps ironically, the rover’s photos are considerably more abstract than Ray’s.
Below is another photo from Perseverance. The subject is completely unclear. What are we looking at? It seems to be a photo of the ground; some rocks can be made out. But what are the other shapes? What is up with the color? Most of the image is blurry and out of focus.
Though the match isn’t perfect, it’s reminiscent of abstract expressionist works like Gerhardt Richter’s Abstract Painting 805-4. There’s the overpowering color, the lack of a clear subject, the lack of focus. Richter’s other work and many other abstract paintings use a somewhat similar blurry swirl that can be seen in the Perseverance photo as well.
One of my favorite images from Perseverance is entitled “glitch” on NASA’s website. It’s a solid green image with digital noise of some sort on the top left.
Of course, this falls within a legacy of monochrome paintings in art history. Consider, for example, IKB 191 (Yves Klein, 1962). Notice the discoloration in the top left corner.
Although there’s a lot that can be said on the subject, I think it’s the rover’s haphazard composition and extreme camera angles that are the primary reason for the similarities with abstract art. It’s also important here to note that painting became increasingly abstract in response to the rise of photography (many painters supposedly gave up on competing with its unparalleled realism).
Many abstract artworks question what art is, deconstruct the rigid rules of what makes a “good” and “beautiful” painting, and change the role of the artist. This is remarkably similar to the Mars rover, which is taking seemingly random images at extreme angles and distances for the purposes of science and not of art. Like Yves Klein, Perseverance doesn’t care about the rules of composition.