A Weight in Dust

The heaviest animal on earth is the blue whale, at 219 tons.

From nothing to something, it is a common belief that life spontaneously appeared on earth, and from that, organisms are born of previous ones. However in recent years, more and more studies and research point to abiogenesis as a likely scenario that brought life upon this planet. Simple organic compounds evolved through various conditions and scenarios that allowed more complex lifeforms to arise. Given that humans are predominantly oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen, carbon, calcium, and phosphorus; and that many of the things we call “feelings” are based on chemical reactions in the body, it is unsurprising to see it gaining more traction in various scientific fields.

In many ways, Katrina Bello is a forensic scientist, exploring the earth, studying the remains of trees – the exposed bark of which is like dead skin, and sampling bodies of water. This exploration has led her to pursue leads and trails, many of which have brought her off-planet (and back) in search for answers. 

Traversing science and art, her artistic renditions provide a glimpse back in time, as the images are from a not-so distant past – which documented a point in time that may or may not have held relevance in the vast history of this universe. In doing so, she lends a vitality to the work, one that it had originally possessed, and still does. Her medium of crushed pastels evoke cosmic dust slowly landing on earth, softly entering each layer with her application and the residue becoming a constant, one with the paper. 

Many of her interrogations involve a comparison, or rather a composite vision that blurs the boundaries of things we generally consider very distinct. Images of the Atlantic Ocean are rendered over NASA captures of nebulae in 30,000 Tons, a reference to the volume of water that falls to earth as fine cometary particles from deep space. Similarly, images of fossiliferous rocks from the Mojave desert are merged with a mini-jet discovered by the Hubble and Chandra observatories in Terra Nebula (Mini Jet, Dec 2021). As opposed to these large-scale works, small drawings from the Grasp/Gasp series which take after Maine and Nevada rocks continue her investigation of  earthly waters and cosmic nebulae.

Working towards an understanding of the immeasurable conditions at hand, the choices of size and scale are imperative. The grandiose depicted as miniscule, or the minute drawn out into the expansive, these actions challenge the viewer’s relationship with the work. Part of her practice has been explorations of landscapes as alternate locations and possibilities. Aside from layering images, she would present enlarged details as metaphorical images: the inverted bark of a Willow tree, appearing as if the side of an icy and rocky mountain, in Salix.

Her production routine mimics quiet moments when grandeur is slowly built, as she doesn't make works specifically for an exhibition. The subjects present themselves to her at opportune moments – during treks, trips, residencies, and other exploratory activities – where she captures, catalogs, and contemplates on her findings. Hence any exhibition is but respite from production, gathering, observing — the moment to stop and look at the works is the moment to catch one’s breath.

Core to her research has been “mapping” or tracing lands based on personal records and photographs, or images taken by NASA and other similar organizations, towards her Terra series of works: the ancient, warm, shallow seas captured as limestone rocks in the Mojave desert, Nevada in Terra Niobrara, and two early works based off NASA Earth Observatory images showing the Southern Patagonia Icefields in Terra Patagonia. Rounding off the drawings is a charcoal and soft pastel work, Immensity (Smudge), based on a map of Eastport, Maine where she had a residency in 2019.

Unique to this exhibition is the inclusion of a number of video works that are sort of bookends to many of her series. This is due to the videos serving as studies, which provide stills that become references, as in the Grasp/Gasp series where the notion of abiogenesis is explored as a rock “comes alive” in the palm of the artist’s hand. Hold Your Earth expresses this further through a journey from being a rock, then flying through the cosmos, eventually ending up on this planet. Closer to home are the Hawak/Hold videos that feature the artist’s daughter’s hands, each containing a part of the world’s oceans. On a personal level they are about the distance between people, measured in earth and water; but they also make a case for a necessary awareness of the fragile and finite resources on the planet, so precarious in our hands. 

The title 40,000 tons references cosmic dust, the idea of which brings to mind a particle almost invisible to the naked eye, but after processing that idea, the epiphany of the sheer immense weight that it lexically denotes also falls beyond what we as humans can directly comprehend. Yet, this weight is negligible compared to the earth’s own: as this mass cannot  even affect gravity. Despite all of this, our existence and actions as human beings — much more miniscule than that of cosmic dust — directly impact the earth each and every day. Like the soft pastel dust that Bello commits to paper, human actions make a lasting image on the planet, much more than a blue whale does.

By Francisco Lee

*essay for exhibition Katrina Bello: 40,000 Tons at The Mueller Gallery, Caldwell University, Caldwell, New Jersey, USA. February 2023