Culture 25/02/2021

Martian Chronicles at the CCCB

A major exhibition explores the multiple narratives surrounding Mars

4 min
A detail of the exhibition where the visitor can interact and choose the story
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BarcelonaMars and Earth are sister planets, born practically at the same time, 4.6 billion years ago. While to the human eye it was just a red star, Mars generated multiple stories and theories. Now that the Perseverance has landed on its surface and color photographs and samples of its parched scree are reaching us, the questions remain: If life is extinct, can it be reborn in the future? Was there a civilization that eventually disappeared? If there was life, what was it like? Can Mars serve to explain our present or envision our future? Can it be the planet where earthlings will end up moving to? Our perception of this near planet has been changing and often fiction has ended up intoxicating reality. The exhibition Marte. El espejo rojo ("Mars. The Red Mirror"), which can be visited at the CCCB until 11 July, does not offer comforting answers. "It invites us to ask ourselves questions. It is a story of stories", says Jordi Costa, head of exhibitions at the CCCB.

Today Mars is a deserted, desolate landscape, almost indistinguishable from the most arid areas of the Earth, as can be seen in a montage by Joan Fontcuberta. At the CCCB, at certain moments, the frontiers between fiction and reality dissolve. "This is not an exhibition about the colonization of space, but about imagination, about whether it is possible to regenerate life in hostile contexts", says the director of the CCCB, Judit Carrera.

The translation error that sparked the imagination of many

Scientific advances have gone hand in hand with the most imaginative stories. Mars began to be mapped at the end of the 19th century. In 1877 the Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli started to observe and draw a network of linear structures, which he defined as canali, but when translated into English they became canals, implying an artificial construction. The error is not an insignificant detail and the exposition goes into it in considerable depth. The American astronomer Percival Lowell believed that there had been an ancient civilization capable of building a huge engineering work that transported water all over the Red Planet, and tried to prove the existence of alien life.

The idea that Mars was populated generated an unstoppable succession of articles and theories on how to get in touch with its inhabitants. Even mediums who described the landscapes and living beings appeared, and who claimed to speak the Martian language. This is the time when H.G. Welles wrote the novel The War of the of the Worlds (1898), where he describes a Martian invasion on Earth. In October 1938 Orson Welles did a mock newsreel, inspired by the novel, and it was realistic enough to generate panic among many listeners.

A planet without male supremacy

There are also many other stories in the exhibition. From the virile, violent, brawl-loving, battle-loving, telluric god imagined by Babylonians, Greeks and Romans - the one least liked by Homer for what he represented - to a planet where the fear of the other and the paranoia caused by communism are projected. Mars has generated hundreds of stories: from the eleven novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs that start with A Princess of Mars (1912) and ending with John Carter of Mars (1942), to The Martian Chronicles (1950) by Ray Bradbury, where humans from a future Earth, threatened by nuclear war, colonize Mars.

The Magazin of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Cover illustration by Chesley K. Bonestell

There are much less warmongering stories. In 1893, the North Americans Alice Ilgenfritz and Ella Merchant wrote Unveiling a Parallel: A Romance, in which they describe two civilizations that inhabit Mars. In Paleveria, women dominate men, and in Caskia there is no supremacy, but men and women live together in harmony. Kim Stanley Robinson imagined an epic that goes up to the 23rd century and where Mars was also colonized by earthlings. But Mars appears before the birth of science fiction. Dante speaks of the planet in the Divine Comedy and William Shakespeare invokes it in Henry V. The Red Planet has also served to polemicize the communist revolution. The Russian writer Aleksandr Bogdanov described a Mars where there is no scarcity and where there is no money, and Martians live peacefully and cooperate with each other.

The meteorite rescued from the depths of Mars

In the exhibition, curated by Juan Insua, there are more than 400 items, including incunabula, sculptures, drawings, photographs, comics and facsimiles, films, manuscripts, collector's items and even a Martian meteorite. It is the KG 002, a meteorite that in January 2010 was recovered in the Sahara desert. "It is very interesting because it is the known sample that comes from deeper on Mars", Insua explains. It was pulled out of Mars about three million years ago. And it is not the only one. In 1983 the discovery of another meteorite, EET 79001, found years earlier in Antarctica, was made public. How these meteorites reached the Earth is another puzzle that the exhibition explains.

The tour ends with the possible futures linked to Mars. The question that remains up in the air is what will prevail and whether Earthlings will be able to imagine a different society with the help of Mars. Or if they will be convinced that they are not alone: "It is obvious that we are not alone. The irrational thing would be to think that we are alone in the Universe. If there are so many similar planets, why should we be the only ones? As Carl Sagan said, it would be a tremendous waste of space", says the curator of the exhibition and director of the CCCB Lab.

Ally of Hitler and Walt Disney

One of the many protagonists of the exhibition is Wernher von Braun. An SS officer during the Second World War, like so many other Nazis who excelled in the scientific field, he was fought over by the Americans and the Russians. In the end he was taken to the United States and was responsible for the Saturn rockets that would take man to the moon, but he also conceived and planned a mission to Mars. The details appear in Das Marsprojekt (1952), which contains the calculations needed to reach the Red Planet. The scientist imagines a huge spacecraft with a capacity of 70 crew members that could spend 443 days on the planet before returning to Earth. At this point he believed it would be possible in the mid-1960s. Von Braun became so integrated into American society that he ended up collaborating as a populariser on a series of Walt Disney projects. He was not the only German scientist to be recycled by the United States. As Jordi Costa recalled in the CCCB exhibition, Peter Sellers makes a satire in Stanley Kubrick's Doctor Strangelove (1964). At a meeting of the crisis cabinet, in a kind of nervous tic, Sellers, who plays a scientist, raises his arm in a Nazi salute.