Letta Shtohryn

Life on mars might not want to be found
(extended edition)


Sometime between 1952 and 1958 a hand carving was allegedly found at the entrance to the Decorating room in the Hypogeum. The author (Agius, AJ, 1959) to whose publication the image was traced has included a photo of the hand describing it as a hand with six fingers, measuring 20.5 cm x 10 cm (at the metacarpus). The image of the hand does not have any further reference, an author or an indication when it was taken. The author of the publication did not reveal his sources. The hand entered some of the more mystically-inclined canon of the Hypogeum narratives and became a kind of self-looping hyperlink. Heritage Malta archeologists (interviewed by the artist) state clearly that the carving is not to be found in the hypogeum in the current time. This leads to a number of questions. Was the hand always there but overlooked by the archaeologists for about 50 years after the discovery of the site in 1902? Could it only be seen under strong torch light illuminated from a 220 degree angle? Did it appear for a short period of time and deteriorated quickly? Is it a portal? Where does it lead? Was it carved by the humanoid beings that live in the tunnels under the hypogeum, that were encountered by Ms. Lois Jessup in the mid-1930s?
Polydactyly during the Neolithic and Bronze Ages was revered in Mediterranean. Does it mean that the hand will only show itself to the person with polydactyly? More importantly has the carving got any relationship to the six-fingered glove floating in the Martian atmosphere, observed during the Mars landing?

Entrance to Mars cave. Pavonis Mons. 
NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

"Go there at your own risk," the guide replied, "and you won't go far."
I was all for more exploring and talking it over with my friends, three of them decided to go with me and two waited with the guide. I was wearing a long sash around my dress and since I decided to lead the group I asked the next one behind me to hold on to it. Holding our half-burnt candles the four of us ducked into this passage, which was narrower and lower than the others.
Groping and laughing our way along, I came out first, onto a ledge pathway about two feet wide, with a sheer drop about fifty feet or more on my right and a wall on my left. I took a step forward, close to the rock wall side. The person behind me, still holding on to my sash, had not yet emerged from the passage. Thinking it was quite a drop and perhaps I should go no further without the guide I held up my candle.
There across the cave, from an opening deep below me, emerged twenty persons of giant stature, completely covered with white hair from head to foot. In single file they walked along a narrow ledge. Their height I judged to be about twenty or twenty-five feet, since their heads came about half way up the opposite wall. They walked very slowly, taking long strides. Then they all stopped, turned and raised their heads in my direction. All simultaneously raised their arms and with their hands beckoned me. The movement was something like snatching or feeling for something, as the palms of their hands were face down. My candle was in my right hand. I put my left hand on the wall to steady me, and stopped again. My hand wasn't on cold rock but on something soft, wet and slippery. As it moved a strong gust of wind came from nowhere and blew out my candle! Now I really was scared in the darkness!

Drawing upon the speculative elements of the urban legends, ghost stories and extraordinary experiences linked to the Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum site, the works speculate upon the embodied elements of touch as an activator of portals and as a contaminant on a human and planetary scale.
The image of the six-fingered hand carving became the starting point for the research. Some claimed to have seen it and others provide photographic evidence of it; currently the six-fingered hand can not be found in the Hypogeum. The hand’s invitation to embody the experience of a previously sealed site via touch is interpreted in this work as a portal. It’s a portal between the neolithic disappearance of the local population and the current extinction event we are living through, between the civilisation that was looking towards the sky for guidance and our ambitions to explore other planets via technological extensions of human centric thinking, that to some creates mostly resource-extracting opportunities.
Following Donna Haraway’s suggestion that “it matters what matters we use to think other matters with; […] what descriptions describe descriptions. […] It matters what stories make worlds, what worlds make stories” (Haraway, 2016), this work looks at the human search for life on other planets and how we use an Earth-centric definition of life to do so. An example of this is NASA’s definition of life as “a self-sustaining chemical system capable of Darwinian evolution”. Currently there are more than 100 definitions of life but we are encountering organisms on Earth that push the notion of what a life form can be further. Extremophiles, viruses and chemical systems with life-like behaviours are expanding our understanding of life and suggest that we might not know the full spectrum of it in order to look for life on other planets. This work speculates about life that we cannot imagine and life that has evolved on Mars after we have possibly contaminated the planet by our extended presence there through our machines. 

NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity’s drill hole where Curiosity collected a powdered sample of material from the rock’s interior.

Seems at home (2021), image courtesy of the artist

An element of the installation - Seems at home addresses a chance of life evolving on another planet. Together with other works in space the works are a cross-pollination of meanings between science and magic exploring the lifeforms evolving on another planet. In Seems at home the materials that the Perseverance Mars rover is made from - titanium and aluminium - are interpreted using the chart of planetary magical metal correspondences. It suggests a kind of alchemy where chance together with the alignment of planets and metals might play a role in life evolving from the organisms we left behind without being observed by humans. This possibility is not improbable as proven by a robust earthly life form - the spores of Bacillus pumilus SAFR-032 that have been subjected to 1.5 year-long tests and are shown to withstand harsh environments including UV radiation and vacuum, meaning they could survive a trip to Mars.

Finding parallels between Martian life forms and local legends of humanoid life that evolved underground in the capsule-like environment of the Hypogeum, the installation further intertwines planets, eras and contexts by speculatively engaging with visual, tactile, material and narrative elements of the legends about ancient sites and imagines the unknowns we might encounter beyond Earth.

Letta Shtohryn investigates the entangled relationship between the physical and digital realm, explores post-human thought, human-nonhuman collaborations and speculates about the future. As a method, Letta employs speculative investigations, storytelling using new media, sculpture, video games, commercial goods and imagery. Her academic background is in Philosophy/Sociology (Uni Wien), Digital Art (MFA). 
She is currently a Research Excellence Award Fellow at The Immersion Lab, University of Malta.
Letta Shtohryn is the founder of digital art platform Whatdowedonow? Through the platform, since its creation in 2019, Letta has designed, exhibited and managed online and offline exhibitions showcasing works by a number of international media artists.

Selected exhibitions/residencies include :
Forever too much, too much forever, Nuit Blanche, Paris, FR / @TheWrong.TV; Cloud residency, servus.at; Beforetheydeletethis.com curated by Kat Zavada; Debatable Lands, Kunsthalle Exnergasse, Vienna, AT; Milan machinima festival, Milan, IT; Strangers in a strange land curated by Unfinished Art Space @Muza, (MT); VideoVortexXII, by Institute of Network Cultures, Spazju Kreattiv (MT); Zaratan Arte Contemporanea, Lisbon (PT); Object, Objecc, Objetc @SpazjuKreattiv (MT); Vanity Projects, Miami, (USA); Little Hell Gate at Frieze Art Fair, New York, (USA); Dream Catcher at The Box @ Phillips, New York, (USA).