A hoodie, a long-sleeved shirt and a pair of jeans covered in chia sprouts hang from a clothesline in a brightly lit gallery. A sock, also overgrown with sprouts, lies on the gallery’s floor, as if some passing breeze had knocked it off the wire just before you walked into the room. It’s an eerie scene, suggestive of neglect or some kind of catastrophe—as though the owner of the clothes had put them out to dry and then vanished suddenly, only for nature to repossess them.
The installation is part of Bea Fremderman’s new show “Solastalgia,” which opened in Chicago at the Born Nude gallery on an unseasonably balmy day in late January. Exploring the complex interplay between humanity, nature, and apocalypse, the show takes its title from a neologism coined by the environmental philosopher Glenn Albrecht. A portmanteau of “solace” and “nostalgia,” solastalgia is, according to Naomi Klein, “the particular form of psychological distress that sets in when the homelands that we love and from which we take comfort are radically altered by extraction and industrialization, rendering them alienating and unfamiliar.”
In Fremderman’s words, solastalgia designates “the homesickness you feel when you are still at home.” The exhibit forecasts what it might be like to live in a world that has spun completely out of control, a world where ecological disaster has become the new normal.
Through human artifice, we have managed to alter the conditions of the world that gave rise to our species—Homo sapiens, or “wise man.” The sheer volume of raw materials daily consumed in industrial manufacture means that our livelihood is dependent upon many places and people we will never see. Indeed, we seem to take the whole cycle for granted until something goes awry. It is in these moments of crisis that we’re able to most clearly see the mechanisms at work just under the surface.
The process of global warming muddies one of the central distinctions of recorded history, the boundary between the natural and the artificial, and Fremderman’s show fully exploits the ambiguity of this organic/inorganic divide. Although we know the clothes hanging from the line are spun from cotton, the fibers are transformed into something more akin to synthetic fabrics like nylon or polyester than to the plant from which they were harvested. To think in phenomenological terms, the difference between the organic and the inorganic isn’t entirely reducible to whether something was once alive; to be inorganic means in some sense to yield to human desire and to be organic means to frustrate it. While many households are chockfull of tools and vessels that can remain unchanged for years, walking outside shows us the weeds and trees that must be constantly uprooted or trimmed if they’re aren’t to overtake us. There is even the organicism of our own bodies, which we must feed and attend to daily whether we want to or not. By juxtaposing the obviously organic sprouts with the less obviously organic cotton, Fremderman reminds us that they are both rooted in nature.
But the show is more than a reminder of our ecological dependency; it’s also a warning. One of the gallery’s doorways has been walled off with bricks made from recycled Russian and Chinese newspapers. (Between 2009 and 2014 Russia and China were awarded a total of $7 million in grants from President Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency to fund cleanup efforts.) Russian holds a special significance for Fremderman, who was raised by Russian-speaking Jews in a suburb of Chicago after relocating to the U.S. from her birthplace in Chișinău, Moldova. In Fremderman’s bricks, paper that was once wood has been again repurposed, even as green cherry belle radish shoots peak out from the wall’s dirt mortar. Although these tiny tendrils look feeble in and of themselves, we might otherwise understand them as heralding nature’s more extreme varieties of revenge in the form of floods, blizzards, and droughts.
Fremderman also highlights the destructiveness of nature’s attempts to maintain balance through a quotation of Zoe Leonard’s Strange Fruit (For David). In this piece, Leonard sewed up the empty, desiccated rinds and skins of approximately three hundred avocados, grapefruits, lemons, oranges and bananas. With thread, wire, and buttons, these fruit corpses come to approximate their former form, even as they fail to replicate it perfectly. Leonard has described Strange Fruit as her attempt to psychically sew herself back up after the death of her longtime friend, artist and AIDS activist David Wojnarowicz. For Leonard, Strange Fruit was an act of mourning. With its sutured fruit skins, the piece dramatizes how we are forced to pull together our lives after a traumatic event and how we try to recover some semblance of what was lost. But unlike Leonard’s fruity husks, the grapefruit, lemon, lime, and pomegranate littering the gallery floor appear to be fresh, their stitched-up wounds on the verge of bursting. While we tear into the earth to extract resources reminiscent of the way we extract flesh from fruit, Fremderman’s repairs show us that nature might be capable of revenge, but maybe not healing. Perhaps, then, it is humans who must repair the damage they have wrought against the earth, just as Fremderman uses her fingers to mend the cuts her hands had previously made.
Finally, fifteen bowls, plates, and cups made of a clay prepared from dark dryer lint are stacked on a plinth towards the gallery’s center, almost, and impossibly, as if they were drying after being washed. These lint dishes gesture towards another of the art historical foremothers of “Solastalgia”: Méret Oppenheim. A member of the surrealist movement of the 1920s, Oppenheim’s magnum opus was the famous result of a café conversation with painter Pablo Picasso and photographer Dora Maar in Paris during 1936. Picasso, admiring Oppenheim’s fur-covered bracelets, remarked that one could cover anything with fur, to which Oppenheim shot back, “Even this cup and saucer.” When André Breton asked her to participate in the first surrealist exhibition dedicated to objects later that year, Oppenheim responded by covering a Parisian department store teacup, saucer, and spoon with the fur of a Chinese gazelle. Though Oppenheim titled the work simply Object Breton called it Le Déjeuner en fourrure (literally “the luncheon in fur,” usually translated as “fur breakfast” or “breakfast in fur”), referencing both Édouard Manet’s classic painting Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe (“The Luncheon on the Grass”) and Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s sadomasochistic novella Venus im Pelz (“Venus in Furs”). The work scandalized viewers: Some were appalled by the descent of the once delicate utensils into raw animalism. Others felt the uncomfortable sensation of a furry tongue or hair in the mouth. (“Fur may delight the touch but it repels the tongue,” notes Hugo Heyrman.) For the Freudians the spoon was phallic, the cup yonic, the fur pubic. While Fremderman seems less interested in mining objects for their libidinal potential, she does share with the surrealists a mission of coaxing the unfamiliar out of the familiar.
Like the unpleasant idea of putting Oppenheim’s fur-covered teacup in one’s mouth, Fremderman’s lint bowls gesture toward one possible—and possibly absurd—limitation of our attempts to lessen our waste and thereby our impact upon the earth. Unlike the surrealists, who defamiliarized objects by drawing out their subconscious undertones, Fremderman renders the domestic strange by contrasting the slowness of natural growth with the rapidity of human intervention.
“Solastalgia” shows us a world condemned by the choices of our predecessors and the seemingly inexorable march of capitalist consumption. In this world, the future is already present, and the present is already past. These tensions are embodied quite literally in the show, which changed over time due to Fremderman’s use of living materials. The chia sprouts eventually died, drying fruits loosened or tightened their sutures, mold appeared on the lint bowls, and the proliferation of infant radishes destabilized the wall, causing it to partially collapse, which in turn made visible two sacks of potatoes in the gallery’s side room (and the lazy among us know well how quickly unattended potatoes grow their own sprouts). In an interview with DIS Magazine, Fremderman remarks:
I knew I was working with ephemeral materials when I started the project and part of the process was seeing what would happen in time with the objects. What I found interesting is that I was using materials as metaphors for how nature takes over humanity and in the end nature did in fact take over the work and did what it wanted with it.
Though she’s currently based in Brooklyn, this body of work betrays Fremderman’s Midwestern origins. Chicago is a city that wears its past on its sleeve; the same trains that snake towards downtown will carry you over the ruins of early twentieth-century factories. Of course, the juxtaposition of industrial decay and glittering modernism isn’t unique to the Midwest; similar tableaux can be seen in various corners of New York City. But there’s a reason why it’s been nicknamed the “Rust Belt”: as manufacturing jobs evaporated or were moved offshore, the Midwest has experienced a half-century of economic decline. Indeed, this moniker explicitly references the retaliatory power of nature; given sufficient time, the co-presence of oxygen, water and iron results in rust. Cities like Chicago have pivoted toward a post-industrial future, even as they remain marked, or marred, by the relics of their pasts. Other towns haven’t been so nimble and to continue to be bogged down by the weights of depopulation, downturn, and deterioration. Rusting provides an ideal analogy for this body of work. Slowly, surely nature will eventually reclaim what we have taken from it. The choice that lies before us is whether we want to find a way to live within the limits of what is ecologically sustainable or to gamble with a nature that has proven itself to be powerful, volatile and indiscriminate.