Erin Jane Nelson’s One Entanglement, Under Clouds is on view through October 2 at The Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia, where Nelson was selected as one of three Working Artist Project recipients this year. Guest curated by Marcela Guerro, the Jennifer Rubio associate curator at the Whitney Museum of Art, New York, the show features large scale sculptures of frogs and multimedia hanging works. Colored lights illuminate the three central frogs, whose heads take the shape of large hanging bells. One Entanglement, Under Clouds addresses climate change and its effects, which Nelson writes about with candid elegance in her introduction to the show. We spoke during an upswing of Covid. While the pandemic isn’t explicitly visible in Nelson’s exhibition, it nevertheless informed her interest in frogs, microorganisms and fungi — the tiny muses for Nelson’s ecologically inspired exhibition.
ArtsATL: You’ve exhibited widely — in New York, Colorado, the Netherlands and Germany, for example. This exhibition also brings your career back to Atlanta, where you work as artistic director at “Burnaway.” Is there anything about this show that is particular to the Southeast or Atlanta, a city particularly entangled with the natural world?
Erin Jane Nelson: The idea of ecological entanglement that the show explores is definitely specific to the South. In 2017, I started making work about southern barrier islands because they are so tangibly under siege by the climate crisis. I also was drawn to these sites because they contained so much overlooked history that directly and circuitously has brought us to the current ecological and social upheavals, and demonstrate how the environmental movement needs to also be an environmental justice movement. These are places where ecological collapse is undeniably entangled with settler colonialism, environmental racism, militarization and other factors that have not historically been part of the mainstream conversation in the environmental movement of the past.
More directly, during the pandemic I moved into a house on a very neglected lot that is completely overloaded with invasive plants and insects. So, where in the past I would travel and photograph and research coastal regions, I was now spending most of my free time pulling weeds, trying to restore soil, replanting native shrubs and flowers. The entanglement became more physical and bodily and part of my everyday experience.
ArtsATL: As an artist, writer and artistic director you have a multifaceted career. Even in your practice, which is rooted in ceramics, you seem to take on a deeply interdisciplinary approach. Your work blends media and takes an ecocritical position that is clearly the result of a lot of research. The subject of “One Entanglement, Under Clouds” is the decline of frog populations, most likely due to the invasive chytrid fungus. Where do you typically begin: with form or with content?
Nelson: Many artists start their process with research and figuring out exactly what and how and why they want to make. I usually start a new project by playing with materials and letting the practice of making things guide me. This exhibition started from a series of ceramic “alarm bells” I produced right before the pandemic. I wanted them to be poetic, foreboding and fragile, but they took on an entirely new meaning as 2020 unfolded.
As I was working on the show for MOCA GA, I became really fascinated with microorganisms and fungus as these invisible forces shaping the world around us — obviously influenced by the invisible threat of Covid. It occurred to me that the pandemic we were experiencing on the human scale was minuscule compared to what the chytrid fungus has been doing to global amphibian populations for years, or the colossal loss of biodiversity due to climate change and land mismanagement. This isn’t to diminish the incalculable loss Covid has caused, but applied to a broader scale, there are dozens of pandemics and disasters unfolding around us concurrently that we never see or think about.
This all led to bigger questions around what it means to belong to a “nation,” to have borders that invasive species can cross, to have so much of your survival amid the climate crisis, or amid a pandemic depending on where you’re born. The title of the exhibition is a play on “one nation, under god.” After the election, the pandemic, the protests, the climate disasters of the spring, I was feeling very uneasy. One of the things I did to try to stabilize myself was sit down and rewrite the pledge of allegiance for myself, in terms I could get behind. That’s where the title came from. The frogs and the fungus are really just metaphors for these bigger questions about how to be and to live.
ArtsATL: Your use of the warning bell seems especially apt. As objects in your show, they are silent (that is, we don’t literally ring them). This seems like a metaphor for humanity’s refusal to listen to the warnings of activists and scientists. Yet, they still have the potential to alert us to the dangers of climate change and our collective inaction.
You bring up the role of Covid in shaping your interest in and perception of microorganisms and fungi. As you point out, the loss from pandemic is monumental; however, tragically there are other pandemics that we largely ignore. Though, like the mute warning bells in your show, they’re there if we bother to look. Thank you for raising awareness — you’ve certainly increased my knowledge. What action do you hope we might take?
Nelson: Individual action is certainly important in starting to move the needle on the climate crisis, but what’s more important is for our collective will to finally hold the companies and individuals responsible for the most damage accountable. It’s great to recycle and compost and plant native species and eat less meat and buy solar panels, but I think it’s more important to build broader public support and consciousness of environmental justice that includes things like: ensuring that not only wealthy people have access to clean energy sources and disaster recovery when extreme weather events happen; re-centering the knowledge and practices of indigenous people who stewarded these lands expertly for centuries; and demanding a wholesale restructuring of our industry and economy away from a myth of eternal “growth.”
The change that is needed is profound, and reusable grocery bags are a drop of water in an ocean at this point. People need to personally evaluate how they waste and hoard resources and how little they communicate about the climate crisis with friends, neighbors and elected officials. It’s not comfortable to do this kind of inward reflection, but quick, easy fixes are unfortunately not available to us this late in the crisis. We have to recognize that it’s the wealthiest in the country and world who consume, and emit the most carbon, but it’s the poorest communities that bear the most violent repercussions of climate change. We need to think of the climate crisis as a crisis of equity; our inaction is the willful acceptance that we don’t value people equally and value our non-human cohabitants even less.
ArtsATL: The notion of a “crisis of equity” is powerful and sobering. However, your exhibition is not merely a warning; it also suggests the possibility of a better future. I love your dual sympathy for both the frogs and the invasive fungi. The former are arranged in a way that seems “backwards,” moving from the crone to the mother to the maiden as if to suggest an alternate narrative from the one with which we’re familiar. The latter are a border-defying force that, despite the problems they create, deserve our attention. Both have something to teach us about how to adapt.