Erin Jane Nelson on adapting for the future via underwater creatures + mythical beings in Psychopompopolis

, 14 July 2017

I first became acquainted with Erin Jane Nelson’s work as a photographer and image-maker during her time at The Cooper Union in New York. Despite having a large archive created during the completion of her degree, she eventually found herself at odds with the medium’s conceptual limitations and gatekeepers. “Pure image-making was not satisfying what I needed,” she tells me, recalling the institutional strictures she felt in school while speaking to me via video chat from her home. Confronted with a dense body of work after leaving the east coast, Nelson combined a newfound appreciation for ceramics and crafting as a means to deconstruct, alter and unflatten the photo. Perhaps this initiated the morphological and mutative frameworks that underscores so much of her current work.

Erin Jane Nelson, Psychopompopolis (2017). Exhibition view. Courtesy the artist + Document, Chicago.

Upon researching ocean acidification and warming, inter-species relations and submarine cable networks, Nelson began making works superimposing various facial features onto cephalopods — underwater creatures with tentacles attached to the head. Eventually the Atlanta-based artist arrived at the idea of the mythical psychopomp as “the carriers of souls/consciousness into the next realm.” Historically taking shape as ravens, dogs, ferrymen, they guide the dead on their voyage into the afterlife.

Enter, Psychopompopolis, Nelson’s second solo exhibition at Chicago’s Document, which ran from June 3 to July 8. The new pigment print works on various fabrics are accompanied by a fantastical short story, calling us just three years into the future to 2020, where ecological collapse arrives on Earth; land masses and continents begin to rapidly submerge underwater. Conceived of and written in about 24 hours, Nelson narrates the aftermath of palpable catastrophe whilst coming into a new form of being and relationality through an “undiscovered species of advanced cephalopods” — the Psychopomps.

Erin Jane Nelson, ‘Barnumbiir thru the Wavelight’ (2017). Detail. Courtesy the artist + Document, Chicago.

Psychopomps do not experience conventional human emotion. Instead, Nelson says, they are “letting go of self-preservation and opening up their internal reality to a flood of unknowns.” Perhaps delineating a desire for coherent subjectivity — to cling to knowable forms and maintain them — is part and parcel of collective human destruction. Despite this, the Psychopomps are able to capture sinking human bodies and preserve and revitalize their consciousness within themselves, through a kind of ‘neural map.’ Towards the end of the story, the first person persona reflects: “When I think about the chaos and violence and fear that must be happening back on dry land, I am so relieved to know I was able to experience this way of being before I die again.” The doomsday is thus thrown into a double-bind — a definitive form of apocalypse arrives, but does a movement to a host body from a drowned corpse count as a death, or an extinction of humanity? Does a world underwater foreclose on geological time?

** Thinking about the experimentation process you’ve described, where you were superimposing different faces onto cephalopods, creating these kind of images of chimeras, there are a couple of works in Psychopompopolis that are foregrounded by photos of yours and your husband’s facial features, dispersed amongst those of various animals. I wanted to ask if this is trying to evoke a kind of animal-human homology, or is it more suggestive of a mode of becoming, or mode of being that better adapts to the future?

Erin Jane Nelson: I think, in a lot of ways, what always comes out of apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic narratives are often these love stories — really tender, essential, human relationships, as if to have the intensely personal but universal feelings of kinship further dramatize the loss of society or life. So it felt important to use my own familial relationships to insert some of that ethos into the show and the story. That’s something I feel like, as a female artist, people are always asking me: why my work is diaristic. But, I’m not trying to speak for anyone else’s experiences or make social documentary work by implicating ‘others.’ I think being self-critically diaristic or searching for those basic experiences of living as a human, as an animal, is a way to access universal experiences.

Erin Jane Nelson, ‘Raccoona Charon’ (2017). Installation view. Courtesy the artist + Document, Chicago.

It’s also easier to denigrate my own image than to do that to anyone else except maybe my husband who consents. It also implicates me as an author and allows my racial, social position to be very much on the sleeve of the artworks. I have a lot of problems with opacity of social position of artists, gallerists, writers, curators in the art world and I feel like using myself and being slapstick and dumb about where I’m getting my source material from is one way to be more transparent.

** Thinking through the larger ideas manifested in the works, or the short story specifically, was there any speculative fiction or sci-fi thinkers or associations that you had in mind when you were working?

EJN: I don’t really read a lot of sci-fi to be honest. I mostly read non-fiction and little bit of older literature — particularly southern gothic literature. I obviously love Octavia Butler. The more I make this kind of work, the more people recommend great writers to me, such that I now feel like I have to dive deep into sci-fi. I guess the only kind of sci-fi that I know from being a kid would be things like Wrinkle in Time and really silly young adult versions of fantasy, which I was very, very into. But I haven’t revisited the genre in a substantive way, beyond the major players like Butler. As I was working on Psychopompopolis a friend of mine recommended James Tiptree Jr., who was a really interesting writer who dealt with speculative sci-fi/mystery in short story format. She used a pen name and was writing in the 50s and 60s, as a former CIA agent, and high-ranking military intelligence officer. She had already worked in this space where she had to perform masculinity in an overly self-conscious way, and then her writing has that tone in it as well. The giant scrim in the show is named after her, ‘Racoona Charon,’ another one of her pen names was Racoona Sheldon.

Erin Jane Nelson, ‘Barnumbiir thru the Wavelight’ (2017). Install view. Courtesy the artist + Document, Chicago.

I came into the narrative, less in conversation with the genre and more interested in speculating about a world in the near future with the conditions of climate change in full swing — a topic I obsessively read about.

** Stepping away from Psychopompopolis specifically, I know you’re interested in anti-Cartesian forms or art-making, and I wanted to know how you initially started to parse through that and see it as something worth critiquing. Because this mind-body dualism is definitely situated in this larger legacy of heralding thought over the haptic or the sensory, which is modernity and contemporary art’s modus operandi.

EJN: When I say ‘Cartesian,’ I find it the easiest way to describe a world built out of human exceptionalism, The Industrial Revolution, and Western white able-bodied colonialism. So for me, it’s this way to speak to being aware, or being sensitive to decisions that have risen from that basic premise of mind-over-body and human-over-nature hierarchy. It’s is a very broad way to critique the conditions of my own privilege or history and advocate for something that is maybe rooted more in the feminine or non-gendered, the non-Western, the ancient. More and more in my lifetime, I see the sciences and culture coming to terms with the fact that this way of thinking about embodiment does not fit into society and biology as we continue to discover the interconnection of our bodies’ systems.

Somewhat on the heels of the art world’s obsession with object-power and OOO [object-oriented ontology], I stumbled upon the word ‘techno-animism’ — that technology and wireless signals, and this free-floating cloud of information are creating a renewed feeling of magical possibility in the physical world around us. A lump of glass, or a stone, or a tree might be able to speak to you — or your fridge can tell you what you’re hungry for. Suddenly the world becomes almost fable-like — decidedly anti-logical. And so that, mixed with this cultural obsession with  one’s internal space through being online and trying to mediate your own bodily lived experience or ‘real world’ through a network architecture, seem to have brought us to a point where this idea of logic over feeling and the world ‘making sense’ to the able-bodied, horizon-focused, externally-minded way of being in the world suddenly doesn’t fit anymore.

Erin Jane Nelson, Psychopompopolis (2017). Exhibition view. Courtesy the artist + Document, Chicago.

I first became interested in cephalopods because they have this totally decentralized, anti-Cartesian structure. They have a brain in each tentacle as well as their head, they see both optically but also by tasting their surroundings through their suckers, so their whole experience of the world is decentralized and haptic, 100 percent. Their way of expressing emotion involves changing and morphing their body so it’s this unfixed identity. They can even change their own RNA, so I felt like octopi and cephalopods were the perfect symbol for this opportunity for humans to also make this kind of switch — they are the human’s psychopomp into this next realm.

** In line with thinking of the sensory, you said that each of your exhibitions has their own scent. How do you determine their respective compositions, like how did you do that for Psychopompopolis?

EJN: It’s usually determined by the architecture of the show, so with my first show at Document in 2015, I had a rock tumbler filled with minerals, juniper berries, RAM cards, servo motors, peppercorns, and cloves meant to act as a churning muscle of the show.

In my show at Hester later that same year, I wanted to make seasoned floor — covered cheek to jowl with dried herbs and spices, but the gallerist insisted they be insect/rodent repellant, which mostly determined the smell of that show. Often times it’s a mix of intent, circumstance and just feeling out what’s available, I just follow my nose… hah.

Erin Jane Nelson, ‘Epona Jane’ (2017). Install view. Courtesy the artist + Document, Chicago.

** So maybe it’s like, the specific content of the smell is not as pertinent, rather it’s that there even is a smell in the first place?

EJN: Yeah, I think that art does have a smell, and institutions have smells, and different neighborhoods have smells, and that’s part of the experience of seeing and living with art. There are artists who have tried to take that into their power. I recently visited Elaine Cameron-Weir’s exhibition at the New Museum — it was a really amazing show and one of the most intense things in the room was this insane wax or oil burning in a sculpture that was so caustic and intense it nearly made me sick. I’m sure there are countless others artists using smell, but I get to see so few exhibitions in real life, I can’t speak to that at as a larger mode or history. I just think scent is one of our most important ways of knowing as part of the animal kingdom, that I don’t know why we deny that as an artistic impulse. So much of contemporary food culture or coffee culture has embraced aesthetics from design or art, like plating and atmosphere, so I don’t know why we don’t borrow from them as well in terms of smell, or mouth feel, and all these other ways of engaging with the senses.

**  Thinking of fragrance-making, for example, the development of taking these different olfactions, whether they be synthetic or natural, and putting them together, is a sort of ideation of creating possibility or newness.

EJN: Yes! It’s also one of the more benign forms of psychological engineering and self-promotion that I do, where now any time that someone smells that specific scent they’ll remember the experience of the work and I think that pushes up against this economy of JPEGs and documentation in the art-viewing experience.

Erin Jane Nelson, ‘Monsieur Xolotl’ (2017). Install view. Courtesy the artist + Document, Chicago.

**  Right, like less of a flattening of the experience? Optics are often taken for granted, and allows itself to operate as the whole of the sensory experience.

EJN: Right, I am interested in the image as a whole, but also what the image does and doesn’t allow for, so I think that in the theatre of exhibition-making, I’m trying to pinch at those sweet spots that the image can’t touch and put it in direct conversation with photographic material. I spend all my time doing destructive and reconstructive things to photographs and materials, and in all of my show’s textures, sounds and smells have filled in the spaces that images can’t touch. And what images can do and their power still has deep importance in my work. **

Erin Jane Nelson’s Psychopompopolis was on Chicago’s Document, running June 3 to July 8, 2017.