Wrapping our minds around the seemingly insurmountable issues of climate change is daunting at best; for artist Jenny Kendler, it’s another day in the studio. Exploring issues as diverse as ocean sound pollution, the acidification of the sea and the senseless valuation of capitalism, Kendler renders the vast problems of the Anthropocene on an intimate scale. In her new solo exhibition at Goldfinch Gallery, sculptural and installation-based work invites viewers to question the legacy we are leaving to future human and non-human generations. Newcity spoke with Kendler about the exhibition, “In the Shadow of the Sundial,” as well as her work with Artists Commit.
What will the show at Goldfinch entail?
The show at Goldfinch has been in the works for quite some time. I did a group show with Elizabeth Lalley, the assistant curator, called “Marginal Green.” And then, interestingly, Claudine, the gallery owner’s husband is Andrew Wetzler at the Natural Resources Defense Council, where I’ve been artist-in-residence since 2014. So the show feels like a really nice homecoming.
The title of the show is “In the Shadow of the Sundial” which is in some ways very personal. It’s sort of about coming through this grief for what is being irreparably lost in the natural world and our seeming inability to meet the challenges of this time. Although it doesn’t change my feeling about how we still have to meet these challenges with everything that we have, and we can’t give in to apathy, it just means that we have to be active in what we do. It’s also thinking about this feeling of being in a contemporary era where there’s so much wonder and so much possibility, but at the same time, we seem to be casting a shadow on ourselves with our own choices. I also reference this idea of the Doomsday Clock, which is this idea that we essentially are fractions of a minute from midnight in terms of the level of stress that we’re putting on both ecological and social systems.
Some of the work in the show was previously at the MSU Broad, which was a show that I developed with the senior curator there, Steven Bridges. Unfortunately it was during the height of the pandemic, and it didn’t get seen as much as I would have liked. So I’m really thrilled to be able to bring some of these projects to Chicago. We also—specifically when we were putting together the show—we’re trying to think about the ecological and carbon impact of it and so, for example, there’s a large table that was built for the show that’s at the MSU Broad, and we specifically decided not to ship the table for the show. So we’re restructuring a lot of the elements, like literally using a crate that work was packed in as a pedestal—which the crate itself was one that I found in an alley. We’re thinking about every little detail of it and how to kind of wrap it back in as much as possible, not just in terms of recycling, which I think we all know now, especially with plastics is pretty problematic as placing too much onus on individuals and not enough on systemic issues. We’re really thinking about how to reuse things in ways that are fun and are also adding something to the show.
The works in the show deal with themes of grief and of mourning. They deal with archives and heirlooms, thinking about what we’re gonna pass on to future generations and what we value and why. Where does this concept of value come from? And can we sort of unpack the essentially capitalist basis of where most of our valuation arises and try to tilt it toward the ecological? Why are biodiversity or seeds not our currency in a sense, trying to think about reversing that flow of this vacuum that’s sucking up life, essentially diversity and turning it into fungible, accumulated capital and trying to suggest some other alternatives. One thing that art can do really well is to imagine how the world might be otherwise. Certainly we can’t get to a different place if we can’t imagine it. Some of the work that we need to be doing as culture makers is to try to propose alternate structures for our culture.
I’m really interested in hearing more about the “Whale Bells” project, which you’ll have in the show.
Yeah, it’s a collaborative project between myself and Andrew Bearnot. That took many years of development. I found those beautiful fossils on eBay, my favorite, the world’s biggest yard sale, I can’t even tell you how many years ago. They were sitting in my studio and I kept thinking about the songs of whales. I read this very poignant book that NRDC helped to put together that was essentially about ocean noise pollution and how deeply, deeply harmful that is to whales. It actually literally can kill them, in the case of a lot of these beaked whales, they’ll surface so quickly that they hemorrhage and die. I was imagining this kind of poetic exchange between these ancient whales, the fossils inside the bell that makes the noise, what’s ringing the bell was actually part of the whale’s ear. So what once received sound now becomes what’s transmitting sound. I’m thinking of it as, in a sense, like an absorbed memory, in the poetic way that art can do, transmitted from these whales of the past who lived in silent seas, when these whales themselves were the most culturally advanced, the most linguistic, the most intellectual beings on the planet, long before us apes learned to walk. And thinking about them, sending this kind of message to the whales of today, who, in the case of the humpbacks, were essentially their descendants. There’s also this interesting parallel thinking about how whale oil, which is what they were being hunted for, was like a gateway drug to fossil fuels. So there’s all of these tie-ins for the deep time histories that I’m really interested in getting people to think about and explore. And I’m invested in the beauty of the objects themselves. They sound beautiful, mournful. Andrew did a wonderful job blowing the glass there. It’s kind of like ombre forms which is intended to reference the shape of what’s called a spyhopping humpback, so a humpback is poking their snout out of the water to breathe and thinking about the ombre continuation of ocean water going from clear to dark.
That’s so cool. I know you’re part of Artists Commit, which is making these climate impact reports for exhibitions. You’re making one for this show. Can you talk a little bit about what that entails and what the purpose of it is?
The climate impact report is essentially the tool that we designed at Artists Commit, which is a self organized collective of artists who came together quite organically, around our concern for what we could do within our abilities to help mitigate the climate crisis. We realized that people needed a format for how to engage with these issues, because everywhere we were going in the art world, we heard that people were interested in wanting to understand what they could do, how they could help change culture, change their institutions, change their own processes in the studio, but sort of didn’t know where to start. The idea is really to try to encourage collective action and collective responsibility, but not to continue to perpetuate this misdirection of the idea of tracking and reducing your carbon footprint. We want to sort of specifically work against that. That was actually a term that BP had developed by an advertising agency and tried to promote around 2004, which is around when Al Gore’s film comes out, and they start to get worried that they’re gonna get pinned with responsibility for the climate crisis, which the fossil fuel industry is responsible for. So we both wanted to give people a lens to raise their own awareness about what we actually can do as individuals, but at the same time emphasize that this really is about collective action. It’s about economic, political and social change. We think that this is really useful within this frame of the art world because the art world has a totally different power structure than a lot of other places. It’s much more permeable. And people who have power oftentimes have a lot of power to change things quite dramatically. We realized if we’re able to really change the mind of like fifty people, we can make some pretty significant changes here. We’re really excited that we’ve already been able to have L.A. MOCA and Tate Modern and Hauser and Wirth work with us, not because were valuing big names over any others, but because we’re really interested in a domino effect of culture change. We know that the art world feels like it has a mandate to be vanguard in culture in general. And you can see the way that the art world tends to change like a season or two before the rest of the world, hopefully. So we’re hoping essentially that this can be part of pushing the conversation forward, and giving people some tools for accountability to each other.
So the idea is basically taking stock of how wasteful exhibition-making can be and pushing people toward making it less so?
Exactly. It’s not a complicated idea. It’s obvious actually, when we talk to people we realized that they didn’t know where to start and so we were like, Let us give you a step by step. Just take a lens and look at what you’re doing. We’re tracking in multiple areas. We’re looking at carbon, which of course in the art world tends to be primarily from travel or shipping. We’re looking at waste streams, where do things go afterwards? Are they reused? Are they recycled, knowing that that sometimes is a dubious term, or do they go into landfill? And we really want organizations to look at the human impact too, because we believe that social justice and environmental justice are the same struggle and that we won’t be successful in either regard until we sort of recognize that these things are deeply interlinked. I have to admit that that’s been harder to get the larger institutions to want to really do that work, but one step at a time. They’re uncomfortable talking about salary equity and things. We think that that’s important.
Then we’re asking people to make it public. It’s actually quite radical in a way to say, let’s all show the impact that we’re having without blaming and shaming each other. So that we can start to understand what it is that we can collectively do better. A lot of the other artists in the group work with large New York galleries, and so they talk a lot about how they know art fairs are one of the biggest contributors. But it’s almost like nobody can take the first step to scale back because people are so economically entangled. We need to create the social cultural pressure to be able to allow systemic change, and we just think that artists have a lot of cultural power and that we should leverage it.
You originally studied photography, how did you make this transition into more sculptural or installation work?
I’m still really interested in essentially making the same work, I kind of have always been a conceptual artist, but I just was really invested in the modality of photography for a long time, partly honestly like accident of circumstance, which is that when I was in high school the one really kitted out thing that we had at our high school was a dark room, which I absolutely loved spending time in. I think for me art making is so much about observation and it was really about keen observation of cultural systems and keen observation of the natural world and the rhythms there. In some ways, photography was just a different lens that I was working through. I will say that I actually pretty consciously transitioned away from that. Because I realized that at least in the work that I was making, it wasn’t really doing what I wanted it to do. There was too much of a conversation around other forms of image-making, advertising, visual culture of that stripe. I really wanted to be thinking more about relationship to the body, sensuousness, intimacy, haptic sense. So when I moved the same modalities of thinking toward these other media, I found that it was much more successful. But I also very much wanted to stop being on my computer so much. It’s really like returning to the way that I used to make art when I was a little kid. I was one of those kids that always wanted to be an artist like from when I was three years old or whatever, that I knew what that word was. I was constantly making tiny things mostly with feathers and little braided pieces of grass and twigs and making little jars of potions of dried herbs and tiny paintings. Without initially being very conscious of that, but sort of looking back on it, I was like, Oh I see this re-engaging my prior sense-based, intuitive way of thinking. Although some of the work is still led by those intuitive strategies, some of it is very planful and very intellectual and very layered. Although perhaps the aesthetic components still come out of this sort of poetic intuition. I think I wanted to find a less mediated way of engaging with art, I didn’t want to be mediated behind the camera or behind the computer and I didn’t want my viewers to be mediated.
“Jenny Kendler: In the Shadow of the Sundial” is on view at Goldfinch Gallery, 319 North Albany, through May 28.