“The Chicago Cli-Fi Library,” an exhibition and series of programs hosted by the Neubauer Collegium at the University of Chicago through June 11, began with music. The Crossing, a choral ensemble, was planning to produce a performance of compositions oriented around ecological themes. The performance and the exhibition, which only in a minor sense might be understood to accompany it, respond to the perceived impossibility of responding aesthetically to “the hyperobject” that is climate change.
At the Neubauer, the show’s curator Dieter Roelstraete provides one response to the criticism of inefficacy or futility that regularly surfaces in discussions of art that seeks to respond to or engage with problems of this magnitude: a spare, hyperlocal attempt to interact with the aesthetics of catastrophe. The artists included in the “Chicago Cli-Fi Library” hail from Chicago, and a couple of the works included in the small show have been around for over a decade. Each gestures to ecology and climate in a gentle, oblique manner.
The show is installed in the Neubauer’s intimate living-room-space-cum-gallery. The center of the space is occupied by a brown leather couch visitors can sit on while perusing a bound volume assembled by the artist duo Geissler & Sann. “How Does the World End (for Others)?” is a set of performance props that have been or will be activated at moments during the exhibition’s run. The “score” is comprised of a timeline beginning with Earth’s deep history, and moving to the modern era. Evincing the exhibition’s title, it also contains a series of fragments from a variety of texts grouped under the moniker of “climate fiction,” a burgeoning subgenre of science fiction that deals directly with life in the Anthropocene.
Two photographs by Geissler & Sann are also included in the show. The works depict the dinosaur-like horseshoe crab, one of the oldest species on the planet and one whose existence is on the verge of extinction. The bluntness of the photographs exists in contrast to the subtler works in the exhibition: The starkness of the crab’s lustrous, dark shell and alien-like bodies sit in vivid contrast to the photograph’s bright white background.
Geissler & Sann’s photographs as well as Jenny Kendler and Andrew Bearnot’s “Whale Bells,” eight glass-blown bells hung at staggered heights in a south-facing window of the space, don’t shy away from beauty, but the more memorable works in the exhibition provoke more curiosity than awe. Two works by Dan Peterman, “Archive for 57 People and Archive (One Ton),” for instance, are comprised of nameless books made out of recycled plastic. Their anonymity and seeming endlessness, occupying nondescript shelves on the Neubauer’s patio, and stacked haphazardly on the floor of the gallery, gesture toward waste as well as the disconnect between the cultural value placed on art and literature even as books and videos fill thrift stores and trash bins. Peterman’s books are visually entrancing but also convey a sense of melancholy in their namelessness, a melancholy trafficked even more aggressively in Jenny Kendler’s “Underground Library,” a shelf of charred books lining the room’s mantle. Kendler’s are real books, originally occupying the shelves of her own library. Some of their titles are visible, revealing these texts, like those of Geissler & Sann’s score, to be in dialogue with issues of the environment and climate.
As with many good exhibitions, the meaning of the works expands through both the planned and unplanned resonances between them. One of the smallest works in the show, Inigo Manglano-Ovalle’s “8 West 11th Street, March 6, 1970” is also one of the oddest. The work consists of a grainy photograph of a young Dustin Hoffman taken outside the New York City brownstone the was inadvertently blown up by a member of the Weather Underground, juxtaposed with a bright red square. The resonances of the work are almost too many to name, from “The Graduate”’s famous allusion to “Plastics” to its invocation of one of our culture’s many deployments of weather as metaphor, to the happenstance of the photograph’s very existence, and the red square Manglano-Ovalle has inserted as if to accentuate the unknowability of the end of any event or image.
In foregrounding a sense of the unknown and of connection while anchoring the show in a specific place and time, the “Chicago Cli-Fi Library” offers new ways of grappling with our relationship to a rapidly changing world.
“Chicago Cli-Fi Library” at Neubauer Collegium, 5701 South Woodlawn, neubauercollegium.uchicago.edu. Through June 11.