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Anna Fine Foer on Natural History, Genetics, and the Anthropocene

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When I moved to Baltimore from Kentucky, one of the things that struck me about the city is that we are surrounded by not just history, but the structure and evidence of that history. Whether it’s the Shot Tower, Greenmount Cemetery, or the continuing impacts of redlining, Baltimore is a town where your everyday life is within reach of a textbook artifact.  

The most surprising of these chunks of history for the uninitiated, and hidden in plain sight just steps from city hall, is the Peale Museum. The oldest standing museum in the United States, and the first purpose built museum of its kind within the western hemisphere, the Peale is a living monument to the transition of art and artifact from baubles of hoarded wealthy eccentricity to democratized access of knowledge and culture. And in its current post renovation gleam, the museum is the perfect setting for Compensation For Loss, the recent exhibition by Anna Fine Foer. 

 

"Adaptation"
I don't have a subject matter. It's my approach to the subject matter that's consistent in my work.
Anna Fine Foer

Compensation For Loss is an exhibit that examines ecology in this current moment in human history, filtered through the lens of artistic and historical pastiche. Foer tackles the subjects of climate change, extinction, colonialism, and genetic engineering in this series of illustrative collages, harkening to block prints once displayed in cabinets of curiosity. Presented in full color, the overwhelming layered detail of the works recalls her work as a textile-based artist and conservator, which influenced the title of the exhibition.

The work envelopes the viewer in the front two galleries on the Peale’s second floor, and the aesthetics of the art combined with the architecture momentarily confuse the viewer in time and space. One could believe they were looking at this exhibition in a European museum save for the police cruiser and I-83 visible through the window.

I finally got to see the show on a Sunday afternoon, just in time for a panel featuring a smorgasbord of experts in the fields of ecology, bioethics, genetic research, as well as theology. Featured were Rabbi Psachyah Lichtenstein of the Pearlstone Center, Dr. Henry Levin, Senior Investigator of the NIH, Dr. Jeffery Kahn of Johns Hopkins University’s Bioethics Department, and Dr. Bernadette Roche of Loyola University’s Biology Department.

All these topics were present in the work, particularly within the context of one of the main questions of the show, “How do we compensate for extinction?” Surrounded by Foer’s collages, the discussion ranged from the topics of the micro-biomes of Dutch farmland (in reference to the artist’s work with the NIH regarding tulipmania) and how to create sustainable alternatives to pesticide by intentionally creating soil biomes too harsh for pest plants, to reincarnation through nature, to the roles of AI in predicting models for extinction and how to bioethically use those models without humanity’s newest tool simply repeating one of its oldest post colonial mistakes—unsustainability. 

After the discussion, I got the chance to sit down with the artist to discuss the exhibition, her studio practice, and how we got to this point in history. The following interview was edited for clarity.

 

"Compensation for Loss"

Quentin Gibeau: Thanks for meeting with me and congratulations on the exhibition. What was your motivation for the creation of the show, and aside from the other subject matter, do you think the pandemic played a role?

Anne Fine Foer: What fascinates me is that there is an idea in the world of people who aren’t makers, where artists are sitting in cafes smoking Gauloises and drinking absinthe, talking about great ideas. But really we’re making something, and the ideas come from the work. So that is exactly what happened. I wanted to follow the idea of making these chimeras (a detail in “Hortus Botanicus”)  but not something direct like reading mythology. I thought of all these animal parts, and how that relates to what is happening with engineering parts for humans and all the interventions we are creating in the natural world, whether necessary or not.

So I decided to do a whole new series. At first, I was going to make all of these illustrations of animals. And then duplicate them digitally, print them, and collage them. 

I was listening to peepers in the night, and I had this vision of a cracked turtle shell, and not enough pieces left to repair it. You’d have to blend the missing pieces in with something else, so I thought of the delft tiles filling in the cracks. And I think this is because I was involved with the tulipmania research project with Dr. Levin. Then I started doing research and it became very science based. Then you start writing grants and you realize you have to flush out your idea a lot more. It’s easy for artists to say, “Oh I hate grant writing,” but it really does help you focus on your idea, to add components you hadn’t thought of before, and audience. So that process helped inform where I was going. 

As for the pandemic, with my process, I had already pledged to myself that the work from this series was going to be made from my own hand. The components that I am collaging are digital copies of my own work. This was going to be a time-consuming process, but I don’t think I made decisions consciously that would take longer because I wasn’t going anywhere. I challenged myself with trying different techniques such as faux finishing, and shellacking. A friend suggested that and I was like “You can shellac on paper?” I ended up using faux finishing for the turtle shell techniques. 

I started working on the project in about 2019, and then I went away for a while. But when I came back from Europe, it was right before the pandemic. I was planning on going back, because most of the source material I was referencing was in Europe, so I thought I would go and see more. But I didn’t get the travel grant, and there was a pandemic, so the project became more research based. Online and books. 

 

From the "Tulipmania" series

So it became more literary research. 

Yes! In spring of 2019, before the pandemic, I could go to the MICA library and pull out these flat files of original work, but as the project got rolling I couldn’t do that–because of the pandemic. 

Could you talk about how your art making and your interest in the environment have overlapped in your life? Those are major aspects of the show.

I say in my statement: I don’t have a subject matter. It’s my approach to the subject matter that’s consistent in my work. I’ve been riffing on scientific concepts for quite a while. And some of it started more geologically. Because I did a lot of work about the land. I was living in Israel for a long time. And I was heavily influenced by the geology. And so that kind of started in cryptography. But then I continue to make these connections. So when I went to school in London, for textile conservation, we studied chemistry, and that made me comfortable riffing on scientific concepts.

I was 27 when I started grad school for conservation, and I guess it just gave me the calm confidence that, you know, this isn’t as complicated as you think it is. It’s open access. Anybody can try and understand these things. So that is a gateway for me. 

And what about your time living on the plains as a kid, were there any moments you’ve had as a child that was a genesis of some of this work about the environment?

We moved to Indianapolis when I was five, but before that I do remember Montana. My father was a professor in Billings, Montana and I remember seeing bison on the open plain. You know, we went to Yellowstone. I was doing a lot of research for the project and some of the things that I would read about were very accessible to me, because I have experienced that part of the world. I’m actually very, very, very concerned about the water, even though I didn’t make so much about that. Because I know for a minute about what it’s going to be like, and I know that people here have absolutely no concept [about water pollution]. We’re completely unprepared. You don’t even wash your dishes the same way. You don’t take a shower the same way. It’s completely different.

 

“De-extinction: How to Clone a Mastodon”
“Massai Shields for a Pangolin”

About the work in the pandemic: probably the piece that is the most inspired by what you were hearing on the news was “Maasai Shields for a Pangolin,” 2020. And also, the mastodon, “De-extinction: How to Clone a Mastodon,” from 2021. A lot of my work is about more than one thing. In this case, it was that they kept talking about when we go back into office spaces or museum spaces. We’re going to have to realize that we have to open all the interior spaces, given the reconfiguration and reconsideration of space. And, in fact, I was really interested in all these stories about the 1918 pandemic. I learned that was when they moved the radiators under the windows.

Interesting, where were they before?

They were more in the middle, like in the middle of the wall. But so the window was open. And the idea was if you would be warm, the window is gonna be open, but it’s still cold for the radiators.

There is some magical logic there.

In a steampunk way. It’s funny. With the mastodon, it was a chinoiserie. The chinoiserie could either represent a Trompe l’oeil. Like, you can’t go outside. And so this piece is reminding you, covering up the windows, it’s not safe to go out because it’s too toxic. Or it could be that the windows are open, and it’s so beautiful outside with this idealized landscape. 

What piece was most transformative for you and your personal practice? 

It was using a lot more of my own work, as I’m primarily a collagist. Doing all those paintings. So for me, I think that’s the most exciting part, because it’s not like it was a technical masterpiece. Just seeing all those illustrations, that just makes me so happy. I wanted to get an empty display case. And the Peale was willing to support the loan and logistics, but it fell through, but I have my own collection. My son was gonna help me write fake labels, fake specimen labels, because that’s the whole side of it. The whole cabinet of curiosities. I think I’d talked a little bit about the fakes.

Oh, yeah. And that also gets back to what you were saying about the Peale brothers, one of them was a sideshow kind of guy. Like, like a Mutter Museum kind of guy.

Yeah, exactly.

 

Anna Fine Foer at The Peale

How was showing at the Peale important for this exhibition?

The first person that I started talking to about the idea of having the show was George Ciscle. Initially I wanted to do it at the Walters, because of their cabinet of curiosities, but they didn’t go for it. You really want to have your show at the Peale, George told me. Initially David London was involved, and he had solid ideas for storytelling, involving magic realism and a broad appeal and we were talking about other places. And then I just, you know, kept reading, but also circling back to the Peale. Because it’s the first purpose-built museum in the new world. And my whole background is museums. I started with museums in high school, I worked in the preparation department of the Indianapolis Museum of Art. And that’s how I got interested in conservation. Well, one of the reasons I started thinking about conservation was because they would send me down to the conservation lab. So that’s really, really, really significant to me. To be involved in that way and be able to say that.

To be part of that tradition.

Definitely. And, you know, they had cabinets of curiosity. So I’m carrying along that idea. 

Is there anything you feel you learned about yourself as an artist that you’ve taken away from your experiences with the show?

The most challenging part for me, is that I couldn’t go to openings during the pandemic. But I’m inside all the time doing my artwork, you know. It’s hard for artists to find these people and to find those spaces, when we already have our own art spaces, that’s our jam. I think the most difficult part was transitioning all of that work to a space to be displayed, and hanging back in terms of control, while still seeing the vision from beginning to end.

 

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