ecofeminism(s), a group show at Thomas Erben Gallery, is aptly titled. Lowercase and implicitly plural, the name nods to ecofeminism’s defining heterogeneity, its status as more of a broad coalition or affinity than a cohesive movement. Ecofeminism’s unifying tenet is that the exploitation of nature and the exploitation of women are interconnected under a patriarchal framework of ownership, domination, and self-interest. However, ecofeminists have historically differed as to whether women’s connection to the environment skews more biological or more social. The general preponderance of one view over another trends chronological; ecofeminists of the ‘80s critiqued the essentialism of their forebears, while some ecofeminists today point out the blind spots of their poststructuralist predecessors.
With the dearth of research on ecofeminist art and ecofeminism more generally, it takes a keen eye to piece together an exhibition that does justice to the topic. But ecofeminism(s) does just that. Featuring work from the late ‘60s — when ecofeminism first began to take root — to the present-day, the exhibit displays numerous approaches to the critique, dismantling, and reimagining of patriarchal ecologies. Much of the material on view documents or springs from social practice and performance, arguably ecofeminism’s preferred genres. The exhibition cites ecofeminist touchstones, with photographs of Agnes Denes’s “Rice/Tree/Burial” (1968) — believed to be the first ecological site work in the ecofeminist pantheon — as well as an image of one of Ana Mendieta’s storied Esculturas Rupestres (rupestrian sculptures), the abstracted Taíno goddesses that she incised into the landscape.
Betsy Damon’s “The Memory of Clean Water” (1985) is another such touchstone. Using handmade paper pulp, Damon made a 250-foot cast of Utah’s Castle Creek riverbed before the river was dammed. The sculpture climbs the gallery walls and spills onto the floor. It is as delicate as it is massive, its fragile multicolored surface pockmarked with small holes and natural detritus. Damon made the work with a traditional art context in mind. However, when she learned about pollutants in the river she “woke up”, realizing that she wanted to turn her focus toward community organizing, teaching, and founding a water-related nonprofit. The sculpture is a landmark work in Damon’s oeuvre, but it also signifies a moment of reckoning in which she decided that her activism had to employ new tactics and take new forms to be effective.
Intersectionality is at ecofeminism’s core, and environmental racism — the fact that BIPOC communities are disproportionately affected by environmental degradation — is central to its project. Brazilian artist Carla Maldonado collaborated with the Cipiá Indigenous Community Center in Manaus to make “Dystopia of a Jungle City, and the Human of Nature” (2019). Alternately four- and single-channel, the video pairs footage of the Indigenous community’s day-to-day life with layered forest sounds. A voiceover by Maldonado explains that, under Brazil’s far-right president Jair Bolsonaro, private-sector development is rapidly deforesting the Amazon as protections for the Amazon’s Indigenous peoples are being pared back.
Ecofeminist art can challenge law and public policy, but it can also beat such systems at their own rules. Made in defense of mineral rights, Eliza Evans’s inventive “All The Way To Hell” (2020) is surely a thorn in oil and gas developers’ sides. The work is presented as a framed contract alongside a vertical stack of wall-mounted cylinders made from minerals. Evans inherited three acres of land in Oklahoma and when developers expressed interest in her mineral-rich property, she sought to protect it by drafting a contract that fragmented the land into $10 slivers to be sold to 1,000 people. Divvying up the property rights made it financially and bureaucratically more difficult for developers to mine, drill, and otherwise develop the land. The participatory piece is ongoing, with land available for sale.
The works in ecofeminism(s) are an urgent reminder of our present climate and human rights emergencies. In their expansive vision they also imply that another world is, and has always been, possible. The lines of poet Adrienne Rich, who was uncoincidentally a feminist, environmentalist, and crusader for human rights, come to mind. “My heart is moved by all I cannot save:/ so much has been destroyed / I have to cast my lot with those / who age after age, perversely, / with no extraordinary power, / reconstitute the world.”
ecofeminism(s) continues at Thomas Erben Gallery (526 West 26th St, Chelsea) through July 24. The exhibition was curated by Monika Fabijanska.