CHICAGO — Burned books do not belong in a library, nor microplastics in the stomachs of fish. But there they are, and here I am: at The Chicago Cli-Fi Library, home to a shelf of bio-charred eco literature, one ton of books made from recycled plastic, excerpts from classic climate fiction, and more.

The Chicago Cli-Fi Library is not actually a library but an art exhibit, installed in the elegant wood-paneled gallery of the Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society, an interdisciplinary institute at the University of Chicago, housed in a neogothic mansion and better than most at bringing together scientists, scholars, and artists to work collaboratively on complex human problems. The show, organized by in-house curator Dieter Roelstraete, features a handful of local artists — Geissler & Sann, Jenny Kendler, Dan Peterman, and Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle — each of whom has developed a unique way of dealing with the existential threat of anthropogenic climate change. There are no common moves here, except environmental grief as expressed through art-making.

Indeed, the included artists represent truly diverse approaches to what might be called the aesthetics of catastrophe. The term has been in scholarly use at least since 2005, mostly to name the practice of photographing death and disaster, and it was the title of a panel discussion held in conjunction with the exhibition. Expanding the term’s application beyond journalistic documentation — or, really, augmenting the artistic possibilities for dealing with catastrophe — is increasingly urgent. Artists must do it and museums must show it, and with the smallest carbon footprint possible. Earthly Observatory, a sprawling 2021 show curated by Giovanni Aloi and Andrew S. Yang, set a local precedent by presenting more than 30 artists, designers, and scientists dealing critically with ecology. Roelstraete’s Everybody Talks About the Weather, set to open at Venice’s Fondazione Prada in May, promises to do likewise internationally.

Installation view of The Chicago Cli-Fi Library at the Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society, Chicago

At the Cli-Fi Library, the artist dealing most explicitly with the aesthetics of catastrophe is surely Jenny Kendler. The National Resource Defense Council’s artist-in-residence since 2014, Kendler has been making drawings, sculptures, and performances about interspecies coexistence, ecological troubles, and native plant life for two decades. Stylistically the work has ranged from quirky and playful to bold and beautiful; more recently it has seemed elegiac. “Underground Library” and “Whale Bells,” on view here, feel like an invitation to collective mourning. The bells, made with Andrew Bearnot, are an ongoing series of black ombré glass domes, handblown to evoke whales surfacing vertically to inspect their surroundings, a behavior called spyhopping. Inside dangle clappers made from the fossilized ear bones of an ancient cetacean related to modern humpbacks, a species that finally recovered from being hunted to near extinction only to be threatened anew by vessel strikes, fishing gear entanglement, and excessive noise. In a sunlit window well at the Neubauer, eight of the 30 bells made to date hang silently from black rope, like so many shrouded mourners, waiting to sound a death knell. 

For whom will the bells toll? Well, a musical performance for an event dubbed “Quartet for the End of Time” has been scheduled for Earth Day. Also, there’s those cremated books, representing four decades of writing on climate change, from technical manuals to best sellers. Kendler began “Underground Library” in 2017, so called because each set of books, after being burned in a low-oxygen process that produces a highly stable form of carbon, is buried in the earth, thereby sequestering carbon and benefitting the surrounding soil and plants. In between incineration and interment they are displayed, here on an attractive fireplace mantel of blond timber made readily available by the emerald ash borer, an invasive species responsible for a 46% decline in the region’s ash tree population. The volumes themselves are terrifyingly beautiful: matte and flaky, warped and shimmery, in every shade of black and every kind of wrong. A few title fragments can be deciphered (Economic Consequences of a Hotter Planet, Love in the Century of Extinction) but otherwise the texts — thousands of pages worth of appeals to save the planet by some of the world’s great science writers — have been rendered as silent as their messages falling on deaf ears.

Dan Peterman has also stocked the Cli-Fi Library with books and shelves. One ton of books, to be precise, plus an outdoor installation of shelving, flooring, and benches equivalent to the average annual plastic consumption of 57 individuals. Everything is made from planks of post-consumer recycled plastic, even the “books,” which, not unlike proper books, provide information about their content — namely, plastic — and can be “read” in terms of texture and color. A longtime fixture of the Chicago artist-activist community and a developer of Blackstone Bicycle Works, the Experimental Station, and many other neighborhood infrastructures for dealing critically and creatively with urban waste and need, Peterman has worked for decades with a variety of recycled materials: for Documenta 14, he exhibited thousands of copper and iron ingots cast from industrial waste and salvage. But his go-to, because it’s the world’s go-to, is plastic. He’s used it to build everything from discrete sculptures to two of the most functional public artworks in downtown Chicago: an outdoor dance floor and a 100-foot-long picnic table. If some of that sounds pragmatic and convivial, it is, but none of it has the guilt-free effect so common to eco-friendly consumer goods. Peterman’s artworks never forget that they are the products of material excess and environmental neglect.

Jenny Kendler & Andrew Bearnot, “Whale Bells” (2020)

For all the excesses of Kendler’s and Peterman’s projects — reams of literature, tons of plastic, millions of years — their outward forms are unrelentingly minimalist and compacted. Maximalism ill suits environmentalism. Beate Geissler and Oliver Sann’s contributions to the Library are no exception. A couple working collaboratively since 1996 and more recently as members of the Anthropocene Working Group, a decade-long initiative of the Haus der Kulturen der Welt, they present two artworks from the suite “How Does the World End (for Others)?” The “others” in question are horseshoe crabs, survivors of five mass extinctions over the past 475 million years and today severely endangered by human exploitation, portrayed in an impeccably clinical photographic diptych, tilted helplessly on their sides. The “others” are also everyone and everything, as represented in bound copies of a score, available for perusing on the gallery couch or witnessing at the Earth Day performance event. The score makes for a lively and humbling read. The first part is the past: a timeline from Deep History through the Cambrian Period, the Holocene, Modernity, and the Great Acceleration, complete with pointed notes to the artists from a cohort of earth scientists, debating the finer points of the major catastrophes and developments that have shaped the world up to now. The second part is the future: brief synopses of 47 books of climate fiction, chronologically ordered according to the period in which they are set. As a genre, cli-fi has been around for about a decade, though novels that deal with environmental change have been around far longer, mostly understood as science fiction. But as their tales approach reality, the sci-fi category has become scarily inapt. 

All the best books, cli-fi and sci-fi included, have clever footnotes that point to incompletely told alternate stories, and so too does The Chicago Cli-Fi Library. Here, they come in the form of a confounding little canvas by Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle, normally a maker of sleekly sociopolitical renderings of icebergs, modernist houses, bombs, and clouds. What’s the connection to this half red paint, half black-and-white image of a young Dustin Hoffman captured in front of the Greenwich Village townhouse accidentally blown up by the Weather Underground on March 6, 1970? Depends on the footnote, though initial readings suggest alternative histories ranging from the Little Red Book of Chairman Mao to Hoffman’s then-recent turn in The Graduate, in which a well-meaning friend of his character’s parents famously tipped: “One word … plastics … there’s a great future in plastics.” 

Plastics, they’re forever, man. 

Geissler & Sann, “How Does the World End (for Others)?, Horseshoe Crab” (2023)
Dan Peterman, “Archive for 57 People” (1998–ongoing)
Geissler & Sann, “How Does the World End (for Others)?, Score” (2023)
Installation view of Jenny Kendler, “Underground Library” (2023)
Dan Peterman, “Archive (One Ton)” (2012)
Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle, “8 West 11th Street, March 6, 1970” (2006)

The Chicago Cli-Fi Library continues at the Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society (5701 South Woodlawn Avenue, Chicago, Illinois) through June 11. The exhibition was curated by Dieter Roelstraete. 

Lori Waxman has been the Chicago Tribune’s primary art critic since 2009. She teaches art history at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and performs occasionally as the “60 wrd/min art critic,”...

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