Although the series of protuberant sculptures currently installed on the floor of Prairie Gallery are composed of reclaimed detritus, from afar they seem to bubble out of the ground like proliferating natural matter, crafted at a scale somewhere between bioluminescent amoeba and detonating supernova. The sculptures by artist Bea Fremderman are comprised out of refuse salvaged from the beaches of Barren Island, a peninsula on the southern coast of Brooklyn which lends the exhibition its name. Barren Island has long been designated as a hub of waste, used from the mid-19th century onward as a site for fish oil manufacturers, garbage incinerators, and animal rendering plants (during which period its surrounding waters received the name Dead Horse Bay). The island was notorious for its oppressive stench, which could be identified from miles away and stuck to the clothes of commuting workers.
In 1926, the island was connected via landfill to the mainland, and in the 1950s, urban planner Robert Moses attempted to expand the peninsula by amassing the city’s garbage along the coastline, which was then compacted with a thick layer of sand. Over the succeeding decades, erosion caused 20th century garbage to slowly leak into the surrounding waters, causing a seemingly endless supply of industrial waste, glass bottles, and animal remains to continually wash up along the surrounding beaches. In the 21st century, atop the strata of discarded objects from centuries past, littering beachgoers carry on the legacy of Barren Island as a dumping ground, and Bea Fremderman and other curious chiffoniers mine for relics. At Prairie Gallery, visitors instinctually repeat Fremderman’s act of inquisitive stooping to squint at the objects which comprise the lamp sculptures––shards of decorative glassware, sand dollars, chess pieces, fragments of motherboard, bottle caps, and storage vessels printed with company names perhaps long-extinct.
Exhibiting the wealth of garbage polluting coastal waterways is just one potential visualization of the ongoing ecological anxiety which penetrates a great deal of contemporary work. In her previous series, shown at the Atlanta Contemporary, Fremderman staged a seemingly abandoned clothesline overrun by a living chia plant, envisioning a future in which humans have perhaps eradicated themselves completely, leaving their belongings to be reclaimed by plant life. While those overgrown “relics of the future” point to a desolate world in the immediate wake of apocalypse, the shining assemblages of Barren Island seem to occupy a time and place removed from the immediate conditions of climate catastrophe––perhaps at a moment, millennia away, in which trash has held domain over the planet long enough to congeal and animate as a new species altogether, inheritors the earth in its next act.
The light that emits from Fremderman’s sculptures casts the walls with celestial projections, as though a cosmic energy lies innate within the sediment of objects, years, and lives past. Though it is impossible to fully distract oneself from the material evidence of a planet choking with mass produced objects, my prevailing feeling upon exiting Prairie Gallery was that Fremderman’s trash is, above all, beautiful. In Plastic Capitalism, Amanda Boetzkes’ study of contemporary waste art, the art historian notes that recent eco-conscious art moves beyond simple critique of consumer culture and, in a seemingly contradictory move, seems to “voice a certain pleasure or gratification in the sight of waste.” At a point of irreversible throwaway-commodity production (in which the great masses of trash we have created cannot truly be done away with in any permanent sense), garbage has ceased to merely occupy the landscape but has become the landscape in and of itself. While hoping for expedient solutions to pollution related crises, bricoleur artists like Fremderman also seem to adopt an affectual relationship with the objects of history tossed aside, left behind, and washed up, debris which has become a fact of life for those who live in populous areas. In a near-loving gesture, she mines through centuries of rubble and makes use of the non-biodegradable materials which occupy our communities, objects which have every intention of living long beyond the story of humanity itself.