There’s a moment in The Origin of Species when Charles Darwin describes the sea as it tears at a rocky coastline, wearing down the cliffs at a pace far slower than our ability to witness. It is sublime in the deepest sense of the word, even a little dramatic. The slow process of erosion, an incremental eating away, seems half-dreamed of by Darwin in his description of it, as though he is writing a poem rather than giving a scientific account.
Charles Darwin appears more than once in Stella Brown’s past work. The 19th century English naturalist might seem like an unexpected reference point for a young artist working in a 21st-century city, amid concrete and traffic; but is chosen very deliberately. Brown carves out a niche as an urban naturalist, exploring the region’s construction rubble as if it were a vanishing prairie. Brown’s interdisciplinary practice often draws on geology, botany, and anthropology for a variety of projects that acknowledge the complexity of the current ecological time, though each in different ways. In a rapidly evolving cityscape, Brown observes the resilience of urban plant life, collected fragments of demolished landmarks, and unearths the ecological histories of particular sites.
Brown’s recent research into the South Works, a region in Southeast Chicago where the US steel and iron industry once boomed, is an inquiry into the human alteration of land–rock, in particular–and the fusion of human-made byproducts with natural elements. Brown has positioned her Deep Geological Study in the age of the Anthropocene, as visible changes to the earth are unfolding with new clarity. Unlike Darwin’s attempt to survey a deep past in which he had no place, Brown’s project is located squarely in a moment characterized by visible changes to the earth that are observable in our present moment–changes so striking that they mark a new geologic epoch.
Steelworkers Park, the site of Brown’s installation within the larger South Works region, stretches along the lakeshore, with walking paths and tended prairie lands where an industrial hub once boomed. The park is currently operated by the Chicago Park District, as legally all lakefront land must be accessible to the public, under the Burnham Plan, while the remainder of the South Works area is still owned by US Steel. The 573 acres of land that comprise the entire region is made up mostly of slag, an industrial byproduct dumped by steel mills between the late 1880s and 1922. Slag, the non-iron parts of iron-ore, is a central point of Brown’s project because it clearly illustrates the visible human alteration of the landscape over time. On this land, the slag is compressed into the ground and even exists as an extended layer of bedrock along the lakeshore.
The most striking remnants of the area’s industrial activity are the enormous ore walls that still exist within the park, running perpendicular to the lake and looming like ancient geologic monuments. Between the walls are deep green corridors, dense ecosystems of trees, plants, and boulders, birds diving in and out of sight. Although her research extends beyond the borders of the park–addressing the greater South Works area and its history of immigration and industry– Brown’s installation itself is modest in scale, tucked next to the end of the first ore wall. A taxonomy of different rock forms all collected from the area, from dense iron pellets to chunks of slag and speckled aggregates of limestone, have been carefully separated into wire cylinders, set atop deep red pallets. Through the precise ordering of rocky specimens, Brown brings to light the myriad ways that industrial processes have rendered complex cycles of extraction, production, and compression, in which human activity has been incorporated into the concept of the natural.
At the end of the ore wall, above eye level, are two window-sized recesses, which Brown has cleverly adapted into a sort of ready-made vitrine. With the precision of a museum display, large fragments of slag and stone have been arranged, supported by small welded posts. The formality of the display, held within an industrial remnant, feels both uncanny and even a little jarring, as though the once thriving site somehow anticipated its own atrophy. But it’s exactly that sort of feeling which gives an added power to Brown’s subtle arrangement of unearthed industrial materials. The decision to collect, study and arrange feels like a very human impulse, but Brown’s carefully considered re-presentation of her findings within their prior context allows the layers of history within the landscape to speak in specific terms, gently prompted by Brown’s incisive work. A text supplied on site offers additional information about the region’s interwoven social and industrial past and present and the community’s active focus on historical and ecological preservation, even with complex issues of land ownership and development–which seem to always loom in the background when swaths of open space are in question. As her previous projects have done, Brown presents her Geological Study as an invitation to consider human ecological presence and impact, by using the local landscape itself as a guide to pay attention.