By LAUREN LEVATO COYNE, December 2020
Lauren Fensterstock works in large-scale installation using myriad materials and techniques such as paper quilling and mosaic. She is one of four artists in Forces of Nature: The Renwick Invitational 2020. Her colossal, site-specific piece, the totality of time lusters the dusk, was partially inspired by richly illustrated 16th c. manuscripts such a as The Book of Miracles. As such in our conversation we refer to her work simply as the comet. The following is an excerpt from our recent conversation about Fensterstock’s work.
LAUREN LEVATO COYNE: Right now your piece is shuttered away in the Renwick during this latest wave of museum closures. In this I see a connection to your previous work around gardens and landscape—an object and its ongoingness, whether humans witness it or not. Human tending, human meaning and meaningless. Or the sentimentality we bring to landscape paintings, for instance, which is different than the emotion we experience in the actual living landscape.
LAUREN FENSTERSTOCK: I tend not to look at nature from a scientific perspective but a metaphoric one whether I'm looking at the site or, as you suggest, I'm looking at how we project our own feelings of what things are into those objects. I'm always making a sort of caricature based on medieval manuscripts or 18th century paintings. I was looking at a lot of images of comets and how they had been used as portents and omens. The Renwick is so close to the White House which had me thinking about the landscape through which the comet is arcing. It might be either bringing a destruction or perhaps heralding one that was already happening. What I love about comets is that their arc is so long. It can take hundreds of thousands, if not millions of years for a comet to complete an orbit and the woes of our lives are so minimal in that wake. So I think if there is an emotional construct in the work it’s that there is a world so beyond our immediate concerns and it's perhaps a world that does not privilege humanity as a primary force. So many of our woes about climate center around human survival and I think the world is possibly indifferent to the fate of humans. It has hope for complexity and more features than our single species. Now of course that doesn't abdicate us from responsibility in our moment. But I think it puts things in a greater perspective.
LLC: I personally think a lot about bug time. There’s human time, plant time, bug time, and of course what you are referring to is comet time.
LF: The planet, right, it doesn't need us. We need it. We are so used to thinking in ontology of things as separate beings, you know. And politically we're so wrapped up in American myths of individualism. When we think instead about causality we’re able to see a bigger, more abstract web of relationships and then the goals have to change because you're not thinking about the needs of one object or one human.
LLC: This makes me think of hyperobjects, of being a hyperobject. When did you start thinking about objects and weather?
LF: I spent a long time thinking about ontology, specifically about different kinds of landscapes: what is a baroque garden for instance, or what is a picture of a garden? How do we interpret that? Then I started reading a lot of books that looked at causality, Timothy Morton’s Hyperobjects and Realist Magic being two important ones. My thinking shifted toward causality. How does causality occur in a landscape? Weather is one really clear example, potentially moving the landscape from a static site to a location of activity. A landscape isn’t something that we put down and visit, that stays the same as we “left” it. It’s a site where things are constantly changing. Weather is often the way we measure those changes, seasonally or catastrophically.
LLC: In her recent Forbes article, Natasha Gural called you “a modern day Mary Shelley.” You are working in the territory of beauty and the sublime with your work, and with landscapes, which also situates you right next to the grotesque, especially when we are talking about human impact. Do you think of your work in terms of monsters or monstrosity?
LF: I don't know that it's a word that I've used, but I love hearing it. Just in a structural way of mosaic you're taking lots of broken parts and putting them together to form a new whole. Most of my work is this kind of accumulation of multitudes to make a new whole in a way that you can certainly relate to Frankenstein, which is one of my favorite novels. It's one of the few novels I've read multiple times. I love Mary Shelley, and I'm fascinated with that whole circle of Byron and Shelley because they're so dramatic. That book to me is also about this kind of intersection of literature, language, aesthetics, and science all coming together. But a monster. I mean, I definitely think of the work as being its own entity that's separate from me and once completed it does have its own life. I think it goes back to what we were saying earlier that it's not about something, it is something. When it's about something that’s an idea that I project upon it and when it is something it is its own entity that has its own relationships physically, structurally, economically, etc., outside of me. So I would say it's like a monster in the sense that once I'm done fashioning it, it has its own autonomy that I can't necessarily contain or control or define.
LLC: That sounds liberating and also a little bit terrifying.
LF: Yeah. I definitely feel like this piece was born of a lot of personal anxiety that is both political and environmental. This piece is a big shift for me and a lot of my past work. I feel like I was always looking at history and kind of reporting and re-mixing historical form whereas this piece is a switch to something more speculative, like I'm starting to take what I have observed and project forward. But I think the comet is a more forceful object. It's doing something, it has an implied consequence of its action in a way that the past work hasn't necessarily had. A lot of my past work was a place to contemplate and now I'm creating a space where there's action. I think for me the piece is very political also because of its location, just right in the heart of DC. I thought a lot about the fact that the piece would stand the election and, you know, wondering how things would change before and after that. I designed the piece before the pandemic hit. So I think the piece, you know, it just looks so much like the COVID virus. I can't help but see that form of something bursting through and just breaking everything open. And then just the physical travails of trying to get that piece done in the pandemic, all through this year...there's so much that has happened. But yeah, the piece is definitely a bit of a wrecking ball.
Forces of Nature: Renwick Invitational 2020 will reopen in 2021. Fensterstock is currently working toward her next solo show with Claire Oliver Gallery in New York which is scheduled to open in May 2021. WM
Lauren Levato Coyne is an American artist and writer based in Detroit. Lauren’s drawings and mixed media works have appeared on more than a dozen book and journal covers. She earned her MFA in painting from Cranbrook Academy of Art and her degrees in writing and women’s studies from Purdue University and in political journalism from Georgetown University. She has taught and lectured at The Field Museum of Natural History, The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Georgia State University and The School of the Art Institute of Chicago among others. Find her on instagram @laurenlevatocoyne or online at laurenlevatocoyne.com.view all articles from this author