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The natural selection of Jenny Kendler

Artist and environmental activist Jenny Kendler makes complex work about the weird relationship between humans and the natural world. And she has just found a bigger platform as the first-ever artist in residence for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

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The volcano rabbit is one of the smallest rabbits in the world. It has rounded ears, eats leaves and bark and what domesticated crops it can get its teeth into, and makes a high-pitched sound rather than thump its feet to signal danger. It is most active at dusk and dawn. The rabbit lives only on the pine-studded slopes of four volcanos near Mexico City, and there only tenuously: it's being pushed up the mountain slopes by habitat encroachment, overhunting, and climate change. Mountains being what they are, the rabbit is running out of room. It's fast becoming another symbol of the manifold ways in which human activity threatens the planet—of the new geological epoch, the Anthropocene, that scientists have begun calling this period of mass extinction and global warming.

The volcano rabbit is also a muse. The creature figures into a painting by the Chicago artist and environmental activist Jenny Kendler, whose Climate Change (Volcano Rabbits) features a woman stacking stones atop a mountain—trying to extend the rabbits' habitat upward while they hop wildly around the mountain and off it. The painting is part of a series, "Archipelago," inspired by the field of island biogeography, which studies bounded habitats—islands, but also places like mountaintops—to understand how ecosystems develop in isolation. Other subjects Kendler painted for the series are a group of slaughtered narwhals magically rescued from their pursuers, and a hummingbird feeding from a woman's ear.

Climate Change (Volcano Rabbits) - COURTESY THE ARTIST
  • courtesy the artist
  • Climate Change (Volcano Rabbits)

Many of Kendler's pieces are dedicated to certain species, like the volcano rabbit or the extinct European lion, or inspired by certain conservationist thinkers, like E.O. Wilson or Edward Abbey; she cites more naturalists as influences than she does artists. But this is perhaps to impose an unnatural separation between the two fields. "What's so interesting is she doesn't view herself as an artist and environmentalist—she only has one lens to view her work," says Elizabeth Corr, who is helping Kendler to focus it. Corr is the manager for art partnerships at the Natural Resources Defense Council, where Kendler, who studied at the School of the Art Institute, recently began a stint as artist in residence—the NRDC's first.

She'll spend the next year collaborating with the 44-year-old conservation organization to help advance its message through art—at, for instance, Marfa Dialogues, a gathering of artists and activists interested in climate change, where Kendler recently had a proposal accepted for a public performance piece. At this year's event in Saint Louis at the end of July, Kendler will bring along a "food cart"—but for monarch butterflies, whose larvae feed only on milkweed, which is in decline. She'll pass out balloons filled with milkweed seeds, which viewers will be encouraged to take home and pop, spreading the seeds throughout the city. She plans to bring the piece to Chicago too.

A rendering of what Kendler will serve at her "food cart" at the Marfa Dialogues. Filled with milkweed seeds, the balloons can be taken home and popped—the plants that grow from them will bolster monarch butterfly populations. - COURTESY THE ARTIST
  • courtesy the artist
  • A rendering of what Kendler will serve at her "food cart" at the Marfa Dialogues. Filled with milkweed seeds, the balloons can be taken home and popped—the plants that grow from them will bolster monarch butterfly populations.

I first saw Kendler's work in a 2012 solo show at Chicago Artists Coalition called "The Hall of Disappearing," where she displayed a series of old-fashioned porcelain birds that she had modified—blanketed entirely in lichen, or obscured with a kind of shield, or painted black. If the birds were somehow compromised, or in need of protection, there were a couple larger installations that invited a feeling of greater comfort, notably a tent lined on the inside with fur. Viewers could enter and then, if they wished, take their clothes off. "People really want to have a connection to the natural world," Kendler says now. "We fill our homes with throw blankets with lions on them, and calendars with hawks, and little tchotchkes with birds on them. And that becomes this sort of surrogate object for this natural connection. I wanted to take these things and rewild them—make them weird and strange again."

Each piece in "The Hall of Disappearing" seemed to say something quiet and mysterious about the natural world—thoughtful without being abstruse, confident but not didactic. The pieces continue to bewitch, and to matter, as human relations with the natural world continue into a period of a kind of high absurdity: See the 1,600 protected birds shot and killed in New York City in the past five years, for instance—out of 26,000 killed in all—because they had the bad luck to be in the environs of John F. Kennedy International Airport. (As a related matter, see the U.S. Airways flight in 2009 brought low by a flock of Canada geese and forced to crash-land in the Hudson River.) The other side of this is the creative lengths to which people go to protect endangered species—like Operation Migration, whose members use ultralight planes to teach the tiny remaining populations of whooping cranes how to fly.

Camouflage V (Ultra-Deflector for Endangered Bird of Paradise) - COURTESY THE ARTIST
  • courtesy the artist
  • Camouflage V (Ultra-Deflector for Endangered Bird of Paradise)

In the context of this strange state of affairs, Kendler urges viewers of her work to wonder what it's like from the other side of the divide between humans and animals—or, as she'd put it, between human and nonhuman animals. (In conversation she sometimes refers to "humans" as if we/they constitute a culture she's slightly outside of: "A lot of the time I question living as an urban human.") She extends explanations of her art into even longer expositions of the creatures that inspire it—so an observation of the radical difference, to humans, of certain traits that occur in the nonhuman-animal kingdom, for example, can lead to a lengthy tangent on the mantis shrimp's knack for producing and perceiving circularly polarized light, a complicated method of illumination that helps the shrimp identify one another underseas.

One idea Kendler has for a project is inspired by a famous 1974 essay, "What Is It Like to Be a Bat?," in which the philosopher Thomas Nagel argued that if an organism has consciousness, then there is a distinct experience—one probably untranslatable across species—of what it is to be that organism. He took the example of the bat and its sense of echolocation, which, Nagel wrote, "is not similar in its operation to any sense that we possess" and is unlikely to be "subjectively like anything we can experience or imagine." Kendler plans five large portraits of animals, to be installed in a public space, that will look "almost like advertisements," she says, with accompanying text on top of the images that will say something like "What is it like to be me?" or "What does it feel like to be me?"

"Part of what I'm trying to do in my work is expand people's concept of otherness—including the vast diversity of human beings, but also including the animal kingdom, and recognizing that each individual being has their own interior way of perceiving things that's subjective but that also needs to be respected," Kendler says. She pauses to qualify this idea. "Though of course my goal is not to anthropomorphize animals at all. I actually don't think we can probably understand what it's like to be a bat. But I do think it's terribly interesting to imagine that."

On a sunny day in late April, Kendler was still adjusting to being back in Chicago after a winter spent in Los Angeles. She hadn't yet returned to her studio, which is a short walk from her home, a large West Town loft she shares with her husband in a converted building where parking meters were manufactured. Kendler, 33, has thin and angular features and straight brown hair, and wore an earring she'd made out of lovebird feathers. Outside one window was a Siberian elm tree, which in a week or two would be covered in a kind of fruit called a samara. Kendler was waiting for the tree to bloom so that she could open the window and pick it; she puts the seeds the samara contains in soups and on salads. Foraging in the city, she picks mulberries, daylily blossoms, and saskatoons, an edible decorative berry with a blueberry-like taste. She makes tinctures and salves.

The forests of California are better for foraging than the streets of Chicago, though, and Kendler was excited to talk about a trip she'd taken to Salt Point State Park, where she found yellowfoot chanterelles and hedgehog mushrooms, which she introduces by their Latin names, Craterellus tubaeformis and Hydnum repandum. It's important, she says, to know the names of plants and animals. "It's like if you were in a crowd of people and you didn't know any of their names, it would be very hard for you to distinguish their individual characteristics, or learn their personalities over time. Some people think that knowing the names of plants is this kind of empty nerdery. But I think it serves an important function—as a tag, for you to be able to essentially learn the personality of a plant or an animal."

Kendler has family roots in California, but she grew up in Richmond, Virginia, in a solar home that her mother helped design. Her parents were both environmentalists, as her mother's parents had been; Kendler's grandparents bought a tract of land in San Luis Obispo and donated it to the Nature Conservancy to prevent it from becoming part of a nuclear power plant. Kendler's maternal grandmother grew up in Salt Lake City—she was a descendant of Brigham Young—but left the Mormon church and became a secular humanist. As a child, Kendler wanted to be a naturalist artist—"the person who gets on the wooden ship and sails around the earth drawing new bird species," she says. "I didn't realize that wasn't a job you could have anymore."

Kendler's father is a psychiatric geneticist with an interest in philosophy and evolution, which he passed on to his daughter, who reads across disciplines related to her work. She's been particularly influenced by The Spell of the Sensuous, a book in which the philosopher David Abram tracks the ways that human cultures severed their connections with the natural world: for instance, the invention of phonetic writing, which had the effect of abstracting alphabet symbols that had once represented physical objects of the natural world. "The human mind is not some otherworldly essence that comes to house itself inside our physiology," Abram wrote. "Rather, it is instilled and provoked by the sensorial field itself, induced by the tensions and participations between the human body and the animate earth." Kendler relates Abram's book to The Reenchantment of Art by Suzi Gablik, saying that both have a "semi-magical-realist tint" that she's drawn to—a call for humans to reestablish a greater spiritual connection to the natural world. "I'm not a mysticist in any way, shape, or form," she says, "but this idea of depth and richness and almost magic being accessible in the natural world—this kind of unfathomable, pleasurable darkness—it's incredibly interesting, and drives me aesthetically."

Kendler studied photography in school, first at the Maryland Institute College of Art and then at SAIC, where she graduated with an MFA in 2006. Her early work, while oriented toward similar issues, consisted of photo collages—"hyperconstructed digital landscapes," she calls them—that communicated more directly their message about the environment. The Last Iceberg, for instance, depicts a lonely polar bear standing on the titular mass. Vivid sea creatures, photos of which Kendler obtained from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, float beneath; the backdrop is the earth as seen from space. The work is galactic and expressly political. But she found that pieces like Iceberg weren't being interpreted the way she wanted them to be. Their aesthetic, she says, was "slick and cold"; they were more explicit, perhaps more didactic.

They were also, Kendler says, much more "human-centric" than what she'd go on to do. "I think, art-making-wise, it was hard for me to make work about things that I didn't like, or things that weren't beautiful." This led her to a realization about her role as an artist: "I didn't want to be a critic in my work, I wanted to be an advocate. Should I be making work that's criticizing the human world, that's showing pollution and ecological devastation? I feel like any work that's about human culture, it's hard for it not be critical. But instead I wanted to show people something magical. If our definition of 'magic' is just something we can't really easily break down or understand, I think magic exists in the natural world."

As the spirit of her art shifted, so did Kendler's mediums. She moved away from collage and toward drawing, producing delicately wrought pieces about the relationship between the natural world and the female body, which share histories of subjugation—a school of salmon hopping upstream to spawn in a woman's hair, and a piece called Sibling Rivalry (Love Bites), inspired by the endangered African wild dog, which is depicted locked in a sort of embrace with a nude woman. They're biting one another.

In her series “Extinction Portraits,” Kendler based drawings of extinct species on portraits made in the year the species disappeared, displaying each piece in a 19th-century-style black frame. - COURTESY THE ARTIST
  • courtesy the artist
  • In her series “Extinction Portraits,” Kendler based drawings of extinct species on portraits made in the year the species disappeared, displaying each piece in a 19th-century-style black frame.

In a series called "Extinction Portraits," Kendler based graphite drawings of extinct species on portraits of people made in the year that the species disappeared: animal heads were drawn on top of human torsos, like masks. She displayed the portraits in 19th-century-style black oval frames, adding a museum plaque underneath each to note the species name and date of death. Kendler hoped that the portraits, which were part of her 2007 show "Wunderkammer," at Kasia Kay Art Gallery, would encourage viewers to identify with the lost species: "Where does the responsibility lie, when we're the ones that are responsible for it?" She says that people cried at the show.

Kendler has continued to make work related to extinct or endangered species: with an artist friend, Molly Schafer, she started the Endangered Species Print Project, which sells prints whose editions are limited to the remaining number of whatever species is depicted in the print—so the whooping crane, for instance, was printed in an edition of 398. Kendler and Schafer donate the money from sales (so far more than $12,000) to an organization that helps protect the species in question; funds raised from sales of whooping crane prints go to Operation Migration. (ESPP prints are on display through October in the show "Rare Nature" at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum.)

Kendler has spent the last few years creating fragile, intimate sculptures that entice the viewer to get up close. Her shows reward careful viewing more generally, too: in "The Hall of Disappearing" Kendler installed tiny orange mushrooms on an electrical outlet; a brightly colored porcelain bird hid its head in a ceiling vent. "I'm looking for a more nuanced way to relate to the natural world than traditional conservationists have had," Kendler says. "I don't think that you have to just love nature from afar and think of it as this pristine, unaltered, unalterable wilderness, because that's bullshit. That doesn't exist anymore."

Web (For There Is an Intimacy Here That Includes You), more than 200 tiny mirrors connected by metallic thread, is based on studies of spiders' building habits. - COURTESY THE ARTIST
  • courtesy the artist
  • Web (For There Is an Intimacy Here That Includes You), more than 200 tiny mirrors connected by metallic thread, is based on studies of spiders' building habits.

Caroline Picard, a Chicago-based curator who incorporated work by Kendler into a recent show at Gallery 400, "Ghost Nature," brings up the example of research that's been done on the forests around Chernobyl, which are at once vibrant with nature—in the sense that they've been relatively unmolested, inside a thousand-square-mile no-man's-land, since the nuclear disaster—and unnatural, in the sense that radiation poisoning still heavily affects animal and plant life there. A recent study found that even the microbes and fungi that drive decomposition had been altered by radiation. "Personally, I am interested in thinking about that tension—the tension between mourning for an environment we used to consider stable and fixed, and the world we are waking up to—full of uncertainty and change," Picard says. Kendler "doesn't shy away from that tension," she continues. "Many of her sculptural and installation works feel on the one hand like homages to popular conceptions of animals"—the porcelain birds, for instance—"and yet at the same time become really elegant monsters."

Geared toward addressing these sorts of ambiguities, Kendler's work is also very clever in its orientation: Each installation of the piece Web (For There Is an Intimacy Here That Includes You), more than 200 tiny mirrors connected by metallic thread, is based on studies of how spiders construct their webs and limited in scale to the span of Kendler's arms—unless there is a stool, like a tree branch, at hand. Kendler submitted an unsuccessful bid to install artwork in the Damen Blue Line station that would've consisted of prairie flower wallpaper embedded with QR codes that passersby could scan with their phones to learn more about Illinois's vanished prairie ecosystem, and sign up to receive free prairie flower seeds in the mail. (The work may yet see life at the Damen stop, where Kendler has an upcoming commission for a temporary installation, or elsewhere.) Fungi for Fungi, which Kendler displayed last fall in a solo show, "Invasive Species," is a pile of vivid fuchsia mushrooms made from a biodegradable material. At the end of each installation, they can be discarded in the forest; as they break down they nourish the soil and encourage the growth of actual fungi.

At the end of each installation, Fungi for Fungi can be discarded in the forest, where the material it's made from will help nourish actual fungi as it breaks down. - COURTESY THE ARTIST
  • courtesy the artist
  • At the end of each installation, Fungi for Fungi can be discarded in the forest, where the material it's made from will help nourish actual fungi as it breaks down.

For Expo Chicago in September, Kendler is collaborating with her husband, Brian Kirkbride, a software programmer, to put together an installation hosted at the NRDC booth. (Together the two run the business Other People's Pixels, which creates portfolio websites for artists; Kendler calls it her "job-job," enabling her to pursue an artistic career.) Tell It to the Birds (tentative title) will be something like a thatched hut—a small enclosed space in the middle of one of Chicago's biggest art fairs—and involve a computer program that will "translate" human speech into birdsong. Viewers will be encouraged to confess to the birds inside the hut something secret—something they "can't tell to human beings, that people around them wouldn't understand. They'll be able to speak in a bird voice to the birds."

"What I'm trying to do," Kendler says, "is make this tiny catalyst to get people to form an emotional connection with the natural world."

In 2011, when Elizabeth Corr stepped into her role as the NRDC's manager of arts partnerships, the organization was trying to broaden its approach to environmental advocacy, looking for different ways to communicate information that tended to be science- and data-heavy. "We started thinking as an organization, How can we be telling the story of the issues that we're working on in a better way?" Corr says. "We really saw visual artists as one of the first steps to start exploring this more in depth."

The organization has had a booth at Expo since the art fair's launch in 2012; the first year, it received permission from the estate of the late artist Gordon Matta-Clark to re-create his seminal piece Garbage Wall, which was first built in New York City on Earth Day 1970. The theme that year was water pollution in the midwest; Chicago's Garbage Wall was constructed with trash pulled from the Chicago River. Last year, enlisted by the NRDC, Seattle artist Vaughn Bell passed out small moss-filled terrariums to fairgoers who would sign "adoption paperwork," promising they'd take lifelong care of their tiny ecosystem.

Kendler came across the booth in 2012 and, through the people working it, connected with Elizabeth Corr. The two met for drinks at the Violet Hour. Kendler was looking at the time for opportunities for collaboration with a science organization or some kind of like-minded nonprofit. Corr, meanwhile, had been toying with the idea of an NRDC artist in residence, someone who'd be able to access the organization's resources for an artistic practice. "What if we were able to have an artist embedded alongside the scientists, lawyers, and experts?" Corr recalls thinking. "We saw this as a way to benefit the artist and also a way to help NRDC animate our issues in a more exciting way." Corr thinks of Kendler's residency as a pilot program. She hopes to issue a nationwide call for artists next year if funding is available.

Kendler is "an example of a different kind of artist that Chicago seems to produce somehow," Corr says, pointing also to Jeanne Gang and Theaster Gates. "She's not producing art for art's sake—she really views her practice as this social, political, and environmentally engaged art."

In addition to preparing for Marfa Dialogues, Kendler and Corr are in the midst of putting together "a whole bunch of different proposals," Kendler says, for various public projects—like a "giant kaleidoscope" installation, featuring images of local wildflowers, that she pitched to the New York City Department of Transportation. In other instances, opportunities have come Kendler's way because of her association with NRDC.

Having heard about the residency, the Chicago Park District approached Corr bearing an unusual gift: 15,000 acorns. "They didn't give me too many details," Corr says. "It was just like, 'Hey, we have this stuff we don't know what to do with—do you want it?'" Corr said yes before she asked Kendler.

"She called me and she's like, 'I hope you're OK with this!'" Kendler recalls. "I was like, 'Oh, yeah.' This is my bread and butter. Give me 15,000 acorns, I will make something."

In 2005, back when she created more photographs, Kendler took a picture of herself modeled after Raphael's painting Young Woman With Unicorn—pretty much what it sounds like. She re-created the young woman's pose, styled her hair and her clothing similarly, and arranged her arms into a cradle; but there was no unicorn in them. Kendler constantly guards against affect or sentimentality. The animalian world she depicts in her art is one in which no easy answers are available—sometimes no answers, period.

Picard says that Kendler "isn't afraid to consider and aestheticize the monstrous"—to work at the slipping boundary of what is and is not "natural." She offers an example: Late last year, sea stars in waters off the west coast were discovered to have a disease that is dissolving them, for reasons that aren't clear—they're just breaking apart. "Are these monsters unnatural—the melting sea stars off the coast of Washington, for instance?" Picard asks. "I think not—but in saying as much, I have to embrace the notion that everything is natural. That nature doesn't exist as a far-off counterpoint to human culture."

In California over the winter, Kendler visited family, spent a lot of time in the woods, and thought about upcoming projects. One day, she says, "I found this hummingbird that was wounded—it looked like it had been attacked by a cat. This was right before I left California. I had this—I don't know, this real moment of ethical confrontation with myself, where I was like, what you're taught as a human being, if you're one of the 'good people,' what you're supposed to do is take the little bird, take it inside, put it in a bed of tissue paper, put it in a box, feed it the sugar water from a dropper.

"And I was like, I'm pretty sure this little bird is going to die. It's injured. And I don't really think it's fair to take away its natural death from it. How do I know what it's going to feel like inside a box? So I just brought it some monkey flowers and I fed it some nectar—instead of bringing it sugar water in a straw or whatever. And just tried to make it comfortable. And actually it seemed like it recovered enough that it flew off.

"So I don't know what happened to it. I feel pretty sure I made the right choice. But it's hard. You want to just love little things, but that's not fair. It's not just about you."

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