If—millions of years from now—our planet still exists, there will be few traces of the mess we made of it. Humanity will be a flash in the fossil record. Our pump-and-dump approach to resources use will be buried by deep time, and the handful of things that remain will live outside our atmosphere … the gold disc that Carl Sagan shot into outer space to commemorate our achievements; the other gold disc that Trevor Paglen sent up as an addendum; the cloud of space trash that surrounds the planet; and, probably, the uploaded consciousnesses of a handful of billionaires, forever imprisoned in low orbit satellites and their own thoughts.
But on Earth itself, only nuclear waste has the staying power to announce that we were once here. In Paolo Mentasti’s “_E_ _ _ _,” the artist imagines this far future has a Nevada flavor to it. Set ahead millions of years, the exhibition transports us to a time when spent nuclear rods buried deep inside a once-operational Yucca Mountain Repository have begun to break down. In this scenario, plant life in the Great Basin has adapted by taking on the look and feel of human technology and body parts. Barbed wire, punched steel, razor fencing, fingers, spines, a penis—it all shows up in the two dozen clay sculptures that sit on the long plywood table in the middle of the Holland Project Gallery.
Ranging from fist-sized to head-sized, the ceramic pieces are presented as curiosities and illegitimate offspring—half-tech and half-life. A prickly pear cactus sprouts barbed wire needles, looking very much like Disney’s Mickey Mouse, Michael Sarich’s Mickey Mouse, or just a botanical aberration. A piece of hand-built razor fencing doubles as a human spine, folding itself into a painful arch. Twisted barbed wire grows into mean but cute-looking vines and bushes. Shiny, metallic ripples of lava ooze out of matte clay plugs, and cast-off remains of sheet metal flowers unfurl toward the ceiling like real petals. All plants fall somewhere on the color spectrum from “rust” to “steel” and appear to survive without chlorophyll.
The sculptures are lovely in a Little-Shop-of-Horrors-meets-frontier-steampunk type of way, and—much like Mentasti’s previous pieces on climate change and immigration—the work is not overly serious. Funny shapes, absurd combinations, and the prospect of a far-off future put some distance between us and doom, trading tragedy for provisional comedy and giving us a sense of detachment that we often deny ourselves. This is not an exhibition about feeling bad, and thank god for that.
It is also not an exhibition about what would really happen to plant life in the presence of nuclear leaching. Enough time has passed since Chernobyl to observe that plants can recover from almost anything with a lot of genetic integrity intact. The “staying power” of our radioactive legacy is really the postponement of the cycle of initial death, mutation, and aggressive regrowth in reaction to such a meltdown.
Without the burden of literal interpretation, Mentasti’s future plants can function as an allegory without being a moral tale. We don’t need anyone to tell us that we are the absolute worst. We’re aware. Standing in Mentasti’s “_ E _ _ _ _,” we don’t get a pass on our liquidation of the planet, but we are given permission to imagine a world where our likeness and technology are put to better use.
Instead of bisecting the Western frontier into settlers and non-settlers, barbed wire becomes prickly pear self-defense. Instead of lining junkyards with castoff scraps, sheet metal can be a nice, flat site for whatever process has replaced photosynthesis in Mentasti’s flowers. Instead of ruining everything, everywhere, in all eras of human civilization, a penis can simply be an outgrowth of a stem—evolving into a thorn or a leaf, a place for future insects to land.
In all of these examples, the soothing promise of biotech-as-savior looks foolish next to plants that co-opt our features for their survival, not ours. It also brings to mind a better anti-hero for our species—Donna Haraway’s iconic cyborg, which she defines as “a hybrid of machine and organism” and which rejects a need for salvation.
Anchorless, Mentasti’s plants take up residence between natural and artificial, human and not human, present and future—making Haraway’s argument “for pleasure in the confusion of boundaries and for responsibility in their connection” a mandate for the continuity of our species, or at least for the delay of the inevitable.
Lucky for us, we are already hybrids.
Even without the nuclear backstory, viewers can reach some version of this truth on their own. This is not a dig at Mentasti’s premise or even his unnecessary titles (the pieces are named after bougie strip malls and gated communities in the Reno area), it is a testament to the ability of the objects to take on a life of their own, become little monsters, and speak directly to the viewer—with humor and without putting too much of a point on it.
Look at the razor wire spine, cactus Mickey, or barbed vines, and it will dawn on you that there is no real wholeness for these objects to return to. Their plant and animal origins have been codependent since primordial soup. Their tech features have never been standalone. These weird plants are just like us; not one but many things, not yet in final form.
Paolo Mentasti’s “_E_ _ _ _” is open through Sept. 24 at The Holland Project Gallery. Mentasti received his BFA from The Cooper Union in 2020. He lives and works in Philadelphia, where he is a candidate for a Sculpture MFA at the Tyler School of Art and Architecture at Temple University. To view more of Mentasti’s work, visit his website.
Photos: Kris Vagner