Where the Forest Ends and the Tree Begins: Untidy Objects and Unsettled Ground

Isabella Diefendorf

Follow the link embedded in the image to access the video essay.

Untidy Objects is a piece that contains themes such as temporality, surreality, artifice, close looking, and slow violence, which greatly contribute to a viewer’s overall understanding of the Smart Museum’s Unsettled Ground exhibition.

Untidy Objects is a sculpture piece by Sarah Black, Amber Ginsburg, and Sam Frost. It takes the form of a collection of biozones, or small ecosystems based around sunlight, shade, water, and elevation. It seeks to challenge the traditional distinctions between subject and object by creating a horticultural sculpture that includes humans as co-constituents of the ecological community. In order to understand the goals of Untidy Objects, one must first understand what it means to be a single untidy object.

An untidy object is an object that is inextricably intertwined with its surroundings. A human, for example, is an untidy object because, while each person is seen as an individual, this is not really the case. Humans are made up of millions of cells, organelles, and bacteria. Even more, humans share bacteria with one another, as well as things like immunities and antibodies. Though each human body is not connected physically to another, humans depend on millions of other beings for their survival, and the relationship is symbiotic. Similarly, trees share complex networks of nutrients and chemical signals with one another and rely on other plants in the forest to decay, to create competition that keeps growth down, or to decompose nutrients into the soil. Each tree would not exist without the support of the forest, so where does the forest end and the tree begin? This is the question of the untidy object.

Untidy Objects seeks to bring this co-mingling of beings to the forefront of the mind. By emphasizing these porous boundaries between the self and the other, a person walking through the sculptural garden feels as though they’re becoming a part of it.

Through this idea of porous boundaries, several themes are present that reinforce the themes of Unsettled Ground. The theme of temporality is omnipresent throughout the sculpture. Because plants and trees are in constant states of growth, decay, birth, death, and rebirth, the cycles of the seasons and the ways in which these slow growers live their lives requires deep thinking about the nature of time. When an arborist came to visit the site of the sculpture, he took a look around and remarked “This will be amazing in 70 years.” The iterations of a piece of land through time connect extremely well to the themes of land possession and transformation present in Amiotte’s Wounded Knee III and Terry Evan’s Rotational Grazing in the exhibition. This theme of temporality can be expanded to include slow violence as well as slow creation, which encompasses the Hick’s Soleil and the Westermann prints as well.

Another theme that Untidy Objects works with is close looking and the concept of noticing the nonhuman co-constituents of a space. Because the focus of Untidy Objects is acknowledging the porous boundaries and interrelations of all living beings, the sculpture forces the viewer to look closely at every squirrel, bird, bug, mushroom, and tree. It forces the viewer to notice the nonhuman subjects of a space. This closely connects to Mark Dion’s RoundUp as well as Jacques’ Cherry, New Haven.

Untidy Objects is a collection of smaller ‘biozones’: places with distinct environmental characteristics that allow for diverse plant life. These biozones are staged together in a relatively compact area, creating a dioramic effect. This idea of artificial, staged nature brings up themes that are present in the Sugimoto and Tischbein, of what the natural even is. Untidy Objects blurs the lines between natural and diorama even more, by creating a living, breathing, moving diorama. The themes in the exhibition works carry excellently into the space of Untidy Objects for this reason: Unsettled Ground poses a question and Untidy Objects complicates it.

Untidy Objects is about the porosity of being, the inextricable links between living things, human and nonhuman. This ties directly into the Duckworth and Minnie Evans pieces, which emphasize the ineluctable intertwinements of all things through ceramic sculpture and painted collage respectively.

Overall, Untidy Objects provides an invaluable lens through which to view Unsettled Ground, and vice versa. Untidy Objects seems to be the natural counterpart to the Smart exhibition in every sense of the word. It emphasizes the key themes in the Unsettled Ground exhibition without constraining them. Rather, when a tidy idea is presented in the exhibition, Untidy Objects serves to complicate it. Though both Unsettled Ground and Untidy Objects are thought-provoking and impressive alone, by allowing them to relate to each other and creating a porous boundary between them, they both grow in meaning.