The persuasive utility of lamentation is overrated. In America, we like to back winners. Cry too hard and people will assume that the milk is already spilled.
This has put environmentalist-artists in a bind. Anybody who cares about the fate of the earth has a lot to be sad about. But shows that lean too hard into desolation leave viewers with the reasonable but paralyzing feeling that the garden has been spoiled for good. Others overstate the individual capacity to make an intervention through small gestures. Then there’s the twisted part of the human spirit that loves to look at a catastrophe. Artists are trained to get jaws to drop. The urge to sensationalize disaster must be very hard to resist.
The Earth Temple at SMUSH (340 Summit Ave.) doesn’t do any of that. Its creators and stewards have threaded a needle with a very narrow eye. The installation, which will be on view well past these unnervingly hot days of early April (it’s up until the 29th, and viewable on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., Sunday at 3 p.m to 7 p.m., and at special events), is quietly apocalyptic without being too ostentatious about it. It’s suffused with grief about what we, the most arrogant of primates, are doing to our planet, but it isn’t inhospitable. Instead, the black-draped chamber comes off as a cross between a subterranean medieval shrine, a seaside fortune-telling parlor, and an opium den. The prayers are earnest, the prognostications are bad, and the altered states of consciousness are as real as you’ll let them be. Larissa Belcic and Michelle Farang Shofet of Nocturnal Medicine, the artists behind this fabrication, have provided comfortable cushions for visitors to relax, if you can relax in a room with a cupful of dead bees. Which of course you can. You’ve from Jersey City; you’ve seen way worse.
The lights in the Temple are kept low (and earth-toned) for very good reasons. Superficially, the five stations — each one a tiny altar — are quite beautiful, but the more you look at them, the more unnerving they become. As your eyes adjust, you may notice that the sacred stone in the northwestern corner of the installation is actually a hunk of Styrofoam. The shining pool that imparts a ghostly glow to the chamber is stuffed to overflow with a substance that resembles shattered glass. Those poor bees don’t greet you immediately: it may take a moment to tell them apart from the dried and fuzzy nubs of pussy willows that surround their little bodies. The altarpieces are tickled by the flickering illumination of votive candles, and framed by ropes and cables that knot around the carapaces of sea creatures. Or are they sea creatures, really?, could they be discarded plastic trinkets and metal lids instead?
In order to find out, you need to be patient and look closely, and that’s the message that Nocturnal Medicine and SMUSH are sending. They’d like you to do what we humans haven’t been doing much lately: observing and noticing, reflecting, and allowing those reflections to trigger genuine emotions about the slow degradation of the only world we’ve got.
The religious iconography in the Temple is indebted to devotional traditions, but never feels parodic or exploitative. Instead, it’s suggestive enough to prompt reverence, or at least to get visitors to mute their cellphones, which, as any reverend would tell you, is a blessed accomplishment. The people behind this exhibit plainly aren’t Christians, but they’ve demonstrated genuine respect for church architecture and altar construction. They’re borrowing what they can from the long tradition of shrines in grottos and basements — one that continues to speak to those who make pilgrimages to the Near East, or, for that matter, those making pilgrimages to McGinley Square. Churchgoers are likely to take this secular installation as a weird kind of compliment.
The Earth Temple follows a less successful immersive installation devoted to ecology: “Once She Dries,” a piece that ran at the little gallery duing the month of March. Like much of the programming at SMUSH, it was a highly conceptual work in which its creators jammed together different mediums at funny angles, crossed fingers, and hoped it all held together. It mostly did. But to gain the sympathy of the audience of litterbugs like you and me, “Once She Dries” indulged in anthropomorphism uncommon among eco-conscious Hudson County artists. In the piece, coral was imagined not as a strange sessile creature with its own dignity and right to live, but as a damsel in distress with feminine motivations. In a film projected on the gallery wall through an aperture in a giant aquatic sculpture by Nancy Cohen, Coral found herself buffeted by stormy happenstance, subjected to the whims of the weather and another figure representing the spirit of the earth. All three of these characters were voiced by a single inelastic singer in a lengthy, amorphous piece of music not likely to bump Taylor Swift from the top of the pop charts.
Yet SMUSH’s decision to take “Once She Dries” on was commendable and ambitous. This little space on Summit Avenue continues to show that if the will exists and the props aren’t too expensive, any old storefront can be transformed into a portal to another world — or, in the case of the Earth Temple, an allegorical reinterpretation of the world we know. Late last year, SMUSH co-director Benedicto Figueroa even figured out how to get visitors to step directly into his poetry. His partner Katelyn Halpern turned Deep Space Gallery into a reflection of a turbulent mind. As interior decorators (and interior-decoration facilitators), they’re outpacing everybody in town. It’s hard not to wonder what they could do with a bigger budget and a space designed to accommodate their imaginative departures, but maybe the whole point of SMUSH is that if you’ve got the vision, humble digs are sufficient.
Nocturnal Medicine has vision; more importantly, they’ve got motivation. Everything about their installation radiates that amalgam of pain, compassion, and silent terror that has animated other regional shows created in response to habitat destruction and climate precarity. The somber drapes attached to pieces of (presumably) found wood are reminiscent of Andrea McKenna’s tapestry; the intriguing-shaped detritus has a similar personality to what we’ve seen in the work of Jodie Fink and Robert Lach. Amanda Thackray’s cross-sections of sea-retrieved junk would fit right in at the Earth Temple. So would Eileen Ferara’s paper cutouts that mimic the texture of stone and skin. Anonda Bell, sympathizer with the plight of insects, would surely leave a tear or two at the bee jar.
Because this is a SMUSH show, it isn’t a static experience. There’s more Earth Temple programming to squeeze in, like a meeting of the Feminist Bird Club of Jersey City on Sunday the 16th, an improvisational dance performance by a cyber witch on Sunday the 23rd, and an open mic on the night of Thursday the 27th. No matter when you go, you’re encouraged to write your reflections on the way out of the Temple. This feels a bit like a community-building exercise, a bit like a prompt for self-reflection, and a bit like a homework assignment. The answer to the test is that you feel bad. But not too bad to enjoy yourself.