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Issue 151

Sex Ecologies Ed. by Stefanie Hessler
by Sophia Larigakis

“Somewhere in the distance something hurts.”

This refrain runs through Jenny Hval’s poem “Amphibious, Androgynous,” one of the many texts that make up the expansive catalogue Sex Ecologies, which accompanies the titular exhibition at Kunsthall Trondheim in Norway. Somewhere in the distance something hurts. This grammar is a distancing of its own through language; it is barely in the third person, as there is no person here, no subject, barely a discernible object—instead a distillation of pure feeling. Paradoxically, this remoteness (grammatical, stated) alludes to an unlikely connectivity. In Hval’s terms, distance is not a barrier to shared experience but rather an improbable site of identification. Here feeling dismantles the twin presumptions of skin as enclosure and time/space as diluting force. This is the electric shock of recognition: that second-hand pain is sharper than anticipated, when the distant wail of a siren is suddenly obliteratingly close. The surprise of proximity, of our entanglement and thus implication and vulnerability within an impossibly vast ecosystem, is at the core of Sex Ecologies.

This volume is an exhibition catalogue in name only. In addition to artworks by, among others, Okwui Okpokwasili and Jes Fan, its contents span nearly every type of text imaginable: poetry, literary diegesis, archival texts, essays, and annotations. Its topics encompass, among many others, queerness, disability, racialization, agriculture, sex, decay, fleshy fruit, polyamory, indigeneity, and toxicity. There is none of the jargon-heavy, solipsistic, and unreadable academic and art-historical pandering quintessential to the genre. Contrary to the purported form of an exhibition “accompaniment,” the best art books can stand alone; they do not simply categorize the work within a dominant canon or historical narrative, but rather question the construction and validity of such accounts altogether. Sex Ecologies achieves this and more.

Just as Sex Ecologies is expansive in form, it expands definitions of aliveness and the erotic to draw out new relationships to the world. Sentience and subjectivity— key to what is defined as alive, for whom a life is allowed to “matter”—are acknowledged in forms and species often denied, at the altar of capital, feeling or intent. The erotic here pushes beyond the bounds of heteroromantic tropes to constitute a desirous relationship with that which is “outside” of us. It is even, as revealed in several texts, a mode by which pleasure can be taken back from under colonialism and its attendant traumas. Astrida Neimanis’s “Toxic Love” unfurls as both a close reading of and love letter to a place: the Windermere Basin in Ontario. This land, first held by Anishinaabe, Haudenosaunee, and other Indigenous peoples, then decimated by industrial colonialism, is now the subject of an imperfect restoration effort (that is, an attempt to suck the poison from a wound that has long scabbed over). Neimanis is in thrall— toxic love — with this place, and her prose reflects this through an erotic poetics. In the basin, “tall grasses are stirring, alive against [her] legs.” The wildlife here is “panting,” the gravel’s edge “butch,” the creek stained with “the chartreuse ejaculation of early autumn pollen.” Certainly our language is limited when vitality can be signalled only through anthropomorphic terms, yet by radically extending this lexicon it is still possible, the book suggests, to confound and blur the violent classifications contrived by capitalism for the purposes of subjugation. Subjectivity is a privilege, and by recognizing it in other beings—through forms of aliveness, eroticism—we can move forward in solidarity. Only then are we forced to reckon with our mutual responsibility to, and inextricability from, our tangled ecosystem.

In “Safous and Other Fruits of the Future,” Anna Tje builds upon her existing “poetic mythology” of so-called exotic fruits, thinking through the ways in which these plants can serve as both examples of and metonyms for the exploitative global circulation of those deemed commodities under capitalism. This focus, she writes, “makes me face the tragedies of importation, immigration, and deportation of Black bodies rooting from the social and geopolitical structures of slavery and colonialism: economies of exhaustion that continue to abuse.” Embodying in her poetry the safou and its existential and cross-continental journeys, Tje takes on multiple subjectivities. The author is watching the fruit-bearing tree both from the semantic distance of the third person—“the rain hammers her every day for two months”—and as part of a collective, a chorus— “this is the time when our leaves are the freshest / when our flowers bloom before our fruits.” This multiplicity breaks down the sacrosanct boundaries of identity and body, at once undermining the notions of selfhood as hermetically sealed, the integrity of the skin, and other foundational border myths.

“Only when a boundary materializes can it become a site for transgression,” writes Elvia Wilk in her essay “This Compost.” Throughout this volume, the naturalized borders and categorizations that constitute the blood-soaked heart of racial capitalism are repeatedly revealed to be dangerous constructions. As editor Stefanie Hessler denotes in her introduction, nature is “a category used to lower the status of those who haven’t ‘extracted themselves sufficiently’ from the realm of necessity and dependence on nature.” The exploitative practices of industrial agriculture and resource extraction are justified, authors including Neimanis and Léuli Eshrāghi underline, through the same hierarchical paradigm used to delineate certain beings as “less human” and thus deserving of colonization, enslavement, and imprisonment. Resistance, as ever, comes only through solidarity. Yet if “human” is a dominant category weaponized to delineate who or what is worthy of embodiment, freedom, and a life lived, then this solidarity must extend not only to members of our species, but to every being in this world that is exploited under our current economic conditions.

The intimacy of the world—of our ties, elective or otherwise—is, in our current imaginary, scary and overwhelming. These links make us vulnerable to loss, to feeling, to the shock of recognition. Yet, as Sex Ecologies reminds us, we are so much more precarious without them. Returning to Wilk, “any moral, and in this case anthropomorphic, distinctions between toxic and safe, pure and artificial, chemically neutral and chemically enhanced, may be reclaimed and/or rendered irrelevant through the sheer intoxicating nature of togetherness.” To remain alienated, atomized, pitted against one another, to hold on, white-knuckled, to the false borders dislocating us from everything and everyone else, is to ensure mutual destruction. However frightening it is to acknowledge our proximity to and thus reliance on one another, on nature, it is our only way out. Pain and vulnerability ricochet like stray bullets; there is no safety in remoteness. Somewhere in the distance something hurts. Somewhere close, too, something hurts.

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