When you walk into the Distillery Gallery in South Boston, the captivating and somewhat eerie audio of people chanting and talking fills the space. Among the exhibits, you can find wooden sculptures, a white igloo-like habitat glowing softly, and dildos made of fungi.
The gallery is currently showing an exihibit entitled “Museum of Queer Ecologies,” a radical and provocative installation created by trans and queer artist Eli Brown, who is also an SMFA alumnus, and uses he/they series. Brown’s art allows space and community for the exploration of queerness and transness across generations and species.
His artistic creations stem from the theories of queer ecology. Queer ecology is a multidisciplinary and dynamic field of study that delves into the relationship between queerness and the natural world. According to the Institute of Queer Ecology, by centering queerness across species and across the natural world, queer ecology deconstructs rigid and destructive ideas—such as heternormative reproduction and the gender binary—that excludes queer folks and deems them “unnatural.”
This aspect of queer ecology fascinates Brown. “As a queer and trans person, a former farmer, and an artist, [queer ecology] takes on this concept of the ‘natural’ which has these heteronormative connotations and provides all this evidence of how queerness shows up in nature, in absence of human intervention.” However, based on Brown’s readings of queer ecology, the field has lacked material on diverse gender identities. He says, “My hope was to really add more trans content to the field of queer ecologies.”
Queer ecology not only helps people to reconsider the way we think about queerness, but also the discipline of biology itself. Assistant Professor of Anthropology Zarin Machanda says a common misconception is that people view “biology as very rigid in regard to sex and gender.” In reality, “it has strong explanatory power in how we behave and how we act with its diversity of forms.”
The Museum of Queer Ecologies celebrates the biodiversity of our world through multimedia and experimental art.
One of the biggest pieces in the exhibit is a white dome entitled “Greenhouse.” When you walk inside the “Greenhouse,” you can hear three trans and non-binary people from ages 25 to 67 conversing with each other. The conversation discusses how they discovered the language to describe their identities and what language was accessible to them. While listening to the audio, you can sit on one of three tree trunks that is painted white. “Each stump represents a generation. The hope is that visitors feel themselves to be part of the conversation, or at least part of a tiny, temporary community,” said Brown.
“Greenhouse” stems from a larger effort to create sustainable community among multigenerational transgender and gender non-conforming folks. Brown explained, “This project is meant to build mutual support networks within the community, especially within the particularly vulnerable groups of folks under the age of 22 and over 55.”
Queerness is further honored in the exhibit through the series “Toxic Places,” which is composed of small wooden structures—each representing incomplete models of important landmarks in LGBTQ history, including the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village. As Brown told wbur, the models are intentionally unfinished and have pieces of driftwood among them to evoke sentiments of loss and abandonment.
When you walk past the partial structures of historical LGBTQ+ sites, there stands a sculpture of a mushroom-shaped fungus growing out of a tree trunk. This places the fungi as the focal point of the sculpture—celebrating and normalizing this species’ fluidity. Fungi are sexually fluid—to mate, fungi simply merge together. They can reproduce asexually, sexually, or even mate with themselves. In addition, a surface level analysis shows the connection to fungi and humans is closer than we may realize. Genetically speaking, as NYTimes writer William Stevens reports, fungi are more similar to humans than plants. Brown adds, “We are also hosts for fungi and bacteria—so it’s not always clear what’s what.”
Continuing through the exhibit, you will find the “Future Species Survival Kit.” A not-so-subtle nod to the accelerating rate of climate change, this kit contains items, according to Brown, for a “queer survivalist fantasy.” Items include a harness, a book with fungi on the cover, a candle with matches, a petri dish, pincers, and finally—dildos.
This humorous yet telling addition is made out of mycelium—the white, vegetative part of fungi. Even the white color of mycelium has important meaning. Brown explains that “the whiteness of the dildos…perhaps mimicked all these hundreds of years of dead white men in art and architecture, but was, if one looks closely, a living tribute to biological diversity and queer sex.”
Fungi is an important and central medium in Brown’s exhibit. Presenting sexually fluid species like fungi helps to normalize diverse sexual and gender identities. Professor Machanda says that if people—particularly those who claim being gay is “unnatural”— “took time to read about nature, they would realize different kinds of sexualities and different kinds of identities are quite common in the natural world.”
Professor Machanda believes that we can observe the natural world to better understand our own behaviors. Brown similarly uses “ancient life forms,” like fungi, to learn. According to Brown, “they have found all these ways (many of them asexual or non-heteronormative) of reproducing and sustaining life that kind of require them to release any idea of gender we might have for them.”
The Museum of Queer Ecologies presents a powerful intersection between biology, art, and theory. The way we can relate nature and humanity using queer ecology creates a level of respect both for the natural world and the way we should treat each other.
The Museum of Queer Ecologies is on view at the Distillery Gallery from September 27 to October 25, 2019. To discover more of Eli’s work, view his website at theelimachine.net.