Anyone who walks into Reno’s city hall this month is going to notice something strange. “Broccoli and cauliflower”—that’s what visitors are saying about the newest art installation, according to security guard Mark Lippert. Another guard sees tripe. Christine Fey, the city of Reno’s arts and culture manager, imagines peering down from a rainforest canopy or a bank of clouds.
“Isn’t it funny how art can mean different things?” Fey said. From beautiful, biological masterpiece to grotesque craft store explosion, there are as many perspectives as there are people passing by.
To the artist—San Francisco sculptor Anneliese Vobis—her work is about “the strange beauty of environmental degradation.” Creating odd-looking pseudo-organisms with artificial materials is kind of her thing. And Vobis’ latest thing is Symbiosis: a giant installation made of spray foam, green paint, fake flowers, felt and plastic bags that vaguely resembles coral algae and the planktonic protozoa known as radiolarian. The pieces explore the symbiotic relationship that these two micro-marine organisms share as well as the not-so-symbiotic relationship between humans and the environment.
From a biological standpoint, the word symbiosis is defined as “living together” and refers to a mutually beneficial relationship between two species. According to an email from Vobis, “Radiolarian often contain symbiotic algae; especially zooxantallae, which provide the energy for the cell. … When radiolarian die, their glass shells sink to the bottom of the ocean into what is called the Radiolarian Ooze. It eventually forms sedimentary rock.”
This slow build-up of bedrock feels even slower when compared to another ocean process highlighted by the artist—the rapid die-off of coral reefs. This issue is largely manmade and is caused by coral bleaching that occurs with the emergence of bright green killer algae that thrive in our warmer oceans, leaving entire ecosystems on the brink of extinction.
To call attention to this devastation, Vobis’ sculptures have the effect of taking over the space and the senses. Putrid green blooms remind the viewer of biological growth—not the slow moving tree kind, but the viral kind that seems to multiply in blobs and clots, popping out of the white walls like a rash.
Farther down the hall, white netting made of wire and plastic bags creeps across the gallery the way delicate marine skeletons might slowly consume a building. From a distance, the viewer observes what Fey calls “the smallest of the small.”
But then a funny thing happens. Take a step closer and the “organisms” turn into “landscapes.” Suddenly, the plastic bag netting resembles the gridded planes of a computer-generated landscape and the lime green algal blooms morph into the tiny forests found in every third grader’s diorama assignment on Donner Pass. All that’s missing from the scene are the ill-fated people.
Then again, it’s possible that people are more present than ever. Who made the squeaky foam and bad-smelling paint? Who made the tiny sprays of plastic berries and plastic bags? No one could have created that crap except humans. No one would create something that useless except for us.
And maybe this contrast is exactly the point. When anyone with a camera can take a photo of a critical ocean habitat and every marine biologist will make the case for endangered species protection, it takes a special kind of artist to help us see ourselves when we look at the natural world. Then the real question becomes—do we like what we see?