How Clarissa Tossin uses Amazonian tribal lore and retro sci-fi to address looming ecological disasters

Janelle Zara

Janelle Zara meets the Brazilian artist in her LA studio to talk Baniwa traditions, Octavia Butler, and future fossils

To create a portrait of the earth in its present state, the Los Angeles artist Clarissa Tossin delved into the depths below its surface. Her Future Fossil (2018), the central sculptural piece that lent its name to her current solo show at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study (through March 16), is a six-meter-long, cylindrical cross section of the Earth, as if an enormous pipe had extracted thousands of years’ worth of compacted sediment from its crust. In the gallery, Future Fossil lies on its side like a fallen tree trunk, striped with colors and materials symbolizing different eras: The base is the terracotta color of iron-rich Amazonian soil, followed by a black stripe of the more fertile soil that indigenous peoples cultivated for growing their crops. The opposite tip ends in futuristic materials imprinted with alien patterns with a skin-like, silicon feel. And in between, the bulk of this core sample comprises the bright, synthetic colors of layers and layers of compacted trash.

The pieces of garbage used to produce this future fossil are the artist’s own, Tossin explains, showing me the contents of her recycling bin at her home studio in Boyle Heights, Los Angeles. With the help of a toaster oven and a heat gun, red plastic cups melt down to form her sculptures’ pink layers, while sturdier clear plastic bottles reduce into a white opacity. Poured into metal molds, they cool and harden into swirling, marbled formations. ‘It’s very attractive until you understand the consequences,’ Tossin says. The fumes created by these ordinary household plastics are caustic, and while working them in the shed behind her house, she makes sure to wear a mask and keep the doors wide open. ‘You have to protect your skin and hair and eyes,’ she says. ‘I think I’m going to buy one of those full-body suits that first responders use.’ 

Human toxicity is a central theme to Tossin’s current Future Fossil body of work, which continues with new pieces slated to debut in her LA gallery Commonwealth and Council’s booth at Art Basel Hong Kong. Her point of inspiration for this line of inquiry was Xenogenesis, a late-1980s trilogy by the science-fiction novelist Octavia E. Butler. ‘It starts when the world is wiped out by an ecological collapse,’ Tossin explains, and after a race of aliens restores the planet, they travel to the Amazon rainforest to colonize it with their half-human half-alien progeny.

Tossin admits she had never been a big science-fiction fan previously, but, ‘I read that and started thinking that I wanted to do some material speculation about the Amazon and our future.’ Butler’s Amazon setting resonated with the artist’s practice – as a native Brazilian, Tossin has often looked at the displacement and other shortcomings of modernization in the capital Brasilia and Amazonia as a whole by recasting our quotidian contemporary objects to better reflect their local context. Symbols of progress are often exposed as failures: In 2012, for example, she presented a cast of a Volkswagen Brasilia in Brazilian latex as a limp, deflated mass of skin. Latex was the natural resource that led to Brazil’s economic boom in the late-19th and early-20th centuries, a bubble that quickly burst once the British managed to smuggle rubber-tree seeds out of the country, leaving the economy in a shambles.

‘She makes these very uncanny associations,’ says Commonwealth and Council partner Kibum Kim, citing ‘Clarissa Tossin: Meeting of Waters’, the 2018 exhibition at Blanton Museum of Art, in Austin, Texas. Using some reverse engineering and documentary footage from YouTube, the artist had taught herself the weaving traditions of the South American Baniwa tribe and wove baskets out of cardboard boxes, noting how the word ‘Amazon,’ which once conjured images of a river famous for being the conduit of goods, had been co-opted by a corporation doing the same.

‘Her approach of working with materials and process renders them in totally new ways that make us look both toward the past and our current moment,’ adds Kim. Butler’s imagined world brought a hypothetical dimension to these new pieces. ‘It was interesting to me to use sci-fi as a doorway to thinking about the future,’ says Tossin, ‘and not in a very optimistic way.’

Escaping to Mars has been a recurring trope in the popular imagination: In Butler’s trilogy, the red planet offers an escape route for humans unwilling to interbreed with their alien colonizers; today, it’s a contingency plan for the ultra-wealthy who anticipate climate change taking its final toll. For Tossin’s solo presentation at Art Basel Hong Kong, the escape to Mars plays front and center, urgently addressing the consequences of our ecological damage. Images of the Earth seen from a distance imply that it’s been left behind: Spherical versions of the cylindrical Future Fossil are planets striped with the layers of unresolved, synthetic detritus. There’s also a photograph of Earth that’s been interwoven with an image of the blackness of outer space using the same Baniwa technique. Another woven composite of two images is more sobering, mixing the red surface of Mars with a row of black palm trees backlit by the orange wildfires that scorched their way through California’s Malibu only months ago.

Under the threat of climate change, says Tossin, changing planets would do little to improve our current situation. ‘We’re not very thoughtful about dealing with our material cultural production, and we’re not figuring out what to do with the problems that we have,’ she says. Part of our problem is our rejection of the solutions humanity came up with long ago. Looking at the iron-rich red soil of Mars, Tossin was reminded of the similarly terracotta-colored soil of the Amazon and how its indigenous peoples fertilized the area they needed. Compared to the industrial centers that now sit on the flanks of the river, their interventions were modest. ‘Indigenous knowledge has been so repressed and devalued,’ she says. ‘I think that’s a vast knowledge that we lack, and I don’t think we would have found ourselves where we are today had we been more respectful and knowledgeable.’

At its heart, much of her practice is about celebrating indigenous material and aesthetic traditions as being very much alive and relevant in our contemporary world. Mining the wisdom of the past could be the key to preserving our future. 

Clarissa Tossin will present Future Fossil with Commonwealth and Council during Art Basel Hong Kong, March 29 – 31, 2019.

Discover more artists and galleries participating in the Discoveries sector at Art Basel Hong Kong 2019 here.

Top image: Clarissa Tossin in her Los Angeles studio. Photo by Jack Bool for Art Basel, 2019.