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The table was set for two in a cozy, dimly lit mock dining room installed toward the back of the Torrance Art Museum’s (TAM) main gallery. On the menu was a meal prepared from atmospheric particulate matter—vegetables and leafy greens were subbed for fluffy clouds of smog; a mug of dust and other organic compounds served to wash it all down. Titled Forty Days and Forty Nights (40 Days of Smog) (1991), the installation by Kim Abeles calls attention to our contradictory belief that while within the familiar walls of our homes, we are safe from the effects of climate change. In EXTRACTION: Earth, Ashes, Dust, an exhibition presented by curatorial collective SUPERCOLLIDER, Abeles and 11 other artists examined the impact of humanity’s activities on the earth and its inhabitants, insisting that eventually, our toll will be inescapable.
Serving to expose the many faces of extraction—defined for this exhibition as “methods of removal related to cultural, natural, and ecological capital”1—the works spanned an array of mediums, highlighting the ways that humanity is both complicit in and a victim of the earth’s gradual decline. Located less than two miles from the Torrance Refining Company, a 700-acre oil refinery and the site of a near-catastrophic explosion in 2015,2 the Torrance Art Museum is an especially fitting venue for this exhibition. The impact of the oil industry in the South Bay has long been connected to rising rates of crime, illness, and poverty—a reality that the show underscores as it traces the deep-seated link between resources, bodies, and the way that landscapes, through extraction, develop into sites of slow violence.3
The Western belief that humanity is divorced from (and above) nature forms the ideological basis for all kinds of extractive actions—a fallacy at which Abeles pokes. To make her tableaus, she places stencils of her desired imagery on opaque material and leaves them outside on the roof to collect heavy air. Through this method, Abeles materializes the air we breathe, providing tangible insight into its condition. Abeles’ Forty Days was accented by a window scene that boasted a polluted view of an oil refinery. Mounted porcelain plates depicting the faces of major world leaders (also rendered in smog), and two versions of Asher Brown Durand’s bucolic landscape, The Hunter (1856), one a smoggy recreation, and the other a smaller print of the original, completed the tableaux. The installation calls into question the inconsistencies between a romanticized view of the natural world and the polluted reality of an imperial system in which those who wield power facilitate the extractive industries that are most detrimental to the general populace.
Nearby, Beatriz Jaramillo’s earth-toned porcelain and paraffin sculpture, titled Broken Landscape 2 (2015), picked up on the disjunctive yet parasitic human relationship with the natural world to explore the ways that the earth’s soil has been modified to accommodate society’s growing needs. Made to resemble a mountainous topographic relief, the five columns were arranged in a tight geometric configuration. They appear like core samples extracted from the earth, which act as visible records of the passing of time, marking all modifications imposed in the name of housing, infrastructure, or industry. Porcelain layers of topsoil peel back to reveal layers of paraffin earth that are malleable and easily manipulated—the work suggesting a sense of fragile scarcity as our natural spaces continue to disappear.
Situated behind the dwindling sculptures was a series of oil landscapes by Elena Soterakis, Drilling for Fossil Fuels in Inglewood #1-3 (2022), that illustrate the antiquated act of fossil fuel removal at the Inglewood Oil Field. Rendered as a dusty and desolate expanse of land peppered with only pump jacks and palm trees for miles, the eerie absence of human life in the paintings contrasts with the reality of the site, which is anything but desolate. Anyone who has cruised up La Cienega Boulevard, heading north from the South Bay, knows that the Inglewood Oil Field dominates your view for miles. Neighboring the heavily populated areas of Ladera Heights, Blair Hills, and Baldwin Hills, hazardous air pollutants waft through the air, affecting the more than half million people who live within a quarter-mile of the active wells. Perhaps offering a grim look into the future, Soterakis’ landscape alludes to a post-extraction city, where, absent of viable living spaces, people have migrated elsewhere, leaving machinery as the final specter of a once-bustling metropolis.
In the South Bay, an active fight—dating to the ’80s and reinvigorated with the 2015 explosion—against invisibility and disappearance continues as local and state government officials do little to aid the communities most affected by extractive practices. Extending beyond Torrance, the issue is most heavily felt in the predominantly lower-income POC communities in Carson, Long Beach, and Wilmington that see ships, trucks, trains, and refineries intruding on their neighborhoods, alongside invisible pollutants—the toxic chemical modified hydrofluoric acid (MHF) among them—that have led to a boom in rates of cancer and premature death in the area.4 The disappearance of communities feels inevitable, as rather than discontinuing the use of MHF, moving—a sort of forced relocation—is floated as the unspoken answer to the problem. Here, it is important to remember that moving and migration are also forms of extraction.
Back in the galleries at TAM, Matthew Brandt’s warped chromogenic prints of Iceland’s largest ice cap had scorched, cracked, and blistered surfaces. Achieved through exposure to fire and heat, Vatnajökull (2018–20) echoes the effect of warming temperatures on the glacier. A sense of cultural loss feels imminent, as ice carries within it not only a record of climate and time but also Icelandic history. Thus, the notion of invisibility carries throughout the exhibition and acts as a sort of prophecy. Jaramillo’s depleting sculptures, Soterakis’ desolate landscapes, Abeles’ pieces of particulate matter, and the work of other artists in the exhibition reminds us of the intricate ties between violence and extraction and our indelible dependence on nature—without which we’d be reduced to mere ashes and dust.
This review was originally published in Carla issue 29.