Alibi V.27 No.33 • Aug 16-22, 2018 

Arts Interview

Pre-Apocalyptic Sentiments

Local artists react to climate change

The sculptural works in Greetings from the End of the Earth are both cute and eerie
The sculptural works in Greetings from the End of the Earth are both cute and eerie
Sara MacNeil

Just two years ago at the very top of the world, extreme heat melted the frozen ground exposing an anthrax-infected deer carcass. Greetings from the End of the Earth at the South Broadway Cultural Center (1025 Broadway Blvd. SE), is a three-person sculpture show responding to this global warming-induced phenomenon. Here, beneath the dome skylight of the gallery, artists Justine Ortiz, Mike Ortiz and Kris Mills show sculptures of bizarre creatures that provoke grief for the planet’s seemingly inevitable doom. The show isn’t a picket sign beating you over the head with an environmental protest, but it does evoke a present-day longing for the living things scientists predict will one day—perhaps soon—vanish.

The architects of the show have diverse backgrounds, brought together by curator Augustine Romero. Mills, a small metals instructor at UNM, welded a piece titled, “Love in an Age of Insecurity,” a dark, surrealist version of a wedding cake topper. In addition to Mills is couple Justine and Mike Ortiz, two retired commercial sculptors and movie prop makers. For Greetings from the End of the Earth, Mike created intricate robotic reliquaries in wood. The sculptures function as caskets for handmade animal miniatures.

Justine's 15-foot deer sculpture, “Out of the Cold,” is arresting—for both its size and content. During a phone call scheduled during a rainstorm—interrupted by thunder-induced static—she explained her history as a sculptor and the significance of the show. “I could make a sculpture like that in a week in my prime,” she said about “Out of the Cold.” The towering deer wears a fur cloak, opened to reveal a layer of over-sized, sculpted ice cubes tucked beneath a layer of soil, with tree logs that form a cage. The piece is charming for its toy-like qualities yet mystifying in its sheer height. When I asked her about the cuteness factor, she explained a scientific theory called “baby schema.” I did a quick internet search for more background and discovered the schema is about how cuteness motivates care-taking behavior, which explained why the sculptures look so much like a stuffed animal. It's soft and adorable, but that’s not the full story—so I asked, too, about the sculpture's undeniable eeriness.

It harkens back to the inspiration for the show—the horrific, visceral illustration of climate change when one reindeer carcass infected the water and soil of the remote Yamal Peninsula of Russia with anthrax. As a result, 20 people were hospitalized, one 12-year-old boy was killed and over 2,000 (living) reindeer were infected with the disease. The frozen reindeer carcass was 75 years old, but a 2016 heatwave melted the top layer of soil, causing the outbreak. Yamal locals call the area, “the end of the Earth,” because of its position at one of the northernmost stretches of the globe. “That got me thinking about how things come back to haunt us. Spores and bacteria can lay dormant and reactivate,” Justine said.

Justine has a long history of working with the lingering vestiges of the past—whether it’s reindeer carcasses, bones or dead bugs. When she was in middle school she wanted to be an entomologist and study insects. She never liked killing them, but when she found bugs already dead, she used them to create different mounted shapes. Eventually, that interest led to picking up road kill. Because the animals were damaged she couldn’t use them for taxidermy, but she used their skeletons to create art. “It was a way of honoring the dead animal,” she said.

In conversation, Justine is subtle, but the work she creates is anything but. Returning to the subject of her work, she paused and signed as she searched for the right words to describe the far-reaching ideas behind her sculpture. “I don’t know how to explain it. That’s why I make art,” she said. Greetings from the End of the Earth says a lot all by itself—articulately commenting on our sometimes overlooked relationship with nature. From cuddly, yet monstrous hybrid creatures towering above us, to coffins for carved critters, to nightmarish birds—there is no call to action here, but a sense of mourning for what has been and what will be lost.

Catch the closing reception for Greetings from the End of the Earth on Friday, Aug. 17 from 5 to 8pm at the South Broadway Cultural Center. If you can't make it to the closing, stop by during normal gallery hours Tuesday through Saturday 10am to 6pm until Saturday, Aug. 18.