In the storied limestone caves of southern France, shimmering, milky calcite engulfs and preserves the skulls of extinct species—cave bears, woolly mammoths. Its presence registers the millennia that divide our existence from theirs, the slow movement of the mineral-deposit process emphasizing the duration of the mammals’ stillness. Dutch sculptor Isabelle Andriessen re-creates similar enchanting mineral and sulfate deposits in the gallery, creating installations that imagine planet Earth after our species has gone extinct.
Andriessen sets up systems in which inorganic materials undergo chemical changes—crystallization, oxidation—and her arrangements are at once elegant and dystopic. These systems typically include ceramic forms that appear both bone-like and futuristic, as if reminding us that the materials she works with predate and will also outlast us. Her clay components are often accompanied by water pumps and stainless-steel armatures—industrial devices that suggest our species’ material legacy. They also enable the works to perspire and leak. Porous, unglazed ceramic surfaces absorb water that changes their appearance over the course of an exhibition, so Andriessen often designs elaborate plumbing systems in the gallery. You won’t necessarily see a piece changing in a single visit to one of her shows, but in works like BUNK (2021), crystalline deposits in shades of teal that have oozed, then dried up on the gallery floor attest to ongoing reactions involving nickel sulfate, which is listed on the wall label as a material.
Andriessen deflects technical chemistry questions, though. She received an MFA in 2015 from the Malmö Art Academy before immersing herself in physics and chemistry, mostly through YouTube videos. But when I asked her in a virtual studio visit how her pieces work, she told me, “It’s not that I speak of science. Maybe I just use science a little bit to tell my own story.” Her works help viewers conceive what will happen if our current environmental and economic conditions—for her, these are one and the same—continue or accelerate.
At the recent FRONT Triennial in Cleveland, the sculptor showed three works alongside prints and drawings by her father, Jurriaan Andriessen. His intricate, never-before-exhibited architectural renderings, made between 1969 and 1989, portray a fantastical anti-capitalist utopia in painstaking detail, including roadways that encircle post-and-beam skyscrapers like a roller coaster, and sustainable appliances that meld with and are powered by their users’ bodies. The juxtaposition highlighted how environmental science has impacted imagining the future in recent decades.
Isabelle Andriessen’s worldview isn’t solely bleak, though, if you look at things from a nonhuman perspective—which she wants you to do. Yes, her sculptures evoke the ways that plastics and other synthetic materials are being absorbed into our bodies because we, like her ceramic pieces, are porous beings too. Yes, works like Tidal Spill and Terminal Beach (both 2018) refer to the blurring boundary between e-waste sites and natural landscapes. But Andriessen also asks us to acknowledge the vibrancy of various materials as the Anthropocene lays bare how life and nonlife are deeply entangled. She often uses biotic words to characterize her sculpture practice, describing, for instance, the relationships she is forging between metals and ceramics for new work in a group show at Moderna Museet in Malmö, Sweden, as “symbiotic.” “It’s interesting that nothing disappears,” she said, referring to the law of the conservation of mass. Substances of all sorts are entangled in convoluted systems, and with her art, Andriessen shows this fact at a scale we can more easily comprehend.
Work by Isabelle Andriessen is on view in the group exhibition “Twilight Land” at Moderna Museet, Malmö, Sweden, through Apr. 9, 2023.