An Interview with Artist-in-Residence Suzette Martin
Suzette Martin created Renaissance of the Earth Exhibit: Apocalypse: Science and Myth in spring 2023.
By Hannah Gould, Renaissance of the Earth Undergraduate Research Fellow for the Kinney Center for Interdisciplinary Renaissance Studies
Apocalypse: Science & Myth offers viewers “an allegory of consequences for industrialized humanity’s cumulative, destructive behaviors, by layering data from climate and environmental research with the Biblical tale of banishment from paradise.”
– Suzette Martin, Artist-in-Residence, Spring 2023
This Spring’s Renaissance of the Earth art exhibit at the Kinney Center for Interdisciplinary Renaissance Studies showcases the work of artist-in-residence, Suzette Martin. As the current Renaissance of the Earth Undergraduate Research Fellow, I had the opportunity to interview the artist following the exhibit opening.
Hannah: How did you come to discover your theme of apocalypse and science? Was there a particular moment in a book at the Center? How did you get interested in this theme?
Suzette: The idea of using mythology to explore ecological grief has been evolving for about 5 years. I read The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert in 2018 and I was really upset. It’s like, how could this be? How come I didn’t know about this? After reading it, I realized it was Kolbert’s way of integrating science and storytelling that made it a really, really engaging way to learn about something rather than just looking at a chart or a bunch of facts about animals going extinct or biodiversity laws. As an artist, I felt like that was something that I could possibly do, and so I began experimenting with using different visual ways of creating narratives about ecological crises.
I’ve always been a figurative painter and I’ve always been interested in the Renaissance, in mythology, and that whole time period. I began to think of the Greco-Roman Pantheon, which had gods and goddesses for every aspect of the world, and so I began to experiment with female deities, who could no longer protect their (what we would now call) ecosystem. They personified the forest, or they personified the rivers, but could no longer protect or bless them. In the beginning, I was thinking of some of the invisible things that were causing it. So, I started adding in the molecular formula for the chemicals and greenhouse gasses that were causing all the problems.
When I applied to the Kinney Center, I was already thinking about using mythology and science together. As I began to read more, about all the different intersecting things that are happening with ecology and the climate, I realized that I wanted to start bringing in more graphs, more charts, more of this overwhelming layer of information that we’re surrounded with.
It’s hard to pick a single book from the Center’s collection, but if I had to, I would say the 1495 copy of the Latin Vulgate Bible. It tells the story of Adam and Eve, which I chose as my myth. It was printed to imitate the text and the layout of a medieval manuscript. Printing was new and they wanted it to look like old books, so they used the old-fashioned manuscript-style lettering and they would intersperse the commentary in between the lines of scripture. I began to think about, well, instead of just writing out a whole IPCC report, maybe I could start layering and interspersing the text in ways that I hadn’t thought about before. It also inspired me to learn how to do calligraphy, which I did not really use in my practice at all till I started my project.
Hannah: For this exhibit, you have created 9 uniquely deliberate designs using the Kinney Center’s rare book library and your own scientific research as a guide. However, I want to focus on one piece in particular, Tipping Points, 2022-23. When spectators walk through this exhibit and arrive at this piece, we are immediately aware of its layers. The use of overlapping colors and writing make this piece a dense and thought provoking attraction. Some of your pieces include the depiction of humans and animals, but Tipping Points seems to rely solely on facts and figures. Based on this level of detail and research, I have to ask, what exactly are people looking at when they examine this piece?
Suzette: In Tipping Points, we have 5 different elements that come from the past, the present, and also predict the future. We’re looking across time, using a variety of graphic elements, including: texts, symbols, and illustrations. A tipping point is a threshold that once you cross it, there’s really no going back. There are climate tipping points, economic tipping points, and social tipping points, but I was really looking at imagery that would focus on environmental tipping points.
The first thing, the large text in the middle, is the final passages from the book of Genesis, chapter 3. It is the narrative tipping point in the story of the Garden of Eden, when Adam and Eve are expelled from paradise. All of their descendants are punished with a life of toil and pain. This was a major tipping point for humanity. In this text, I have inserted a line of mathematical formulas that describe how to calculate the extent, timing, and likelihood of a climate tipping point. We’re looking at a cultural tipping point and a climate tipping point together. They’re both in these obscure languages: mathematics and Latin. It really brings up the idea that this cultural, scientific knowledge is inaccessible unless you can read the language. Behind it, is the text where this formula was pulled from. It was a 2022 paper on global warming, and I wrote it in blue ink, as if it were a student copying their homework in a notebook.
The big starburst chart is the “Nine Planetary Boundaries”. I think it really dominates the composition because of the big radiating orange and green shapes. What this chart shows, in a very visual way, is each wedge representing an essential planetary system. Inside the dotted line is green, and the green is safety – it’s sustainable, it's the renewable way of each system continuing on in a healthy manner. Outside, the orange is the danger zone. It’s a graphic way of understanding data that you might not get with looking at a bar chart, graph, or just writing it out. It shows you right away that we’ve passed a sustainable level with things like fresh water use. Something they call “novel entities,” which are things that don’t naturally occur in nature, including plastics and forever chemicals, are in the orange zone. It’s a visual way of looking at boundaries and tipping points of the climate.
The big, round chart on the bottom is inspired by Jean Boulenger’s Traite de la Sphere du Monde, 1688. It was one of my very favorite discoveries when I was looking at the books here because I had always heard about the geocentric view of the universe. Before Galileo and Copernicus, the ancient Greeks and other cultures visualized the universe as a series of nested spheres. Each entity, the moon, the sun, the planets, the stars, the heavens, all lived in these spheres, and in the middle was the earth. Everything revolved around the earth. Boulenger shows it in a cross section, cut open like the rings on a tree, in order for you to visualize it as the reader.
How’s that a tipping point? At the point that book was published, 1688, it was already 55 years after Galileo had been brought to trial and convicted for defending his observations that the earth and the planets revolved around the sun. The earth was not the center of the universe. What this tipping point shows is that the Renaissance, the scientific discoveries themselves, were the tipping point. Despite science denialism, which continues to this day, that ancient view of the world was already obsolete, and there was really no turning back.
Hannah: Looking at Tipping Points, what do you think this piece confronts us with? What do you think we should be taking away from this work?
Suzette: First of all, it’s hard for an artist to ever know what viewers will take away.
Everyone brings their own background knowledge to a work of art. What I’m hoping is that this one is both accessible enough and mysterious enough that people will come away with different things. But, I can tell you what my intent was, as I created it.
At its core, I think this work is about different ways of trying to understand the nature of the universe and how these ways change and evolve over time. How they sometimes contradict each other, and sometimes coexist with each other. We have things that are overlapping and contradicting, but also coexisting in time and also in the composition. You have ancient spiritual belief, where a supernatural entity is controlling things, and then you have rational scientific knowledge. You have myth and science. It’s in multiple languages. There’s a universe where everything revolves around the earth and an earth where the biological systems have reached unsustainable levels. One against the other.
In the middle, there’s this really dramatic story about a lost golden age, about innocence and knowledge and punishment. There’s all these things sort of mashed up in it, and it’s a story that’s been passed down for thousands of years. For me, it’s about all these different ways of understanding the world that we live in. Different languages, different symbols, different events.
Hannah: I want to come back to the themes within Apocalypse: Science & Myth. There are
a lot of questions and lingering feelings that come up for viewers as we try to process these pieces. “Apocalypse” itself is a very heavy word for humans living through the current environmental crises and looking toward the future. What did putting the early modern past into conjunction with your concerns about the environment today help you to do?
Suzette: You’re right! Apocalypse is a very, very heavy word. Based on mythological
origins, the word apocalypse is based on myth about destruction or the end of the world. It comes from the Greek word “ἀποκάλυψις” which means an uncovering, or revelation usually by a dream or vision. The book of revelation describes the end times as a series of catastrophes, disasters, and battles of good and evil.
There were also apocalyptic myths all throughout the world: Hindu, Islamic, Buddhist and Jewish scriptures, sacred stories of the Hopi, Mayans, Aztecs, Ancient Norse, Ancient Greeks, and other cultures. Everyone has these apocalyptic stories about the end of the world. Sometimes it’s linear, sometimes it’s cyclical, but they all fall into that category.
Today, we are moving into unknown territory. It’s happening, not in a cycle of a 100,000 years, but decades and years and sometimes season to season, so it kind of feels like the end of the world. One of the things that’s different about myth and science is that, in the myth, it’s unseen forces of supernatural entities, it’s the gods, it’s the spirits, all of these things that humans have no control over. In our situation, humans have caused the problems, which means that we can also change our behaviors and solve the problems. There’s that difference between the apocalypse and Anthropocene.
When I read these rare books, I see that humans had no idea that the things they were doing would someday escalate into things like fossil fuels and industrialization; they just didn’t know [. . . ] As I understand and have also discovered in my research, we have technology to mitigate, to change, to go in different directions, especially in terms of lowering carbon in the atmosphere and cleaning up toxic chemicals. Like people of the past, we’re either going to use this knowledge in a positive way or a negative way.
The Renaissance of the Earth revolutionizes what it means to engage the early modern past with questions about our environmental future. Through a range of cross-disciplinary collaborative models, it puts students, artists, and scholars at the center of an interdisciplinary research mandate with the goal of discovering diverse avenues for creating sustainable and equitable life.
The Kinney Center is now accepting applications for 2023-2024 Artists-in-Residence. Apply here.