The cobblestones and starchitect-designed condo buildings lining Chelsea’s gallery district are an unlikely destination for those looking to commune with nature. Yet, at Hauser & Wirth’s latest exhibition, “The Flesh of the Earth,” curated by Enuma Okoro, that’s exactly what they’ll find. The photography, paintings, sculpture, and, crucially, poetry and literature on view explores works by Rashid Johnson, Lorna Simpson, Jenny Holzer, Olafur Eliasson, and more as a conduit for better understanding humanity’s relationship with the natural world.
One of the most resonant ways this is illustrated is at the show’s midpoint. A dramatic Lorna Simpson painting evokes standing at the edge of a cliff face, peering into the ocean below. Nearby, a massive limestone bench by Jenny Holzer is inscribed with “Rapture screamed towards the clouds,” a line excerpted from Anna Świrszczyńska’s poem “Earth and Sky” in Building The Barricade, a book of poetry about serving as a nurse during the 1944 Warsaw Uprising. Haley Mellin’s hyperreal painting Cerro Amay, Guatemala depicts detritus in the mountainous cloud forest the painting is named for. Each work is captivating on their own, the deeper context behind them illuminating, and taken in together, they offer reassurance that despite death, war, age, and humanity’s continued incursions into nature, she, nature perseveres.
It’s a gobsmacking debut for Okoro, a writer, educator, and now curator. Few curators begin by working with the likes of Johnson, Simpson, Holzer, and Eliasson, but more than that, Okoro worked with the gallery to provide a library of thematic texts and a dedicated reading area within the show. It invites viewers to plumb a literary collection including Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider, poetry anthology Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry, Kathryn Yusoff’s A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None, and come back again to see how their understanding of the artworks has evolved.
Surface spoke with Enuma Okoro on her curatorial debut, the interplay between the visual arts and literature, and her recommended reading. This interview has been edited and condensed.
You’re used to writing about art and hosting artist talks, but what’s it like to be on the other side of things now, as a curator?
It was a leap as far as the nitty gritty, and all the details that go into creating anything meaningful. It was a leap learning all the behind-the-scenes and admin work, and realizing that no curatorial show is achieved alone.
All of that was new, but the sense of curating ideas and bringing together perspectives or artists that we may not even normally think of being put together wasn’t new. I do that on a regular basis in my Financial Times column, curating to a lesser extent. I say that because I don’t want to take away from the real job of a curator of exhibitions. But even within my life, there’s a curatorial aspect to it. I try to take great care with the things I do, and also with the ways in which I think about and define the role of beauty. I don’t just think of it in the way of the beautiful is what pleases us aesthetically. The beautiful is also what moves us and what can move us to be impassioned.
Seeing these ideas take on their own flesh by seeing the pieces in real life and together was really powerful. Each of the works are so strong, vibrant, and alive on their own. All together, I feel like it sets the room aflame.
The reading room you put into “Flesh of the Earth” is the first I’ve seen that’s part of the exhibition itself. How does it reflect the role that literature and poetry play in your curatorial process?
That just comes out from the roles those things play in my life. I think about my love of the poetic form, and my love of reading. One of the first books I remember shifting me was All Quiet on the Western Front. I read that when I was about 13, and I remember finishing the book in my bedroom, lying on my bed, and I was so overwhelmed with emotion that I didn’t know how to make sense of it. I just was crying and didn’t know how to process everything the story brought up for me, particularly the sense of shared humanity despite the things we do to one another. My only way of responding was to write a poem. I wrote a poem to God. That was the only way I knew how to release my feelings.
I started off as a poet before even writing prose. Poetry helps me navigate the world with more of a fine-toothed comb, but it also helps me see the world with a clearer lens. Writing poetry forces you to consider what you think and mean. It teaches you the beauty of the economy of language and how much you can convey with so little. It’s a gift for anyone who goes on to write prose.
So to you, they exist in relation to each other?
The literary arts and poetry are beautiful containers for stories, like the visual arts are a container for stories. There should be more dialogue between the literary arts and visual arts because they feed off of each other in really beautiful ways. They’re not in competition. The way I think about life, and make meaning and understand things is through both, and I wanted that to be a part of the exhibition. Even the way I think about the visual arts is informed by the books or poetry I read.
Can you share any literary works that weren’t included in the exhibition that further contextualize it?
One that immediately comes to mind is The Women Who Run With the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estés. I would’ve included more works on mythology and myths around women in the natural world and in water, women, and birds. I would’ve included a couple ecology-centered works that look at it from a more scientific and biological angle. Going with the ones I did include, a couple are centered around the experience of the natural world from people of color. That was really important to me.
“The Flesh of the Earth” will be on view at Hauser & Wirth (542 W 22nd St) until April 6.