Monroe Isenberg's sculptures aim to mend severed ties between humans and nature

The sculptural installations by Monroe Isenberg bring the elements of environment – dirt, light, rocks, and water – together to challenge the anthropocentric hierarchy.

by Dilpreet BhullarPublished on : Jul 08, 2022

To find a rough piece of rock or an uneven surface of brown soil in the built environment at once appears like an uncommon phenomenon. The encounter is fuelled by the yawning binaries between humans and nature created over the years; turning the shared harmony between the two obsolete. The practice to challenge 'anthropocentric hierarchy' defines art of Monroe Isenberg. The American artist, currently staying in Norway, with his sculptural installations bring the elements of nature of water, earth, forests, light, and time to the controlled space of the gallery or factory in an effort to have his audience have a moment of introspection on what has been lost to achieve the height of ulterior achievements. 

Before the Dust, 2019, Pigmented minerals, Monroe Isenberg | Monroe Isenberg | STIRworld
Before the Dust, 2019, pigmented minerals Image: Monroe Isenberg

The interest to restore the bond of mutual coexistence across the living humans and breathing nature is very much rooted in Isenberg’s belief in human-induced severity to the natural relations. When Isenberg acutely develops his sculptural art by having a close interaction with an environment, space, or architectural site, he creates a way to re-establish the relationship. In an interview with STIR, he mentions, “I am interested in how a site may turn, intersect, erode, surprise, and feel. From these experiences, I play with what is expected in that space to create moments of defamiliarisation.” Although the artist likes to maintain that he prefers to emphasise on the creative process rather than consciously thinking about these ideas, such an approach, “repairs and activates relationships— energising an alive but voiceless world and revealing its more mysterious, spectral qualities,” informs Isenberg.

Remnants installation view, 2020, Mixed media, Monroe Isenberg | Monroe Isenberg | STIRworld
Remnants installation view, 2020, mixed media Image: Monroe Isenberg

To accentuate the effect of the availability of the natural elements, especially the earthly matter – rock and soil - the deep streak of the light passes through the sculptural installation The Stone and Metaphorical Honey. For the former work, Isenberg collected the rock from the Anacostia River in the Mid-Atlantic region. In an effort to reveal the previously undefined architectural marvel of the space, the installation emits a line of light. The passage of light through the piece of rock when interacts with the geometrical set-up of the gallery, it tends to open the “secret life”. It extends the invitation to the viewers to pause to contemplate life via a piece of nature that is largely assumed to be an 'inanimate' form of life. With the installation of Metaphorical Honey, the patch of the earth is collected from the mountainside of Seydisfjordur, located in the Eastern Region of Iceland. Through the cracks of the installation, embedded in The Net Factory's floor, light emanates from its centre.

Earthwomb:  The work is displayed as a 2-channel projection on loop 30-minute performance, 2019, Monroe Isenberg | Monroe Isenberg | STIRworld
Earthwomb: the work is displayed as a two-channel projection on loop 30-minute performance, 2019 Image: Coleman Stewart

Talking about how light can penetrate, reveal, or saturate an environment, Isenberg says, "In my work, I use light as a medium to try and perceive something that is beyond human perception. I think of it as a type of thread— a fibre that can be used to mend our severed relationship with the earth and one another. By weaving with light, I seek to shift perception and reveal something unfamiliar or new to those who participate in my work." Not the presence, but also the absence of light can also be a generative force. The darkness could be another source of enlightenment. “Light and darkness are a type of teacher, where unnoticed feelings and thoughts emerge. My work responds and translates these experiences and unfolding ideas through object making, architectural interventions and investigations in light," adds Isenberg.

Ayn Cast fiberglass, 2019, strontium aluminate, Monroe Isenberg | Monroe Isenberg | STIRworld
Ayn Cast, fiberglass, 2019, strontium aluminate Image: Monroe Isenberg

As a visual artist who is closely engaged to restore the lost world of synchronisation, a perceptive bodily conversation with the natural setting is of significance. “The walking is a practice I engage in daily and can be thought of as a foundation (of my art practice). Often, I collect bits and pieces of material while I walk and these materials eventually tell me what they want to become. Much of this process is patient and intuitive work that requires deep listening,” confesses Isenberg. If walking and collecting practices can be thought of as rituals where new ideas, questions, and stories emerge to steer the course of the work, then these actions are subsequently complemented with reading, writing, and dialogue with multi-disciplinary thinkers. The multi-layered process often leads to the questions like — "what kind of worlds emerge from approaching the story as a vessel that holds a collection, rather than a hero?” says Isenberg.

Stone Anacostia river stone, 2018, light, white room, 2018, Monroe Isenberg | Monroe Isenberg | STIRworld
Stone Anacostia, river stone, 2018, light, white room Image: Charolette Geary

The interactions the artist intertwines are deeply important in the production of the immersive installation. Even if Isenberg upholds, "My process is a nonlinear one— full of little disruptions and difficult to pin down exactly," the organic flow of thought and expression in the final art form put to display find a sustainable home. The installations Hyperobject, Blue Sunrise, Before the Dust There Were Stories and Sisyphus Wears a Tie part of the body of work Remnant underwent multiple iterations before the artist arrived at the final form. Much of the work is the result of the exploration of some of the texts that Isenberg was interested in at the time like— Humankind: Solidarity with Nonhuman PeopleDesigns for the Pluriverse, Braiding Sweetgrass, Technic and Magic, Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction, Staying with the Trouble and Dune.

Metaphorical Honey Icelandic, 2019, clay, light, time, net factory, 2019, Monroe Isenberg | Monroe Isenberg | STIRworld
Metaphorical Honey Icelandic, 2019, clay, light, time, net factory Image: Monroe Isenberg

Isenberg offers an elaborate account on the making of each piece in Remnants, which began with walking and collecting abundant materials: dirt, light, rocks, and water and explored time as a medium. “In studying and listening to these materials, I began to develop. Each unfolding at their own pace, the works were created in a nonlinear fashion. Only through assembling the works during installation at VisArts Center did they become Remnants— relics of conversations and relationships formed through the process of making each piece. Through bringing the works together, each piece contributes to a larger dialogue about complicity, absurdity, the myth of progress, cycle, silence, spirituality, and climate change.”

Sunset Sphere, video, 2022 Video: Monroe Isenberg

The installation art by Isenberg offers a preview of life as a spectrum. These are "tributes and responses to being in conversation with and listening to my environment". The visual language articulated through the works is rooted in the hope and desire harboured by Isenberg. Indeed, they successfully, "contribute to collective conversations and questions about how we may enter into greater reciprocity with each other and non-humankind," as Isenberg determines.  

Artist’s Portrait | Monroe Isenberg | STIRworld
Artist Monroe Isenberg Image: Chaya Arabia

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