Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 3, 2023
Clarissa Tossin: Falling from Earth
Museum of Contemporary Art, Denver, June 3–August 28, 2022
Clarissa Tossin: Falling from Earth, installation view, Museum of Contemporary Art, Denver (photograph provided by the Museum of Contemporary Art, Denver)

After a searing year of fire and drought along Colorado’s Front Range, the one-person show, Clarissa Tossin: Falling from Earth, opened in June 2022 at Denver’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) for a three-month run. The Brazil-born artist has built a collaborative research-focused practice from her base in Los Angeles that addresses connective tissue that links place, history, and aesthetics. Employing moving images, installation, and sculpture, she explores their alternative narratives in both built and natural environments of extractive economies. Whether reinserting figurative traditions and ritual practices of Mayan motifs in early twentieth-century Los Angeles architecture, as in her 2017 video Ch’u Mayaa, or more broadly examining a grotesque, postlapsarian world, the artist employs the future perfect language of speculative science to propose ways of seeing our devastated present. At Denver, a sense of cultural outrage and political deflation played out in her Transplanted (VW Brasilia) (2012), which consists of the flattened natural latex skin of one of the first Volkswagens produced using materials extracted from the Amazon rainforest, displayed flayed on the ground as shroud. This 1970s vintage car, collapsed under the flexibility of its rubber material, suggests the exuberance of technological development appeared like a false omen, destined to deflate.

The artist’s commitments to speculatively exploring the aftereffects of twentieth-century growth were on clear view in curator Miranda Lash’s organization of the show. The year 2022 saw dire forecasts for water supplies throughout the Southwest, record drought over much of the United States, and estimates for rapid population growth throughout the region in the next twenty years—the same time during which the UN reported that we must arrest global warming to ward off large-scale environmental devastation. Whether Sink or Swim: Climate Futures (2022) at Socrates Sculpture Park in New York, Exposure: Native Art and Political Ecology (2022) at the Institute of American Indian Art in Santa Fe, or the ongoing climate protests staged at London’s National Gallery, the Prado in Madrid, and various other European museums, institutions across the US and Europe, at the very least, were primed for conversations about art, environmental change, and social unrest. Tossin’s Denver exhibition bridged these three topics. Set among several galleries encompassing the MCA’s second floor, Falling from Earth made precise strikes at the later twentieth century’s technological optimism. The exhibition blended studies in consumption and extraction as consequences of circulation and mass production in the unbounded, though increasingly scrutinized, sweep of outer space. An obsession with outer space appeared again in her 2022 Valuable Element drawings of the Moon, in Vulnerably Human’s silicone-bark-and-meteorite-powder astronaut suit sculpture, and again in the small vial of lunar rock dust on loan from NASA. The bulk of the exhibition turns away from these nostalgic souvenirs toward a more speculative future in outer space: the aerospace industry’s economic and political investments in what physicist Gerald K. O’Neill dubbed in 1976 the "High Frontier.”

Tossin drew concrete parallels between seemingly inexhaustible resources and the ramifications of commercializing the worlds beyond our terrestrial horizon. A Queda do Céu (The Falling Sky) (2019) showed satellite images of fires in the Amazon rainforest broken into strips and interwoven with NASA images of Mars’s Amazonis Planitia and the Milky Way. These three staunchly geometric, woven circles hung in MCA’s well-lit corner window, visible from both from the street and from interior galleries. The jacquard tapestry 8th Continent (2021) incorporated large-scale imagery from NASA’s Project Artemis survey of ice deposits interwoven among lunar topography picked out in metallic golden thread. Beyond the transposition of digital image to textile, Tossin’s choices of mediums showcased an intimate interest in making and mobilizing histories of material intelligence. Of course, textile looms were the first computational machines, punch card analogs translating physical decisions to binary code and finally to visual patterns. In 8th Continent, contemporary jacquard technique helps translate spatial recession into material metaphor. Much like gold in an early modern/colonial era of extractive expansion, the hydrogen, oxygen, iron, and titanium embedded in our Moon represent new potential as we deplete our terrestrial stock. Tossin’s gold thread constitutes both concept and method, cross-weaving visual imagery as analysis of how to penetrate appearance with material content.

Future Geographies, a set of five woven objects hung in the Mary Caulkins and Karl Kister Gallery, recalled A Queda do Céu’s formal regularity. Rather than woven fabric warp and weft, here there were carefully interspersed strips of cardboard and richly saturated photographs. The signature brown of international shipping formed a ground against which glossy color and matte black pop in a nod to Brazil’s mid-century Neo-Concretism movement. Like Neo-Concretism, Future Geographies’ pulsing geometry belied politicized content. Pulling back from close scrutiny, the matte black passages revealed the preserved content of their referents: the smirking half-smile of’s corporate logo. Viewers can easily recognize that the colorful patches are aerial images of resource-rich landscapes (both here on Earth and in our solar system) in varying states of degradation. None of these choices is coincidental. Amazon, the corporation, was named after the supposed inexhaustibility of its namesake rainforest. The depicted planets, wall text reveals, are among those recently opened for US corporate colonization by the Trump administration. Their extraterrestrial craters are named after historical figures who plumbed the fantastical. A Mars crater is nicknamed for Octavia Butler, the Afrofuturist writer whose twentieth-century parables of social and environmental discontent match eerily with those of our time. The Moon’s Ernest Shackleton crater recalls the Anglo-Irish explorer of the Antarctic whose ship Endurance became trapped in pack ice during the Imperial Trans-Arctic Expedition of the 1910s. Both are subjects of scientific studies to understand the capacity for polar ice extraction to fuel speculative long-range space missions. In the weavings, materials serve to plumb caution at the edge of unchecked development.

Beyond referring to megalomaniacal capitalist hubris, Tossin’s materials also represented a play between vocabulary and method. Woven using the techniques of Indigenous Baniwa, whose homelands lie in the northwest corner of Brazil, Future Geographies spoke to a more local form of trade. The Baniwa have focused on the commercialization of artisanal craft as a viable form of sustainable development set up in collaboration with SocioEnvironmental Institute, a major Brazilian NGO. Conceived as an alternative to reliance on colonizer economies, the Baniwa Art Project modeled a break from a longer history of predatory and exploitative economic development focused on raw material extraction, including, recently, gold. The baskets are issued from Indigenous homeland, then they are packed and transported upriver to their eventual sale points in large chain stores in São Paolo and Rio de Janeiro, while the proceeds flow back to the artisans. It is the opposite of an economy, an experiment in sustaining the local and traditional in the face of extraction and extinction. By incorporating this and other specific references to economic development, Tossin builds an ethical argument throughout Falling from Earth—the need to think connections between material, technique, referent, and consequence in art objects as well as economies.

Objects can be elements of diplomacy whether mental or political. They are, in the words of Chandra Mukerji, carriers of ideas. The exhibition embraced this concept, providing a persuasive argument for the close, material scrutiny of art in our contemporary moment. Death by Heatwave (2021) consisted of a full-scale silicone cast of a dead sycamore sourced from Northeast France. Taking up the entirety of the interior Natasha Congdon Gallery while stretching into hallways surrounding it, the sculpture showed a desiccated form. Branches and limbs splayed out from a relatively short trunk, flattened to the ground like a dehydrated corpse consisting of skin alone. The silicone appears inside out, remnants of bark that faced the trunk stuck to its light gray, translucent surface like scabs on a Band-Aid. Rather than pointing to mimesis, Death by Heatwave speaks to realism’s conceptual power. Both intellectually and procedurally it represented a shriveling of contexts and differences under the dystopian rubric of climate change. Miniaturizing from system to object, Tossin’s exhibition built a literacy of material interchange, what Margaret Graves calls the “intellect of the hand,” or making as an expression of cultural values.

The artist’s research into climate catastrophe and interplanetary exploration felt both expansive and at times overly didactic in Falling from Earth. Indeed, Miranda Lash’s curation relied heavily on supplementary wall labels explaining international declarations on the Moon as a global commons and recorded commentary from the artist explaining her intent in both English and Spanish. Falling from Earth avoided the pitfall of over-articulation by focusing on Tossin’s investment in object-based inquiry. In each of her sculptures, textiles, photographs, and drawings, material choices revealed multimodal cultural influence embedded in facture. Considering the show’s artifacts, Falling from Earth demonstrated a prime example of contemporary art’s engagement with the ethics and ramifications of development. Its forensic reading of extraction’s past informs a future spectacularly balanced on the edge of the known. Tossin’s ability to bring together process and the visual that results from cultural and scientific research marks a practice worthy of close attention. 

Susanna Phillips Newbury
Department of Art, University of Nevada, Las Vegas