M for Membrane
2021, single-channel video with text, 17min
The “M” in M-theory that unifies all superstring theory stands for “membrane,” “mystery,” “magic,” and “mother.” With outdoor and indoor multi-media installations, M for Membrane explores the membrane, mystery, and magic of microbial forms, fungi and indigenous mold. The fermenter—the artist—facilitates a community of indigenous leaf mold—created from decomposed leaves—embodying the role of the witch, the scientist, and the alchemist, and from it, looks for possibilities of animacy and deep time.
In response to the material history and colonial landscape of the Palisades and the Hudson River Valley, M for Membrane forgoes primitive and material accumulation and instead cultivates ephemerality, impermanence, and eventual decay as a viable possibility to restore indigenous land. In the outdoor installation, the fermenter cultivates indigenous leaf mold and propagates billions of microbes by foraging fallen leaves in Wave Hill’s woodlands. The mold feeds on sea salt, sugar, potato, and rice starch to proliferate its numbers. Inspired by JADAM organic farming and embodied ecology, all materials foraged from the land are returned back to the soil as fermented liquid fertilizer, transforming into nutrient-rich humus and supporting the mycorrhizal networks for the plants.
Closing M for Membrane
The following essay and images refers to the exhibition M for Membrane at Glyndor Gallery, Wave Hill, New York.
On a warm, sunny Monday afternoon, I arrive at Wave Hill to deinstall my exhibition at Glyndor Gallery. I come prepared with gardening gloves, a shovel, boots, a sun hat, and mosquito netting. Throughout several months being on Wave Hill, the Palisades cliff has remained constant but everything else has changed; new annuals have bloomed, horticulture staff has rotated, COVID-19 statistics have fluctuated dramatically, leaves from trees have fallen, and mosquitos have gone into hiding. Inside the gallery, all of my incubators are fermenting with sour smells. Indigenous leaf fertilizer made with rice substrate smells earthy like koji or miso. I gather all of the fertilizer, leaf litter, and soil in industrial buckets. Steve, a senior horticulturalist at Wave Hill, gives me a ride down to the woodland forest with a Gator. It’s a quarter of a mile away. I have five buckets in total, and the fertilizer is already expanded with moisture and information.
With the help of the horticulture team, I have chosen an area of the forest to harvest soil and leaf litter. Near the compost center with organic waste and wood chipper on one side and a wire fence on the other, this area of the forest feels most familiar and desolate. It is neither romantic nor celebrated. It has no semblance of the rich, beloved gardens and the estate houses. At Wave Hill, planted plaques on garden beds read Chelonpsis yagiharana - Japanese Turtlehead, Cotinus coggygria - Smoke Bush, Eryngium yuccifolium - Rattlesnake Master, Campylotropis macrocarpa - Chinese Pea Shrub. Everything is planted and all of it is identified. Beds are tilted and weeded and introduced to chemical pesticides. But in the regrowth forest, undisturbed leaf litter keeps the ground moist and hosts the best nesting spot for fungi, invertebrates, indigenous mold, and bacteria. It’s fruitless to master the grounds. Trees stretch out beyond their budding bodies and man-made fences. Thousands to billions of fungal root tips partner with plants and tree species to form a mycelium network, around the size of a forest. Fungi spread their spores and even make their own weather by altering humidity and making winds. Rainfall and birds drop seeds from the garden down the gradual slope to the abandoned forest. There are no borders here.
Building from the technique of JADAM Farming, Korean natural farming, I have harvested a handful of indigenous leaf mold - leaf litter and the soil underneath - to repopulate the earth’s microbes. Feeding the mold a generous diet of starch, potatoes and rice, I urge the soil to awake. The mold then reveals itself onto the newly introduced substrate and expresses various colors such as green, yellow, red, and blue and gives away its microbiodiversity. It’s almost a mystical experience, made only possible through listening to the earth’s imperceptible language.
In a matter of days, even hours depending on humidity and temperature, the mold blooms like the fruiting body of a mushroom. And it disintegrates as quickly as it blooms. So I bottle it and feed it sugar to provide a food source. It’s now called indigenous mold fertilizer and has a shelf life of a year. The jar contains a living, breathing, and unyielding microscopic culture of the forest, unlike a sterilized petri dish that has been carefully selected and isolated by a scientist. There are no masters here. In this never-ending process, the earth is mutable, so transient, it’s hard to speak its reason or logic. The division from one membrane to another, where it ends and where it starts, and how it rearranges itself are difficult to name. To really understand this process is to accept that life and death exist all at once.
I name other histories buried below Wave Hill grounds: expropriation, dispossession, indigenous genocide, settler-colonialism, and slavery. I think of all the porous matter that have hardened, racialized bodies and the natural world that have received corporeal injury in the process. Four hundred year old trees in the Palisades are cut down into plantation houses in the South, diabase rock of the cliff is blasted into building foundations of New York City, the Hudson River becomes a dumping ground for petrochemicals, and Black and Brown bodies move the earth. Kathryn Yusoff in A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None describes Blackness as a “deformation of subjectivity that presses an inhuman categorization and the earth into intimacy.” In the making of an empire called Man — and by extension, the gardens at Wave Hill and His conquest — Earth and the Other become materials for properties and personhood. Matter is formed into nonbeing. Porosity is named as expansion. Malleability is thought of as awaiting extraction. The commons enclosed for privatization. To remain porous, we have to allow self-corrosion, the decreation of our objected-bodies.
⠀⠀⠀Back at the regrowth forest, behind the gardens at Wave Hill, Steve drops me off as close as he can to my destination. There are no direct trails to my outdoor installation. I walk through heavy bushes and carry my jars and buckets. The few remaining mosquitos salivate for any open skin.
⠀⠀⠀The private elementary school nearby rings for recess. The forest is quiet, except for a few residents who walk the public trail beyond the wire fence. I dig five different holes, around 25 inches in diameter and 10 inches deep. I empty the glass jars and bury the indigenous mold fertilizer. Everything that I have extracted from the land is returned back to the soil, but in a different form, new shape, different membrane. My arms get sore.
I remember hearing once that it takes seven years for all the cells in the body to replace itself, in the process, we becoming essentially anew. Different form, new shape, different skin. Is it possible that we are not ourselves, only the sum of our parts? Like the indigenous mold in the jars that could repopulate the entire forest from its microscopic culture? I keep digging and sweating. The earth is spongy and every hole, I feel my body closer to the earth. It’s a barely perceptible shift as I sink ever so slowly. It’s disorienting, maybe from the sun, dehydration or just the exhaustion. I think to myself, would I ever see the changes in the soil from my fertilizer? Maybe a week, a month, a year, a decade from now. I leave the forest with only a faintest impression of myself. And even that will decompose and be fully metabolized by the forest. And I’ll meld into the ecosystem and reincarnate into a different form, a self that extends outside of self, maybe a tree, a mushroom, a plant, or a budding flower.
TJ Shin is an interdisciplinary artist working at the intersections of race, gender, sexuality, and speciesism. Inspired by decentralized ecologies and queer sociality, they create living installations to decolonize the neoliberal status of the "Human" and imagine an ever-expanding self that exists beyond the boundaries of one’s skin. Previous collaborators include microbiologists, anthropologists, chefs, symbiotic culture of yeast and bacteria (SCOBY), fungal spores, fermented proteins, protozoa, indigenous mold microorganisms, and other organic membranes. Shin is a 2020 New York Community Trust Van Lier Fellow and 2020 Visiting Artist Fellow at UrbanGlass in Brooklyn. Shin has exhibited internationally at Doosan Gallery, Klaus Von Nichtssagend Gallery, Cuchifritos Gallery, AC Institute, Abrons Arts Center, all in New York, NY; Knockdown Center, Queens, NY; and Cody Dock, London, England, among others. Shin was an artist-in-residence at Recess, Brooklyn; Wave Hill, the Bronx; Artist Alliance Inc., New York; Coalesce Artist Residency at University at Buffalo, New York; and Col(LAB) Visiting Artist at Princeton University, New Jersey.