Julia Nagel / Sun Assistant Photography Editor

Erin Connolly ​​'23 (left), and Mia Hause '22 (right) stand in their exhibition, Until the Bliss of All This Hurts, in the Tjaden Hall Experimental Gallery on August 31, 2021.

September 7, 2021

Experiencing Tjaden’s Best: Microbiology Meets Fine Art

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It was a clear, sunlit afternoon when photo editor Julia Nagel ’24 and I walked into the gallery that housed Mia Hause B.F.A. ’22 and Erin Conolly’s B.S. ’23 new exhibit, Until the Bliss of All This Hurts. On display at the Tjaden Hall Experimental Gallery from August 30 to September 3, the exhibit’s startling, almost poetic title was what first captured my attention. 

The room was pleasantly bright and airy. After the previous week’s oppressive humidity, simply being able to pause and take this in felt like a luxury. Other visitors would periodically walk in and out of the room, but apart from these arrivals, the space itself was unassuming. White walls surrounded a floor of simple wood panelling. 

On this austere, impersonal floor was something utterly unlike it. It lay there like a piece of the forest floor transported miraculously into Tjaden: A rug made of moss. Marveling at the lifelike detail of what I thought was a fabric facsimile, I tried to imagine the work that had gone into this intricate production. 

(Later, Hause would explain that the rug was, in fact, made of real moss — patches of it, stitched together with yarn. My amazement at this was second only to my shock that the two of them had apparently dug up the moss themselves from Sapsucker Woods and Fall Creek Valley, keeping it wet and alive in their living room until its display.)

A gallery visitor passes “A Blanket for The Dances that Have Been Remembered.”

Not long after we arrived in the room, the artists made their appearance. Conolly, as she would reveal in our interview, is actually majoring in Environment & Sustainability at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. As a minor in Fine Arts and Infectious Disease Biology, she tries to take classes that “combine them, or find intersections between art and science.” Particularly interested in “mushrooms and… detritus,” she hoped to explore how nature “[breaks] things down” through this exhibit.

Hause’s work has previously been focused on exploring the concept of “pathetic fallacy,” a term coined by Victorian literary critic John Ruskin in reference to “the assignment of human feelings to inanimate objects.” It was used in the title in the poem of Prof. David Bosworth, English, University of Washington:  “Pathetic Fallacy: A Field Guide for the Biologist,” a work that itself contributed the title of the exhibit we stood in. 

Being “surrounded by nature” in Ithaca, as Hause said, also brought up thoughts on how we “insert” ourselves into the environment. To them, the exhibit’s title speaks to humanity’s “fleeting” relationship with nature, a relationship that they wished for their audience to examine through an “interactive space” through which people could move. The exhibit reflects a feeling of human constancy and observation as the nature around us moves through cycles of decay and rebirth.

Conolly and Hause  are also interested in the way that humans “[create] permanence” by mimicking nature — with our floral patterns and animal-themed decorations — not only to defy its impermanence, but as an expression of gratitude. As Hause put it, a way of saying “I love you back” in the language of art. 

Some more of their influences included the work of environmental historian William Cronon, from the  course ARTH 3620: “After Nature: Art and Environmental Imagination” with Professor Kelly Presutti, plant ecologist Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Gathering Moss, and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Nature

As this was both Conolly and Hause’s first independent show — as opposed to shows for class or for their year — they said that collaboration felt “vital” for success.

When the interview concluded, Julia and I lingered in the gallery for a few more moments. While she surveyed the room for the best shot, I took a moment to examine more carefully the paintings I had seen when I walked in. 

The warm, desaturated colors brought a dryly organic aspect to the otherwise sterile walls, like pressed flowers from the pages of an old book. In fact, flowers were the subject of multiple paintings. Hause’s “Bath for a Sylvan” is a surreal and unsettling piece featuring a leporine-costumed child swathed in vegetation, while “A Place So Benign and Beautiful and Good” presents a poignant tableau of flowers over floral-patterned houseware: A serendipitous show of thanks for the nature from which we draw inspiration.

Other pieces were more dramatic. Connolly’s “Nymph Meal” offers a breathtaking rendition of a deer’s head descending over silk blankets — the sheen of its fur like the shine of the fabrics beneath. Her “Fibers: Moss, Feather, Thread” features a bird appearing to rise—even while prone — over a backdrop of moss and thread, its beak stabbing upward into the green. 

“Bath for Sylvan,” an oil painting created by Mia Hause.

As she’d explained, the culmination of her message finds its expression in “Nonsensical Microbiome.” With hair branching out on a backdrop of greenery like hyphae and sentimental objects scattered like spores, the piece recalls the human microbiome: A constant process of life, death and decay taking place within ourselves, and a reminder that the decomposition we abhor in nature is not so far from our own funerary practices — or indeed, our very bodies.

Hause’s “Sap-sucking, Soft-bodied” calls attention to smaller creatures with an array of insects over wood panelling, a ladybug charm resting innocuously among them. Per the description, I thought of the ease with which we brush aside the stray fly or beetle, while ascribing human qualities to them with equal ease. 

Even smaller were the subjects of Hause’s final, untitled piece featuring bacteria in petri dishes, rendered in vivid reds and metallics against a murky ink-blue. (The piece had found its genesis in their living room, as Mia confided, while she “incubated” the bacteria in the back of her car.)

Julia had finished with her photos, and while I could marvel for longer at the exhibit, time was an inevitable constraint. We stepped from Tjaden Hall, back into the sun, my head filled with wonder at the effort and patience — and genuine passion, for the wild and the human and all the interstices between them — that must have made such an exhibit possible. 

In the Arts Quad, trees fluttered their leaves like handkerchiefs after departing sailors. Was I doing it now, committing Ruskin’s pathetic fallacy? Had the exhibit planted its spore in me? 

Neither trees nor sun nor sky deigned to answer. But as I considered the misshapen grey lump within my mite-breeding, microbe-housing head, I felt that was answer enough.

 

Amy Wang is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]