Toxicodendron Radicans, or Poison Ivy, is a noxious weed that causes human skin to blister, suffocates mature trees, and grows in strength and toxicity with the changing climate. The changing political climate has created an environment in which overt fascism can thrive. This was brought into sharp focus for me as I witnessed my home town of Charlottesville, VA, became a battleground, occupied by fascists and white supremacists who rallied around a neoclassical civil war monument. Architecture is a powerful symbol of dominance and subjugation, and neoclassicism in America simultaneously represents a utopian vision and a fascist reality. Low-Hanging Fruit explores architectural history through the lens of queer theory, examining current trends of supremacy and dominance.
I am intrinsically drawn to heavy, monolithic, classical beauty in all its forms, architecture and design above all, and have been since early childhood. But only recently have I begun to dissect the theoretical nature of neoclassicism and to analyze its magnetism in association to my identity as a queer person. Through exhaustive research and writing, I have begun to generate work that explores the tension between “classical, masculine beauty” and “egalitarian ethics” in dominant, white male gay culture. (David Halperin, How to Be Gay, Harvard 2012). My interrogation of this dichotomy is evident in my 26-minute video Excerpts from Alan Hollinghurst’s "The Swimming-Pool Library" (2014), which was installed in a pink, neoclassical pavilion of my own design, and was selected for the high-profile Bloomberg New Contemporaries 2015 exhibition at ICA London. Perhaps my challenge to the gay community will be seen as reactionary, but I believe the time is ripe in America to have a discussion about white male privilege in the gay community. This work also has the potential to impact the ongoing discussion around Civil War monuments and historic preservation in America.
Poison Ivy provides an ingeniously sinister reflection of humanity’s impact on the natural world. A living barometer for climate change, it is particularly sensitive to atmospheric carbon dioxide, proliferating in growth and toxicity as CO2 levels rise. Concrete production is the second-largest contributor to rising CO2 levels, accounting for 5% of global emissions and rising with increasing demand for concrete in architecture and design. My use of concrete and poison ivy as media contributes to my goal of challenging aesthetics associated with dominant, white male gay culture, thereby reflecting the wider American legacy of white supremacy, colonial dominance, and exploitation.
My intention is to install this work in a gallery in New York, and then to bring the installation to a viewing space in Charlottesville. In both communities I would like to engage with the LGBTQ communities, as well as the design and preservation communities, to hold public events such as panel discussions and screenings. This work not only provides a striking and exciting installation for the general public to experience, but it offers the opportunity to bring communities together to continue difficult conversations that are of the utmost importance and relevance today.
Designed as an installation, LHR is inspired by the concept of a neoclassical landscape garden. Upon entering the gallery, the viewer will encounter a wide, dark room, punctuated by glowing pink spotlights. Directly under each spotlight will be a live, Poison Ivy topiary. These “monumental follies”, with cast concrete bases and welded rebar frames, will take the form of obelisks, cones, columns, globes, and archways. The exhibition will also feature a series of neoclassical column plinths cast in concrete, supporting delicate fabric constructions mimicking KKK hoods, as well as architectural works on paper using Farrow & Ball paint and urushiol, the toxic sap of poison ivy, which oxidizes to black and is used in traditional lacquer and dyes. This dynamic work will be at once delicate and heavy, beautiful and toxic, visually striking and conceptually astute.
Tests for the production of Low-Hanging Fruit began in mid-summer 2017. With the advice of Virginia Tech Biologist and Poison Ivy specialist John Jelesko, I began to test methods for propagating and training Poison Ivy to create topiary sculptures. Poison Ivy grows rampantly in the wild, but does not transplant and roughly 90% of seeds will not germinate in a lab environment. After extensive testing, I have successfully created my first test sculpture. I have also begin the process of welding rebar frames together for the larger sculptures, and am testing concrete casting methods and ratios.
- NYT: Review of David Halperin's How to Be Gay (Harvard, 2012), Dwight Garner, August 7, 2012
- Boston Review: #Milosexual and the Aesthetics of Fascism, Daniel Penny, January 24, 2017
- ZED: We're Here, We're Here, We're Racist, Shon Faye, February 15, 2017
- NYMag: The Philosophical Fascists of the Gay Alt-Right, Maureen O'Connor, April 30, 2017
- Slate: How the Alt-Right is Using Sex and Camp to Attract Gay Men to Fascism, Donna Minkowitz, June 5, 2017
- HuffPost: The Strange, Strange Story of the Gay Fascists, Johann Hari, October 21, 2008
- PNAS: Biomass and toxicity responses of poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) to elevated atmospheric CO2,
Jacqueline E. Mohan, Lewis H. Ziska, William H. Schlesinger, Richard B. Thomas, Richard C. Sicher, Kate George and James S. Clark, April 22, 2006
- The Understory: The Plant with a Vengeance: Poison Ivy, Katie Burke, July 7, 2012
- Science History Institute: No Ill Nature: The Surprising History and Science of Poison Ivy and Its Relatives, Jane E. Boyd, Joseph Rucker, Summer 2013
- World Resources Institute: The History of Carbon Dioxide Emissions, Johannes Friedrich, Thomas Damassa, May 21, 2014
- Earth Institute, Columbia University, Emissions from the Cement Industry, Madeleine Rubenstein, May 9, 2012