Back to the Future

Amanda Lechner's 'Future Perfect Tense' examines what has been and may be

"I'm here tonight to tell you: We are out of time. I wish that none of this was true. I grieved in the field and I grieve every time I talk about what's happening to the planet now. But here we are together at this time in history, and we're going to get to go through this together, like it or not."

I wasn't expecting good news at the Lannan Foundation March 13 talk by journalist Dahr Jamail, author of the recent book, The End of Ice: Bearing Witness and Finding Meaning in the Path of Climate Disruption. But I was taken aback, no doubt naively, by the hope-free certainty he expressed about the future.

Jamail's work threads his firsthand observation of climate disruption as a mountain guide on Denali in Alaska with the ever-mounting scientific evidence about the impact such human-caused climate disruption is having and will continue to have for the earth and its inhabitants. In a recent report for his Climate Disruption Dispatch series for Truthout, Jamail runs through some of these reports and their findings, "radical disruptions to food and water supplies for upwards of 1.5 billion people, in addition to a mass migration crisis" among them.

I was thinking of Jamail's talk as I entered Axle Contemporary two days later for the mobile gallery's latest exhibit. Amanda Lechner's Future Perfect Tense transformed the stepvan's interior into what was described as an "abstracted cyclorama." More specifically, the artist has covered the entire space, top to bottom, with an ink-on-paper painting that examines various intersections of images and ideas related to climate disruption, and the concomitant questions these raise about the future. The show's title, a grammatical nod to the putative nature of the future, encapsulates both its inevitability and mystery.

I found myself drawn to one back wall where a textured image of the planet topped two handwritten signs, one reading "Motion/Stillness," the other "Sitting in Discomfort and Being Okay," evoking the sense that I had entered the private sanctum of another's thoughts in a specific moment in time, caught trying to work out an impenetrable proposition.

Lechner, a Santa Fe native now living in Indiana where she is a visiting assistant professor of drawing and painting at Indiana University at Bloomington, tells me that while to some degree the work "feels like stepping into my mind space," it also is intended more broadly to evoke the sense of "stepping into a series of thoughts."

Those thoughts run the gamut and include Lechner's preoccupation with "deep time" and its manifestation in geology and zoology. The work includes images of plants and animals "that are living fossils that have existed relatively unchanged for hundreds of millions of years in some cases." Lechner pairs those images with some that relate to volcanology research (this is the study of volcanoes, not Vulcans, although Lechner did mention Star Trek and I did grok her references) and its relation to infrasound (low-frequency sound undetectable to the human ear), and "how that ties into the predictions of the eruptions of volcanoes."

Both science and science fiction frequently inform Lechner's work. While working on the Axle piece, she was reading NK Jemisin's The Fifth Season, a Hugo Award-winning trilogy that explores, as the title indicates, the fifth season: a time of world-ending climate change.

Science fiction and speculative fiction have long been, of course, fertile space to consider the consequences of the past and present on the unknown future. Titling her show Future Perfect Tense, Lechner says she is probing "the things that will have happened in the future; that can mean the things that are happening now, the things that happened to us in the past, or the things that are our future but are the future people's past."

As for a viewpoint, Lechner says she is not "a particularly cynical person," and perhaps the show reflects her vacillation between optimism and pessimism.

"I'm a hopeful person," she says, "but I also see the darkness and, in some ways, can embrace that darkness, because maybe it's only where we can see it that we can fight against it or push away from it. I don't want it to feel like it's all about doom, but there is certainly some, a little bit of that. It's that paradox of, 'We're in trouble,' but maybe we can find a way out of it."

Personally, I'll take maybe over too late.

Amanda Lechner: Future Perfect Tense
Through April 7.
Axle Contemporary,

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