With the rise of new materialism, the notion that nonhuman matter has its own meaningful agency has seeped into a number of disciplines. In the past several years, many artists hoping to think “with” their materials have turned to organic and living matter. Amid this surging interest in bio art, 15 Orient, in Brooklyn, mounted a miniature retrospective of German-born, Port Townsend, Washington–based artist Nöle Giulini, who has been working in this mode for the past three decades with little institutional recognition.
A number of the sculptures on view were made from brittle brown kombucha leather, a biomaterial that Giulini started using prior to its recent adoption by sustainable fashion advocates. Some works, like Vestige #2 (2004), from her “Incisions” series, are stringy cutups that resemble collapsing ribcages. Others, like the tubular sluglike Wurm (2005), are barnacled with bunched extrusions. The short video Kombucha Process (Culture), 1996, and accompanying photographic documentation offer a window into Giulini’s labor-intensive process. She adds a kombucha starter and feeding solution of sugar and black tea to a mold made from sand and plastic in a massive incubator in her backyard, gradually coaxing the kombucha to form a thick, fleshy membrane. She then uses a fishing net to lift the squelching sheet onto a drying rack, knotting the material with rubber bands, slicing it up, or sewing pieces together before treating it with frankincense and myrrh.
Under Giulini’s guidance, the kombucha cultures adopt forms that flirt with representation yet are ultimately unplaceable; for example, Hrdaya (2006), a wall relief titled after a Sutra that equates form with emptiness, features a smashed carob-colored mass that simultaneously evokes a painterly impasto and a strange fossil. In a world of matter in flux, all forms are provisional, which feels especially palpable in these sculptures because they could easily change shape and state if reanimated with tea, the substance traditionally fermented to make kombucha. The works’ conservation is thus riddled with problems and possibilities. When Borrowed Monk (2006), a kombucha leather cone abjectly sagging over a small wooden bench, needed repairs, Giulini applied wet strips of kombucha culture that grew into the existing leather.
Untitled (2003), a nub of this tough textile covered in gold leaf, suggests that the material is precious—even magical—to Giulini, and puts her in dialogue with other German artists interested in alchemy, like Joseph Beuys and Anselm Kiefer. Beuys and Kiefer have employed the language of alchemy to represent possibilities of spiritual metamorphosis: Beuys’s shamanistic transmogrification of profane materials like fat and felt into artworks, and Kiefer’s use of lead in heavy canvases grappling with Nazi history, express hope for transformation in German society. In contrast, Giulini’s exploration of fermentation, the alchemy by which a symbiotic culture turns tea into kombucha, is primarily concerned with transformation on a material level. The ideological project to which her work is loosely tied is that of acknowledging the complexity and dynamism of nonhuman life, which might erode the anthropocentric worldview that has ravaged the environment, though that connection is not made explicit. (Other thinkers have more overtly yoked fermentation to social transformation: for example, Lauren Fournier’s 2017 curatorial and book project “Fermenting Feminism” strove to “approach feminisms through the metaphor and material practice of fermentation,” a process described as embodying both preservation and transformation.)
Organic processes of transformation likewise drive Giulini’s Emperor’s New Clothes (1992), an orderly arrangement of decomposing fruits and vegetables sheathed in hard gelatin so that they resemble chrysalises. At once a memento mori—a reminder of our inevitable rot—and a celebration of the generative potential of that rot, the pedestal-mounted installation makes the chemical byproducts of the decomposition process visible: off-gas from the decaying produce has inflated the gelatin over time, causing units of the installation to subtly shapeshift.
Artist Statement (1991/2022) conveys, with playful concision, the depth of Giulini’s commitment to her materials. The work comprises sequences of colorful rubber bands of various sizes—the same bands she uses to shape the kombucha leather—draped on pins so that they resemble a written language, a secret dialect informed by years of intimate relation between human and nonhuman matter. The writing may be asemic, but it is anything but meaningless.