Oceanic matters, porous vessels, waste flows: A Conversation with Elizabeth Burmann Littin

5 June 2024

By Katie Lawson

In October of last year, Chilean artist Elizabeth Burmann Littin’s exhibition Pupila marked the opening of two seven two, a new commercial gallery in Toronto run by Emma Bain and Yasmin Nurming-Por. Tucked away in the Republic of Rathnelly, it takes up residence in a space already steeped in a legacy of community organizing and experimental art practices of the 1960s-’70s. Burmann Littin’s exhibition beckons with a glow of atmospheric pink light that spills out into the gallery’s back laneway. Entering Pupila is akin to passing through a portal, one that simultaneously invokes the primordial soup of our planetary origins, as well as our contemporary moment of climate crisis, through an attunement to the troubling anthropogenic, oceanic conditions of our present and future. 

Conglomerates of steel, shell, stained glass, and rubber interface with the architecture of the space. Burmann Littin’s works emerge from the crevices of corners, taking up residence in floor vents, and descend from the ceiling. They also serve as light fixtures and a banister, ornate adornments that not only speak to the artist’s affinity for Art Nouveau, but brings to mind the shell craft of tourist economies. After initially meeting in Toronto last fall and connecting over the deep resonances of our personal and artistic interests, the following exchange was conducted via email. While Pupila serves as an initial point of entry, our conversation flows through the watery world of Littin’s practice, including (but not limited to) acidifying oceans, waste, and bivalves through an engagement with strategies drawn from the environmental humanities, new materialism and hydrofeminism.

Katie Lawson: I continue daydreaming about Pupila. This was your first time exhibiting in Canada, and the work itself brought together organic and industrial materials sourced in Chile, Rhode Island, and Ontario. Can you walk me through your process of sourcing and working with materials while responding to these different contexts? 

Elizabeth Burmann Littin: Yes, the materials were collected from diverse wanderings and places, adding their situatedness to the thick soup of elements present in the exhibition. I start with the shells themselves, which are mostly restaurant trash and leftovers from dinners I’ve organized in places I have lived in recent years, namely Rhode Island and Chile. I‘ve also been collaborating with the marine toxins lab from the University of Chile, where I sourced discarded abalone shells. Chile is a main exporter of shellfish, and they analyze the specimens to track pollutants and toxic algal blooms on the Chiloé Island, in southern Chile. Also, people who know me often give their shells to me, making it a mix of gathering and hoarding mementos. 

Working with the shells crystalizes some of those memories. Shell craft is very popular in coastal Chilean towns, so it’s now often associated with fine art. Of course, there are certain shells that are so alluring and spectacular they are used to create commoditized, exclusive merchandise. However, I still appreciate the friendliness cultivated through collecting shells on a beach that resonates despite age and location. 

When I was invited to exhibit in Toronto, I was excited by the freshwater system surrounding Ontario. Yasmin and Emma told me about the zebra mussel, the invasive sister of blue mussels. This “alien” species and its evil attributions on the Internet drew me in. In the end I couldn’t work with zebra mussels as their existence is basically prohibited in Canada. I was given the chance to engage with the lake ecosystem in Muskoka, where I collected debris and found inspiration for the material treatment of pieces in the exhibition. 

The metal was sourced in Hamilton, where I worked on the fabrication. During that process I learned some of Hamilton’s history as an industrial city, a satellite of Toronto feeding its commercial activity. Every material carries its situated context(s). Though it is not my intention to make all of that evident in the work, I want to unveil fragments of what is already latent in the materials.

Image: Installation view of Pupilia, 2023 at two seven two gallery by Elizabeth Burmann Littin. Photo by LF documentation courtesy of the artist.

KL:  From what I understand, some works from Pupila carried over from a previous, related body of work that was shown in Santiago, is that right? To me, this leakiness embodies the aqueous as materials flow and transform through different iterations. 

EBL: That’s right, I often end up mixing parts of older works into new ones. It is a way of making sense of my work for myself; I would feel somewhat detached if I had to start all over again every time.

KL: I totally agree. It makes so much sense when you realize that all matter is always already in a constant state of transformation. Why shouldn’t artwork and exhibitions follow that logic? 

EBL: It’s like a genealogy, and it is how material cycles behave anyway. It relates to the shared aqueousness that you mention: nothing emerges pristine, and material traces add up in a constant intermingling of matters along the way. I’ve also been thinking of this material continuum as a form of production that reacts to the detached ways in which capitalism operates. Capitalism is also a flow, but it is delirious and produces without acknowledging the constant reconfiguration of its traces. Not to mention that it ignores the physical impact left in its wake.

Following that, I’m drawn to what is left behind. Collecting debris and discarded materials has always been part of my practice. Like many art students I collected things I found, but also began collecting the remains of my processes, like dried paint, congealed films from leaking materials, broken fragments, etc. In retaining my studio trash, I paid attention to material cycles—that is my basic toolbox. 

KL: It’s interesting to note this transition from speaking of market and capital flows. This is inseparable from the necessary resourcefulness of artists, who are materially driven, but don’t  always have the financial resources—or the desire—to further contribute to rampant overconsumption. I imagine this really came to the fore with your move to the US for graduate school. 

EBL: Yes, this is how I encountered shells, or rather, how they encountered me. As a new student at Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), I arrived in Providence from Santiago with no materials (but a small batch of studio trash), so I encountered that material-non-groundedness. This was also when I began engaging with environmental humanities, object-oriented ontologies, material feminisms, and posthuman studies. At this point, it didn’t make sense to buy a styrofoam block at Home Depot and start a sculpture, so I resisted, and couldn’t make actual work for a while. 

Providence was very different from Santiago, which is a city modelled by neoliberalism, creating a heterogeneous urban context where nature, refuse, industry, commercial interests, and social needs are very entangled. One day I realized that Providence has a number of “oyster bars,” so I started collecting the discarded shells from happy hours. This led me to research oyster farming in New England: the extraction and destruction of the native banks of water bodies by colonizers and the industrial boom. The shell is left over from human consumption, but also interfaces with a complex, soft, filtering body in the ocean. 

For me, mollusks and their natural and cultural implications are interesting to think with, as they carry the connotations of extraction, climate emergency, gender, and class; sometimes treasure, sometimes trash.

KL: You’ve previously invited other more-than-human kin into the fold of your process as a part of your immersion in hydrofeminism and oceanic matters. I’m thinking here of your collaboration with Jianni Tien of “thinking with” decorator crabs. Crustaceans are a whole other story, but I’m wondering if you could speak specifically about bivalves as a category of being that seems ripe for consideration in this moment of climate change and ocean acidification.  

EBL: Bivalves such as mussels, oysters, and clams carry out a crucial role in ocean ecosystems, which ripples out to a planetary scale. As filter feeders, these creatures clean large amounts of water by removing pollutants. In this sense, they are radical beings in their environment, and integral to potential solutions for our environmental crisis since they literally ingest the nutrient-rich but techno-industrialized ocean. Traces of all floating matter are embedded in their flesh. 

I became interested in eating bivalves, organizing collective dinners, and working with food-waste shells, as eating them also performs a transcorporeal embodiment—humans can ingest bits of those industrial emissions too. This of course happens with every food at a certain level, but in the case of bivalves it is really evident, as their way of eating is filtering their medium, and their biological system exposes that. This becomes even visible when microplastic bits are found on their flesh. I think just one mussel can filter up to 50 litres daily, so imagine how much passes through their bodies. In this sense, filter feeders are good at pointing out the toxic embodiment that trespasses us all. 

Image: Installation view of Agua Malva, 2022 by Elizabeth Burmann Littin at Local Arte contemporáneo, Santiago. Photo by Felipe Ugalde courtesy of the artist.

KL: Literal consumption, whether by the bivalves or humans, is such a visceral way to point to the porousness of all bodies. It feels like a way to unravel the assumption that we are separate or contained entities. 

EBL: Within the context of the ocean becoming more acidic and warm, to think-with mollusks and other shelled creatures becomes complicated too, as this new chemistry of the water is dissolving calcium carbonate, which is the main component of their protective layers, shells in this case. I’ve been obsessed with the essay “Your Shell on Acidfrom material feminist academic Stacy Alaimo, which unfolds this problem in such a radical yet playful way, inviting us to imagine the dissolution of our own human boundaries by acknowledging the threat to shells and exoskeleton of marine creatures in the ocean. She proposes a scale shift to hallucinate our own shells on acid…the softness of matter being exposed. I think this call to recognize our common vulnerability is so relevant now. I see vulnerability as an opportunity for the delicacy that sustains all kinds of life to emerge.

And this acidification is not only dissolving existing shells and other calcium structures, it also affects the possibility of future shells to exist, as it prevents particles of calcium carbonate to bond. This phenomenon projects a future that is softer and more vulnerable, which is hard for human and non-human life, but also anticipates a different dissolution needed, that is the dissolution of human exceptionalism—the detached notion of considering our bodies separated from the environment. We are filters ourselves, enmeshed in flows of physical and virtual matters—it is not so evident, that’s all.

KL: It is not so evident perhaps within the framework of our dominant ideologies, yet at the same time it is deceptively simple. I’m reminded of cultural theorist Astrida Neimanis, whose work I know you are also in dialogue with, in the perspectival shift offered by her suggestion that we are bodies of water. All human and more-than-human life,1 and the ecosystems that create and hold us, are all a part of one global hydrological cycle. All of our planetary water is always already there, it’s just endlessly transforming through the cycle. 

As you continue to explore multispecies relations as an enmeshed part of your process, it seems as though your human networks are also continuing to expand, bringing a wide range of collaborators and consultants across disciplines together. How have these unfurling relations shifted your work? 

EBL: I love Astrida’s work, the idea of thinking-with water really helped me to free some of my constraints in elaborating pieces and thoughts. I keep returning to it, because it is so fertile, so flowy, so when I’m stuck it serves as a means to mobilize and trust the cycles of hydrology. It’s true that as you mention, my work is gaining its own needs in order to exist and requires looking for situated knowledges which exceed my individual practice. In that quest I came across different collaborators. 

KL: Right, I took note of your mention of the Biotoxin lab and this extension of your collaborations across disciplines and ways of working.

EBL: Yes, on one hand is the interest in working across disciplines, of mixing knowledges of biology with non traditional approaches, and I can see that this type of collaboration is increasingly more common in contemporary art. I suggest it is a kind of mutualistic desire, as art responds to the awareness of the multidimensionality in which it’s inscribed. Scientific disciplines are also getting closer to art in order to face the contingency and complexity of our interconnected contexts, in places where conservativeness and conceptual isolation are no longer viable. 

But there’s also the collaboration that happens in the studio, in the designing and making, I work with friends, architects, illustrators and also students. I’ve been thinking a lot on this and questioning how much labour and energy is poured into each and every piece. 

KL: Yes! As an aside, I have to say, this is so often missing in conversations about sustainability in art production—the question of labour. What can we actually sustain? At what cost to ourselves? In a fruitful dynamic, working collaboratively can distribute the physical, intellectual, creative, and bureaucratic efforts we undertake. 

EBL: Yes, and considering that the world is already too full of stuff, does it make sense to keep producing? And if it does, within this excess of human-treated materialities, which materialities makes sense to work with? These are overwhelming questions I’ve been having lately, and I don’t have an answer, really, but it is interesting to navigate these questions with more hands and minds involved… maybe, in an era when the social realm is so cracked, considering art as a practice for socializing makes sense?

I don’t know, but in this whirling, I find rest and joy in the process of making with others, and seeing how the work is constantly shifting because of that. For the exhibition I’m preparing right now there are many collaborating hands and ideas embedded in the work. I’m processing how I feel about that, and it is also a way of letting go of total control over the work (which sometimes is hard!), and I’m curious to see how that will continue affecting the result. Now I’m thinking that maybe it is a form of experimentation that amplifies the monadic idea of the artist isolated in the studio relating only to their materials. More sympoeithical perhaps?

KL: At this very moment (April 2024) you are installing a major solo exhibition in Santiago. I would love to hear a bit about how this exhibition connects to the arc of the projects we have discussed. If I remember correctly, this is a kind of full circle moment for you across these related bodies of work, or rather a confluence of various streams. 

Image: Installation view of mareas, 2023 at Galeria Patricia Ready by Elizabeth Burmann Littin. Photo by Felipe Ugalde courtesy of the artist.

EBL: Yes, that’s how I see it. Not as a culmination, but as the congregation and intermingling of various streams present in my recent projects. In an attempt to organize my thoughts, I used to think of exhibitions as chapters or short tales of an unfolding narrative, so this is like the season finale of a sort of watery saga. This weaving of narrative is related to the need to produce material sense within the work, as again, it would be so removed to start all over again without ingredients—with time the soup becomes more complex, and exhibitions contaminate and leak into each other. 

In this sense, this upcoming exhibition combines aspects of Agua Malva (which showed at Local Arte contemporáneo in 2022) where I played with the domestic environment of that particular gallery. I imagined a sort of bloom of the materiality of the house itself: glass and cement, but also responded to the particular architectural features which were a mix between art deco, art nouveau, neoclassical, and colonial influences. Considering the gallery/house as an agentic place able to affect and be affected by the works, the interventions speculated about different past or futures of those materials, like the glass having lived former lives as shells, or the whole place being transformed by a disrupting flood of a mauve-tinted, watery flow. 

Then mareas (2023), shown at Patricia Ready, focused more about descending into layers where matter is digested and transformed by creatures that inhabit underwater bottoms. Thinking in oceanic tides (mareas in Spanish) as a lunar transformative force that brings to the surface what is underneath and we cannot see. In this swell, the matters are mixed, revealed, then obscured into the depths or dissoluted, in a flow that comes and goes in constant material actualization of fragments from everywhere. I feel this process is very similar to the mind, and how thinking and imagining operates. We already talked about Pupila—that for me was more about thinking from a watery view point and making an introspective journey to destabilize vision. Remembering that the eye is a watery organ, swirling in a wet medium that enables us to see through. 

KL: Ah, this reminds me of a quote from “Your Shell on Acid” that I’ve previously quoted and takes up this aspect of perception and visuality. “To begin to glimpse the seas, one must descend rather than transcend, be immersed in highly mediated environments that suggest the entanglements of knowledge, science, economics, and power… The substance of the water itself insists on submersion, not separation. Even in the sunlit, clear, shallow waters that divers explore, visibility is never taken for granted, nor does distance grant optimal vision.”2

EBL: Concha en ácido projects into the possible dissolution of all this. Borrowing from this same essay, the exhibition is a proposition to wander the calcareous walls of the museum, as one of the many shells built on a massive human scale, while undoing our own containment and barriers. Perhaps through this we may empathize with the dissolution of shells and other bony creatures while conceptualizing the dissolution of our own human constraints. The whole journey is very material and tactile, each room is thought of as a scenario to awaken curiosity and fantasizing on what could be and which new alliances could be created from that dispersing matter, which objects will be created then? The dissolution is not the end, but the possibility of new combinations to happen. Of course, in the case of the exhibition, the combinations don’t come from everywhere, but from the materials that I explore in my practice: glass, shells, metal. In that sense, materials are the characters and elements of that particular, fragile, environmental tale.

KL: It is a tale I can’t wait to read by way of this new ambitious exhibition. Thank you so much for taking the time to continue our dialogue. 

  1. For curious readers, ‘more-than-human’ emerged through the discourse of material feminisms, environmental humanities and beyond–it provides an alternative to ‘non-human’ which defines all other forms of life through negation, continuing to uphold human essentialism.
  2. Stacy Alaimo, “Your Shell on Acid: Material Immersion, Anthropocene Dissolves,” in Anthropocene Feminism, ed. Richard A. Grusin (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017), 107.

Concha en ácido by Elizabeth Burmann Littin runs from April 4 to June 27, 2024 at the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo in Santiago, Chile.

Feature Image: Installation view of Agua Malva, 2022 by Elizabeth Burmann Littin at Local Arte contemporáneo, Santiago. Photo by Felipe Ugalde courtesy of the artist.