The Garden of Spoil: Maria Simmons’ Rat, Plastic, Wood

17 September 2022

By Chris Hampton

I’d never noticed the building at 10 Tom Street in West Hamilton, a Sunday school tucked behind an old church, let alone considered there’d be any reason to explore its basement. Past the doors, the scent greeted me first: fresh and mineral, like the smell of earth after a rainfall (but on a return visit, it was sweet like rot). A curious purple glow leaked into the stairwell from the lower floor, intensifying with each step downwards. Then, off the landing, a large room opened, revealing an extraordinary subworld—a garden of sorts—living virtually in secret.   

Hamilton-based artist Maria Simmons moved into the space when her University of Waterloo studio closed during the pandemic. Her family has long attended the church next door and she remembered the basement from her childhood. It was once a gymnasium, but had since fallen into disrepair. In her memory, it was a place where no one was allowed to go and the lights remained off. She’d stand with her toes on the threshold, staring into the darkness, wondering what could possibly be down there and now, in need of a workspace, she was drawn to the basement once again.  

She discovered the gym in spectacular ruins. Basketball nets still hung on either side of the room, though the court’s wood flooring had been torn out, leaving just the dirt beneath. The ground was strewn with ancient garbage, yet it bore no human footprints. All around, the walls glistened like frost from salt crystals growing off the limestone. The artist was compelled to document and incorporate what she found, so the basement became her field site, her studio, and then her exhibition space for Rat, Plastic, Wood, where Simmons invited the public to engage with a few of her artworks, which unfolded like experiments. 

Image: Installation view of Rat, Plastic, Wood by Maria Simmons. Photo by Alejandro Collados-Núñes courtesy of the artist.

At what would have roughly been half-court, Simmons built a greenhouse installation, titled Preservation Instinct (2021), from used polyfilm she’d gotten from a local farm and some lumber. Inside the structure, she formed rough beds from approximately 1,500 pounds of potting soil to plant what she called “an impossible garden:” broccoli, kale, cabbage, fennel, sensitive ferns, mother of thousands, and carnivorous pitcher plants—species that wouldn’t naturally occur together. The greenhouse was lit by LED grow panels, the source of the curious purple glow. IV drips of sterile water irrigated the garden beds, which were landscaped with bricks, rocks, and bits of trash found around the basement, as well as some choice pieces the artist had collected elsewhere. 

For the duration of the exhibition, Simmons performed a role that was one part caretaker and one part scientist. She’d water the plants using multiple sources, including the room’s existing dehumidifier and a leak from the skylight in the hall upstairs, but wouldn’t prune them or fuss with them too much otherwise. Rather, she provided these basic conditions and let the plants grow, or perish, on their own terms, in response to the environment. The ethic—both in this particular case and across the exhibition more broadly—was simply to wait and see what happened. (I can report, for example, that the pitcher plants and the broccoli thrived, while the ferns and fennel did not.) 

Image: Purity Factories, 2021 (detail view) by Maria Simmons. Photo by Alejandro Collados-Núñes courtesy of the artist.

Projected on the exterior of the greenhouse was a single-channel video, Residuum (2021). The visual shows the basement space as Simmons found it—frost-like crystals, crumbling bricks, garbage, and all. The audio, meanwhile, is made from two ultrasonic recordings of rats talking to each other. Text appears at the bottom of the screen like a subtitle, as if the basement itself spoke this rat language and its words had been translated into English. A few lines stuck out to me: “When collections of matter are grouped together, everyone is affected. Everyone is contaminated. Everyone involved becomes new through the experience of becoming-with.” Simmons calls this poem “Lichenization Manifesto.” Imploring humans to rethink their relationship to other lifeforms as well as to the waste we so bountifully create, it represents the ecopolitical philosophy guiding the whole of the exhibition.

Three handmade ceramic vessels were positioned around the interior of the polyfilm structure as part of Preservation Instinct. One was a reservoir for water; another a catch basin for a drip in the greenhouse ceiling; and the third, true to the experimental ethic, contained mud, expired film developer and Fuzzy Peach candies, which slowly formed a surprising complex of crystals as the reaction transpired. Outside the greenhouse, more such vessels could be found installed around the basement. Purity Factories (2021) consisted of a trio of clay tubs, named after the Newfoundland-based manufacturer of the non-perishable bread product, hardtack. Simmons baked her own hardtack using salt efflorescence from the basement walls and glazed it with a commercial facial cleanser called Purity (ironically, degrading the bread’s preservability). The biscuit was then vacuum-sealed and placed at the bottom of one ceramic tub in a bath of water collected by the dehumidifier. The oldest known hardtack has survived more than 200 years, but Simmons’s was already showing signs of mould after six weeks. Purity Factories No. 2 and No. 3 both contained water, as well as, respectively, garbage brine and a plastic produce bag holding some of the artist’s hair coloured with green hair dye, which eventually leached into the water. Her experiments were not discrete, but subject to the whole ecosystem of the basement. Nevertheless, Simmons was surprised to find her Purity Factories had become the watery graves for a centipede and at least five frighteningly red woodlouse spiders, who, she suspects, were attracted by the nutrients of the garbage brine.  

Image: They Eat Each Other’s Bodies, 2021 by Maria Simmons. Photo by Alejandro Collados-Núñes courtesy of the artist.

Scattered also around the basement, an assortment of glass carboys filled with spontaneously fermenting country wines bubbled with varying degrees of vigour. One brew, stationed inside the Preservation Instinct greenhouse, was made from pine needles, moss, cedar, and horsetail fern. Another—a diptych actually—titled They Eat Each Other’s Bodies (2021), consisted of a pair of ferments fizzing away in two carboys connected by a plastic hose, each one off-gassing into the other. The worst meal Simmons ever cooked (a soup of snow fungus that tasted like “wet, salty papier-mâché”) comprised one half, while the other contained some rotten apples leftover from an old performance piece, titled Everything Wet and Spoiled (2018), in which the artist re-enacted a childhood superstition that involved twisting off the fruit’s stem. For Simmons, fermentation represents the potential for transformation: “One of the first uses of the word ‘fermentation’ as a metaphor,” she says, “was in terms of political unrest.” Yeast, the microorganism that lives on basically every surface and has the power to produce outsize and desirable change, recurs throughout the artist’s work. She uses it as both a symbol (the ceramic vessels and the greenhouse itself, for example, were built in the relative shapes of yeast clusters) as well as a creative agent. Each project within Rat Plastic Wood attempted a collaboration with things we’d generally consider contamination.

Two more wines—one made from black locust blossom and another from ditch lily—were available for guests to drink. The first was floral and dry, while the other was almost oniony. “Maybe good in a Caesar,” the artist suggested. The wine samples let visitors perceive some of the agents transforming the space that were more difficult to see with the naked eye. They also implicated visitors more intimately within the basement ecology. I wasn’t simply marking the dirt with my footprints; the plants were breathing my breath, I was ingesting the environment microbially. The basement was marking me, too.

It’s only a pity the other ferments weren’t served. “It’s not that the wines are inedible,” Simmons says, “it’s just that the humans are snobs.” If a wine made from waste sounds repulsive, that’s because it’s supposed to; the concept proposes that human taste is not the only measure of value. In fact, Rat Plastic Wood made it a mission to deprioritize the human and to challenge the primacy of our experience. The purple glow, for instance, beckoning visitors downwards and flooding the exhibition space, was not an aestheticization, but rather an accommodation, because red and blue light are the wavelengths most effective in plant photosynthesis (the lighting conditions actually hampered human depth perception, the artist observed). Many aspects of the show, from its technical design through to the contents of its art, signalled that we humans were in fact guests in the space—hardly the only guests, and certainly not the most important ones. The realization was both wondrous and radical.   

If there’s magic in the basement, it is not supernatural. Rather, it’s a magic felt because of our alienation from nature. Rat Plastic Wood was a vitrine—one we were invited into—that was successful in revealing the sometimes hard-to-recognize interdependence between species, between the organic and the inorganic, and between the living and not. It spoke about the benefits of looking closely and treading softly, and finding yourself connected to a larger assembly in the world.  

Rat, Plastic, Wood ran from September 17 – October 15, 2021 in Hamilton, ON.

Feature Image: Ditch Lily Wine, 2021 by Maria Simmons. Photo by Alejandro Collados-Núñes courtesy of the artist.