“In Human Nature, I explore what happens when we step back to view ourselves within the expansiveness of nature and time. I consider how this scale realignment can change our perspective, offer context, reveal absurdities, and evoke humility, insights, and awe.”
The old adage tells us to “stop and smell the roses,” but artist Tiffany Shlain advocates for stopping to count the tree rings. As a Bay Area native who grew up traipsing about the Muir Woods, Shlain has always had an affinity for trees, which only intensified in 2020, when she took to nature to fill her days.
“Growing up near the Muir Woods and spending a lot of time there during COVID, I love when you see these big tree slices, but they’re always telling male stories,” she told me recently on a Zoom call. “They’re all colonialist, patriarchal stories, and I just feel like I’m being mansplained history. So I wanted to see a feminist history tree ring.”
This idea served as a fruitful area of exploration for Shlain during her 2022 artist residency at SHACK15, located in the Ferry Building in San Francisco. Her residency has culminated in a solo exhibition entitled Human Nature that’s on view now at the top floor of the building through December 15. The expansive exhibition is composed of 24 photography, sculpture, and time-based media pieces, including a feminist tree ring timeline which Shlain describes using the term “Dendrofemonology.” (Dendrochronology is the science of tree dating.) “I just love looking at tree rings as a way to look at time and everything,” she told me. “Suddenly it’s all I wanted to do!”
While 2020 heightened Shlain’s focus on nature and humans’ relationship to technology, these are themes and ideas she’s been grappling with as an artist for years. “The Muir Woods are home to some of the oldest trees in the world, so in the Bay Area we have the oldest trees and the newest technologies. That’s laid the groundwork for so much of my career,” she shared.
“Even though I love tech, I was feeling like it was taking away my ability to be present. So about 13 years ago I started making a lot of films about the subject, and then I started turning off all screens for Shabat (I’m Jewish), and on those days without screens my family and I would go on Mount Tam or to the Muir Woods; we just spent a lot of time in nature. I really started to see how much it was changing my brain— I eventually wrote a book about it called 24/6: The Power of Unplugging One Day a Week.”
Once COVID plowed into our lives and shut down the world in March 2020, Shlain mined these ideas even further. “I spent a lot more time on the mountain, I got a dog. I would spend hours in the mountains thinking about nature, and time, and how these trees that I had grown up with, which had always been so stunning to me, were witnesses to humanity. I started bringing stuff back with me from the mountain and started making sculptures; I moved into a completely new medium during COVID.”
The lockdown provided Shlain with the time, space, and perspective to zoom out and dissect how humans engage with nature. “COVID for me was a lot about this reflective state about Where are we now? Where are we going? I know a lot of people asked a lot of personal questions like, What am I doing with my life? Where do I want to live? But I felt like it was this very philosophical period of thinking about where we are in history.”
Human Nature presents the many ways Shlain is working through these ideas by way of her meandering artistic practice. And like most of her work, which has ranged from documentaries to “Spoken Cinema,” Human Nature presents a strong feminist point of view. When you first walk into the show, there’s a three-minute long video art piece playing on a loop. “It’s about [putting] a female gaze onto civilization, and history, and where we are at this moment in time,” Shlain explained.
After the video art piece, viewers then experience a wall of mixed-media light boxes depicting images that are meant to look at nature in a new way. “In both the film and the photographs, we’re looking at people who are looking,” Shlain told me. “When I make movies, for example, I always stand in the back of the theater because I like watching people watch it. There’s something about an individual watching that I find very powerful.” To create these works, Shlain collaged found objects and images together and put them in lightboxes. “I love lightboxes because it feels like you’re in this portal. It feels like you can just walk into the space.”
Shlain’s exploration of tree rings rounds out the show, which features seven different tree ring artworks emblazoned into salvaged tree trunk slices. “All of the wood is salvaged from trees that were already felled,” said Shlain. “They’re from different places all over; wherever a tree falls, I’m there, trying to turn it into art. I got these women pyrographers to fire-burn text into the wood— and I burned some too!””
Shlain’s Dendrofemonology piece in this section depicts a feminist world history timeline, starting with when goddesses were worshipped. “It’s just such a better place to start the story,” she said. “I’ve made quite a few films about women’s history, and women and power, so I spent a lot of time figuring out what was going to be on this list and consulting with scholars. There’s a strong thread of abortion rights in here, and actually, as I was finishing this piece in June, Roe v. Wade was overturned. But even though it was overturned here, if you go to the bottom I show that 65 other countries have legalized abortion in the last year.”
Shlain will be conducting a talk and tour of the exhibition via Zoom on December 1 at 11 AM PT / 2 PM ET. She’ll also host two viewings at San Francisco’s Ferry Building: an in-person talk and tour on December 6 at 6 PM, and a public art tour day on December 10 from 11 AM to 4 PM.
Find out more about the Human Nature exhibition, upcoming events, and other places the show will travel here.