View of “Sasha Wortzel,” 2021. Photo: Pedro Wazzan.

View of “Sasha Wortzel,” 2021. Photo: Pedro Wazzan.

Sasha Wortzel

Sasha Wortzel’s unsettling art returns a sense of the uncanny to today’s ubiquitous images of climate collapse. Inside the entrance to this Miami Beach space, visitors encountered For those of us who live at the shoreline (sunrise), 2020, a looped video showing a fiery orange ball ascending majestically over the steaming swamps of Florida’s Big Cypress National Preserve. But there is a glitch: Each time it reaches a certain spot in the sky it slows to a halt and then lurches back down the horizon, ping-ponging back and forth, only to begin the process again. The work conjures an existential dread that suffused Wortzel’s “Dreams of Unknown Islands,” an exhibition that carefully considered how Florida’s sublimated colonial history intersects with its present-day ecological ruin.

This work by the South Florida native provides an apt visual metaphor for what scholar Mark Rifkin calls “settler time”—specifically, the imposition of white settler narratives of linear progress that normalize colonialist interventions and depredations upon Indigenous lands and cultures. In Wortzel’s videos, this spatiotemporal disorientation becomes somatic fact. Opposite the sunrise piece was another video, For those of us who live at the shoreline (labor), 2020, which features a sea turtle mother diligently digging a large hole in the sand in order to lay a pile of glistening pearlescent eggs. Sea turtles have been depositing their eggs along Florida’s beaches from spring to fall for roughly 110 million years. But this isn’t a feel-good story about nature’s ability to endure, alas. A sea turtle’s gender is determined by the temperature of the sand during incubation. In recent years, as global temperatures have increased, turtle hatchlings in Florida have been almost entirely female.

In the main gallery was the show’s namesake, an austere 2021 installation that provided visitors ample space to contemplate and perhaps even grieve the ongoing effects of climate change. Suspended from the ceiling were seven 3D-printed sculptures of large, white, and eerily identical sea shells. The objects concealed speakers from which emanated a recording of some of Wortzel’s friends reciting the Mourner’s Kaddish, a prayer traditionally chanted during Jewish bereavement rituals. The work’s aural component, heavily distorted and mingled with sounds of the ocean floor, made me feel as though I were holding a shell to my ear and listening to the last gasps of human civilization drowning under the rising seas.

Beneath this work in the mostly empty gallery were two metal folding patio chairs arranged side by side on a floor painted the creamy pastel pink of a tropical sunset (Sitting Shiva, 2021). The cheap mass-produced seating—the kind one can find around pools and backyards all over Florida—appeared at first glance entirely ordinary. But a closer look revealed that the chairs’ crisscrossing straps are made from the hides of Burmese pythons, the state’s most notorious invasive species. The pythons’ forebears are believed to have been abandoned in the wilds of South Florida by exotic-pet owners decades ago. Since then, they’ve flourished because they have no natural predators. In just thirty years the reptiles have hunted virtually every other animal species in the Everglades to near extinction. Wortzel’s creepy ersatz chairs highlight a legacy of extinction that began with the rapacious white settlers who, starting a century and a half ago, descended on the state’s native fauna, capturing and killing exotic tropical animals such as snowy egrets, flamingos, and alligators, for the production of luxury goods.

Visitors were invited not to sit in the chairs but instead to consider their emptiness. Who or what has gone missing or been left out of Florida’s leisure fantasies of endless sun and fun? On my visit to Oolite Arts, the busy Lincoln Road Mall was visible through the somber space’s floor-to-ceiling windows. Viewing the crowd of maskless shoppers on parade, I recalled the turtle in Wortzel’s video. The tragedy of its biological imperative to reproduce—increasingly more futile with each passing year—seemed to reappear as farce through the instincts of these heedless consumers. As the first anniversary of the pandemic approached, there was a growing societal demand to “get back to normal.” Yet the artist’s thoughtful show tells us that our pre-Covid conception of “normal,” which brought all this death and devastation, was definitively anything but.