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The 312: Dirt + art + activism = DePaul University exhibit

An upcoming show at the DePaul Art Museum is a combination art exhibit and environmentalist soiree, where creatives paired with scientists ask us to more fully consider the beauty, magic, sound and majesty of dirt. These artist activists are shining a light on all sorts of local issues, from the sonic impact that the morning rush hour has upon lake-shore birds to the plight of the missing milkweed to how to protect the soil from nasty toxins that seep from dead human bodies.

Who knew that dirt, as seen through “Rooted in Soil,”  was so darn interesting?

DePaul art museum curator, Laura Fatemi, left, and Makenzi Fricker, collection intern, place the 'Infinity Burial Suit' by artist Jae Rhim Lee into a space for the upcoming "Rooted in Soil."

DePaul art museum curator Laura Fatemi, left, and Makenzi Fricker, collection intern, place the ‘Infinity Burial Suit’ by artist Jae Rhim Lee into a space for the upcoming “Rooted in Soil.”

“Often times our exhibitions look at social concerns,” says Laura Fatemi, interim director at the DePaul Art Museum. “They could be concerns that deal with immigration issues. They could be political issues that touch on war or poverty. This is an exhibition that looks at environmental issues, and it fits into social concerns that as a museum is something we’ve continually brought forth to the public.”

One interesting component is that of Wild Sounds, a group led by environmental sciences professor and ecologist Liam Heneghan. For nearly two years, he’s been recording the sound of nature along the lakefront and analyzing it. The endgame? To figure out how animals and insects are adapting to the sounds created by humans. For the installation, which opens January 29, Wild Sounds is pairing lake-shore nature recordings with images of trees.

“This field of ecology and sound analysis, or acoustic ecology, is really a neat field,” says Heneghan, who has already found that the roar of airplanes overhead impacts the soundscape of the lake shore. “It’s a very visceral way of thinking about the health of ecosystems. When you are in a woodland and the birds are singing and the insects are buzzing along [you get an image of] visceral health.”

The soundscape project makes sense to combine with “Rooted in Soil,” he says, because without the soil, there would be no lakefront. Other interesting aspects of the show include an artist who makes papyrus from beets in order to show how scarce paper used to be, and how easily we waste it now. (On Feb. 18, at the museum, the artist will be holding a conversation with local farmers on the topic of “Good Soil and Rooting.”) And on the more morbid — yet fascinating — side of things, Jae Rhim Lee is bringing the “Infinity Burial Project” to DePaul. With this, Lee has created green burial technology that in theory will help bodies biodegrade more quickly;  the process includes mushroom mycelia that will help suck up the toxins — such as mercury — that leak out of human bodies when they decompose. Also featured will be Jane Fulton Alt’s images of controlled fires inform her “The Burn” photo series, which is about the cycle of death and regrowth after a fire. Alt will host workshops on Feb. 4 and April 22.

Of particular note to Chicagoans is an April 11 milkweed and monarch butterfly lecture with local artist Jenny Kendler. In essence, both the milkweed and the butterfly are fast disappearing. To combat this with art and activism, Kendler will lecture and give out biodegradable balloons full of wildflower seeds to those who want to help feed the monarchs. Kendler’s project and live art response is called “Milkweed Dispersal Balloons.”

“I make art about our relationship with the natural world because I see the challenge to reintegrate human culture with nature as the fundamental issue of our time,” says Kendler. “It’s important that we’re talking about monarch butterflies right now, because scientists recently found that monarch populations have dropped by a staggering 90 percent. [They] are an iconic species of the Midwest, and our world would be impoverished without them. My art practice often advocates for paying more attention to the diminutive and the delicate. It’s the little things that make life worth living, right?”

Adrienne Samuels Gibbs is a reporter for The Chicago Sun-Times. She can be reached at: agibbs@suntimes.com and on Twitter @adriennewrites