Shelli Weiler is an artist from New York with a BA in Studio Art from Wesleyan University, where she studied photography among other digital arts practices. Her work primarily revolves around the production of fantasy and its failure, using portraiture to document performance in a non-documentarian way. She is currently based in Brooklyn with Basil the tabby cat.
False Spring started as a proposal about the documentation of personalized fantasy. However, in the following months of relentless shooting, an unexpected photography series about environmental intervention and human domination began to take shape. While the business of landscaping is evidently embedded in the construction of ideals, this project emphasizes the extent to which the narrative of fantasy is also inextricably a narrative about desire and control that extends beyond oneself. In this project, the conventions of portraiture expand to include the natural environment, resulting in images that confront the construction of fantasy and its inevitable failure. This project aims to incorporate visual traces of implicit violence at the hands of cultural bureaucracy, and stresses the exploitation of natural resources for the sake of profit and power.
Authoritative hierarchy prevails, even under the guise of environmental care. One might see the act of planting trees as a progressive step towards climate control and habitat restoration, among other community and social values. However, in the case of Japanese cedar, such positive overall associations distract from the severe consequences of landscaping ushered in by Japan’s Construction Ministry.
This Japanese cedar tree struggles to adapt to its habitat, its body wrapped in canvas and its limbs upheld by wooden crutches. Exploited for purposes of colonial, bureaucratic violence, its cast functions as a mask to conceal its ailment rather than protect its wounds. This tree was not meant for Tokyo, its existence a result of aggressive Japanese industrial policies to make forests more economically productive.
The Japan Forestry Agency has destroyed 45 percent of its native broadleaf woodlands, replacing deforested land with commercial timber. This attempt at substituting unprofitable trees has failed socially, monetarily, and ecologically. Firstly, the domestic cedar monoculture has been surpassed by imports of cheaper timber from Southeast Asia, making the destruction of Japan’s own natural forests for naught. Secondly, the overabundance of a singular tree species has steadily decimated wildlife, eroded soil, diminished the water table, and increased the likelihood of landslides and droughts.
Lastly, the landscape of rural Japan, including historically-relevant and culturally-significant villages at the base of Mount Fuji, have been entirely reconstructed and oversaturated with cedar trees. Areas that were once a source of aesthetic inspiration for Japanese art and literature—hosting a diversity of sakura, bamboo, and maple—are now sources for trade. The cedar that overwhelms such towns has caused a severe allergy epidemic, which now affects over ten percent of the Japanese population. Instead of halting further woodland destruction to minimize the epidemic, The Forestry Agency resolves to develop a new low-pollen cedar tree and continue logging the native flora. The forced growth of cedar will resume, even as these trees struggle to prosper throughout the country. The heaviness of the cedar tree pictured emphasizes the gravity of this self-destruction. Although the tree functions as a utilitarian tool, it ultimately appears as a victim, made sick by the underlying conditions of human negligence and inconsideration.
The Royal Palms Shuffleboard Club, a self-proclaimed ‘Brooklyn Hipster Elite’ venue, is an institution that aims to transform the geriatric activity of shuffleboard into a trendy pastime. Made-for-Instagram photo opportunities adorn the space, with flamingo-themed wallpaper in the women’s bathroom and flamingo-themed backdrops near the adjacent food trucks. Plastic flamingos are among the most popular lawn ornaments in the United States. These kitschy symbols of leisure and tropical paradise exemplify the commodification of nature’s appearance and resources. This artificial flock, adorned with glittering streamers, testifies to the physicalization of fantasy through the production of ideals. This self-serving representation of flamingos emphasizes the visual and material desire to codify wildlife into symbols and a larger singular mass, thus exploiting the appeal of nature for mass-production.
Antithetical to the loud and proud representation of flamingos at Brooklyn’s Royal Palms Shuffleboard Club, live flamingos at the Bronx Zoo hide their faces from harsh September sunlight and humidity. Unadorned and unidealized, these flamingos take on a meat-like quality resembling salmon-coloured slabs of raw beef. Less recognizable than their plastic counterparts, this image captures the birds for how they are rather than how they are desired, resisting the human fantasy of their actuality through their imperfect being.
Failure can be found in the imposter, a cheapened replication of reality that desperately tries to be what it is not. For eighteen years, an artificial tree towered over my childhood. I was born and raised in a house near the highway, where a poorly-disguised telephone pole presides over the skyline. No bird is fooled by its presence. The sight of it cannot be missed. This telephone pole dominates over the immediate landscape, unable to conceal itself or blend in with its environment, despite its best attempts. The aggressive omnipresence of this masqueraded object serves as a constant reminder of globalized human power. Although telephone poles signify a universal interconnectedness, this structure in particular stands awkward and alone, disconnected from its surroundings. By visualization alone, its artificiality proves incommensurate with the authentic trees situated below it. This telephone pole and the costume it wears indicates a hierarchical relationship between man and the environment, thus fostering a panoptic, anxiety-inducing existence through its similitude to the architecture of surveillance.