Staying with the trouble requires learning to be truly present, not as a vanishing pivot between awful or edenic pasts and apocalyptic or salvific futures, but as mortal critters entwined in myriad unfinished configurations of places, times, matters, meanings.—Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene1
What does it mean to be a body, to exist as a biological entity? Much human energy over the past millennia has been focused on distinguishing ourselves from other forms of life. Clearly, there is something unique about us among living creatures—at least those that we are aware of. Yet, science tells us that all living beings are ultimately made of the same stardust that exploded into the universe during the Big Bang and, at least on Earth, emerged from the same primordial soup that gave rise to the first single-celled creatures. Indeed, not so long ago, each of us was a single cell before that cell split and doubled again and again until eventually transforming into something recognizably human. We were all once microscopic beings, and each of our bodies will one day be broken back down into its component molecules to become part of something or someone else. While our impulse might often be to disavow or disguise our material, embodied nature, Laura Arminda Kingsley’s works in a range of media direct our attention toward the physical matter of which we—no less than a protozoan—are composed. Her recent practice meditates on the origins of life, the processes of evolution, and the potentials of one kind of organism to transform into another.
Born in Ohio in 1984 to Dominican parents, Kingsley was raised in Santo Domingo, capital of the Dominican Republic. Despite growing up in a large city, from early life she was surrounded by a kaleidoscope of living forms. Her father, a veterinarian, also trained horses, raised dozens of fighting roosters in the backyard, and grew organic cacao on a farm he owns outside the city. Kingsley spent nearly every weekend on the farm, which had no electricity and was dotted by tiny hills, niches of ecosystem mostly undisturbed by human activity and inhabited by lizards and birds of every variety. She became fascinated with the natural world, collecting butterflies and beetles, reading science books, and watching documentaries on the Discovery Channel. When Jurassic Park (directed by Steven Spielberg) was released in 1993, Kingsley watched it over and over, becoming increasingly interested in paleontology and evolution. She moved to New York City in 2004 to study at Hunter College, and in a course on Human Anthropology was introduced to how scientists engage in speculative theories, testing out multiple possible explanations for the paths biology has taken. In addition, she found that the study of hominid evolution elegantly negated all scientific basis for the racial categorizations that she was often forced to confront. As she pursued her MFA at California College of the Arts, she found inspiration for her art in the liberating perspectives offered by evolutionary science; in particular, its reconsideration of the hierarchical thinking that elevates one human grouping above another—or that privileges human beings at the expense of all other living species.
In her works, Kingsley tends to put disparate forms together in one body or one pictorial plane, a move that reflects the way bits of different prehistoric species have found their way into our morphology. For instance, our spines likely derive from an ancient snake-shaped fish called Pikaia gracilens. “Without the fossil record,” she notes, “we might never have known of this kindred-ness with different life forms.”2 And yet, her work is not ahistorical. Each piece contains references to the specific lineages and cultures at the nexus point of which her own embodied self has coalesced. Significantly in this regard, her thinking was formed not only in her engagement with nature but also in the culturally and genetically diverse environment of the Dominican Republic. She says,
Almost everything is in my heritage. My mother and grandmother could cook dishes from at least five different cultures. I have African and African American heritage and strongly identify with the cultural heritage of the Taino, the original Indigenous people on the island, but some of my Spanish ancestors may have contributed to the disappearance of Taino culture. I am aware of this. Once you really understand the plurality of diasporic cultures, you become less attached to exclusive notions of cultural identity.
As a Dominican American artist now living in the German-speaking part of Switzerland, where she moved in 2014, working within a culture quite distinct from the ones she has previously inhabited and in which she is often a visibly anomalous presence, the complexities of cultural plurality are something she encounters daily. However, Kingsley is driven by her curiosity to learn from others, to discover more about how other people live and think, to understand more about what it means to be a homo sapiens sapiens alive at this moment in time. “When people ask me where I’m from,” she says, “which people [in Switzerland] often do when you look like me, I can’t help but reflect that I am more interested in the question, ‘Where are we from?’”
In Symmetries (2021), a series of six prints on aluminum, Kingsley imagines new forms recognizable as possible life precisely because of their symmetry. In each image appears what might be a microorganism or a giant deep-sea creature displayed against indigo like a scientific specimen. The pale blue with hints of translucence suggests that we may be looking at a radiographic image of an existing creature, yet knowledge of biology undercuts this reading. Symmetries I, for instance, suggests a fungal being, with splayed lobes like the “wood ears” that grow along the trunks of trees combined with plantlike tendrils and tentacles suggesting a mollusk. Symmetries II takes the form of what might be an insectoid head but covered with striped, bulbous growths. Meanwhile, the creature in Symmetries III is vaguely reminiscent of a wood louse, that common roly-poly “bug” that is in fact a form of crustacean, but with tusk-like protrusions and a body rippled like a mammalian brain rather than an armored shell. Other prints in the series incorporate shapes and patterns that conjure seashells, corals, or succulents. Sections of each image also suggest a vulva, that intimate place from which new living bodies/beings sometimes emerge from another. The greatest implausibility of these as photographic traces of actual life forms, however, is located in the oft-delayed recognition of human faces and appendages within these strange bodies. As with many optical illusions, lingering on these images leads to a perceptual shift as, for example, when the insectoid head in Symmetry II reveals its (literal) incorporation of a human nose. In other prints, mirrored faces protrude on either side of these “creatures,” which might be our remote biological ancestors or our distant descendants still carrying our genetic code in vestigial form.
In another series of works entitled Murmurs of the Deep (2020–present), paintings, sculptures, and videos further explore the unknown potentials of biological mutation. The “deep” here might refer to the depths of the ocean, deep space, or the deep time of evolution, while “murmurs” suggests the limits of our comprehension regarding the ancient messages encoded in bodies and genes. In the acrylics on canvas, we see human faces incorporated into what might be a coral reef or a configuration of objects in outer space. The bluish hues here suggest less an X-ray than a luminous celestial array or the bioluminescent glow of a submerged realm. Human eyes, tongues, and nostrils, though recognizable, are transformed into part of an elaborate and unfamiliar scene that evokes an inaccessible, mythological temporality. In 2021, two composites of these paintings were printed at large scale on vinyl and installed on the underside of the escalators of the Leadenhall Building in London, which allowed viewers to wander beneath them while peering up at these mysterious, otherworldly behemoths.
Two sculptures in the series, which each bear the subtitle I Remember Being You, suggest a human torso undergoing mitosis, like a single cell replicating itself through division into two. However, the clearly articulated neck, shoulders, skull, and ears imply an adult body dividing. On one hand, these sculptures can be read as an allusion to human cloning, a technology that has become increasingly plausible, along with its attendant ethical and ontological disruptions. On the other hand, these pieces can also be seen as a resumption of a process that we all endured once before we had memories, before there was a self or an other, an I or a You. Indeed, the subtitle reminds us that our bodies were once inseparable from our biological mothers’ bodies, although the sculpture’s form also points to the specific experience of being an identical twin, knowing that you and another human being were once the same cell. Moreover, while the patterns here are similar to the lines of bodies and faces in the paintings, they also directly reference Dickinsonia costata, the earliest fossilized animal known to science, a 600-million-year-old trace of the very first being that can arguably be regarded as an “animal.”
The moving image is perhaps the medium most suited to the questions Kingsley is asking; evolution, at its fundament, is about change, which is to say, time. In her video Murmurs of the Deep VIII (2021), she transforms her own paintings through excision, reorganization, and animation, thereby generating the sensation of encountering life—or, perhaps, liveliness. To create the video, Kingsley first took high-resolution photos of the acrylics discussed above, divided them into components, and digitally rearranged these components into collages “meant to look like dynamic clumps of life/living forms.” She then experimented with effects to create the illusion of forms emerging, growing, contracting: ceaselessly changing, but always maintaining their bilateral symmetry. In consequence, they appear like “organisms” that have taken on a morphological trajectory of their own. As the loop begins, shapes start to emerge from darkness, slowly swelling into complex symmetrical formations—again incorporating human faces—that then float across the screen accompanied by the sound of burbling water. Creatures similar to those in Symmetries blossom into being before our eyes as this video imagines how life might transpire along different lines, an alternative evolution that integrates human features without their expected function. As in Symmetries, scale here is undecidable; we could be watching these beings through a microscope or a telescope. And while the video begins with emergence and ends with submergence, the fact that it loops suggests the endless process of creation and destruction, coming into being and disappearing, one thing continuously turning into something else. Identity is not static. Nothing is.
This restless, never-ending transformation characterizes not only biology but also culture, which is also always mutating, merging, splitting, and thereby producing novel configurations. In this regard, Kingsley draws on her hybrid cultural heritage to construct a vocabulary of both figuration and abstraction not limited to the Eurocentric one highlighted in her formal art education. Growing up in the Dominican Republic, she frequently encountered Taino sculptures, made nearby but thousands of years earlier, and was drawn to their fluid merging of seemingly disparate human body parts, landscape features, and nonhuman animals. When she later discovered Ife sculpture from Nigeria, she realized that her own visual sense had as many connections to these two ancient, non-Western art practices as to her favorite European artists: Hieronymus Bosch, Francisco de Goya, and Auguste Rodin. Studying the works of artists as temporally and geographically disparate as Hokusai, Wifredo Lam, H. P. Lovecraft, and Ana Mendieta, Kingsley further developed her own visual language of transforming bodies entangled in and inextricably part of the fabric of the material world.
This includes, of course, the artist’s own body. For a series of photographic self-portraits entitled Diabla (She-Devil) (2017–20), Kingsley created a transparent plastic head that evokes the Diablos Cojuelos, or Dominican carnival devils. Traditionally, this costume allows the wearer—almost always a man—to do as he likes, ignoring social convention in favor of unrestrained instinct. As a woman, Kingsley’s act of putting on this mask poses questions about what is permissible for or demanded of particular human bodies, suggesting that such permissions and demands—like DNA—are open to mutation. Perhaps, she indicates, we—as individuals, as societies, as a species—can still change before it is too late.
Donna Haraway’s work has helped retheorize the relation of the human animal to the nonhuman animal, allowing us to recognize that we are just one of the many millions of species living together on this planet, our lives intertwined, and all mortally threatened by climate change. This recognition requires taking seriously the existential right of other living beings (their right to be just as much as we), closely studying them and actually trying to imagine their experiences, their phenomenological encounters with the world. In Haraway’s formulation, the nonhuman creatures with which we interact are not our inferiors but our “companion species.” She calls the attempt to grapple with the moral and practical implications of this realization—without succumbing to despair in the face of climate threats—“staying with the trouble.” The synergy I read between Kingsley and Haraway reflects a broader response to the astonishing scientific discoveries of the past few centuries: a (renewed) sense of awe at the very fact of Being, of the existence of Life and our being a (material) part of it. I have been finding this at work across the arts and philosophies. Kingsley, like Haraway, envisions a belief system that values but does not overvalue the human, a genuinely better form of social organization that includes the nonhuman as well. Is there still time for a new epistemology to emerge, for a new Enlightenment?
Kingsley describes herself as an optimist for the same reason James Baldwin did: because there is no other (moral) option. Likewise, Haraway has not given up on humanity. She writes,
That attitude [fatalistic, apocalyptic thinking] makes a great deal of sense in the midst of the earth’s sixth great extinction event and in the midst of engulfing wars, extractions, and immiserations of billions of people and other critters for something called “profit” or “power”—or, for that matter, called “God.”3
But she offers hope in the gesture of “making kin”: with other humans and with other species. Haraway says, in a voice like a prophet, “We become-with each other or not at all.”4 Kingsley’s work stays with the trouble, helping us recognize our kinship with other living beings by reminding us of what we all were, are, and might still become.
Far from negating the possibility of powers beyond our understanding, the study of nature and its processes only deepens the sense of mystery, of the endless questions that the universe poses, only a few of which we have begun to give even the most partial of answers. We sometimes suppose we know a great deal, only to be reminded that we have but the faintest inkling of what we are and where we come from, let alone what we—or at least our molecules—might become in another billion years. Kingsley’s practice can be seen as a form of studied speculation about the place of the human within the vastness of time and space, within which our bodies are only momentary configurations of matter soon to be dispersed.
Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016), 1.
All quotations by Laura Arminda Kingsley are from an interview by the author via Zoom, April 17, 2023.
Haraway, Staying with the Trouble, 4.
Haraway, Staying with the Trouble, 4.