Elise Rasmussen’s “Year Without a Summer” took her to multiple continents and into the creation of one of Western literature’s best-known books—Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818). The artist’s research-based project joins personal experience, cultural history, and scientific discovery into a surprising, layered narrative. Speaking from Los Angeles, Rasmussen shares how she weaves disparate artistic and ecological threads together with a perspective afforded by the Covid-19 pandemic. “Year Without a Summer” will be on view at Toronto’s G44 Centre for Contemporary Photography from July 21 to August 21, and its titular film will screen at Night Gallery in Los Angeles on July 30.
NEWSPAPERS REPORTED it could be the end of the world. Borders closed. Mobs tried to steal all the bread, and people wrote recipes for how to prepare foraged meals. The 1815 Mount Tambora volcanic eruption in Indonesia shifted European weather and forced Mary Shelley to sequester indoors for the summer of 1816 on Lake Geneva. While she was stuck inside with her husband, Percy Shelley, and Lord Byron, John Polidori, and Clare Clairmont, a writing contest led to the creation of Frankenstein.
Caspar David Friedrich’s landscapes and the skies of Turner change in this period. Here was an environmental anomaly, but nobody knew the cause until 150 years later. I made “The Year Without a Summer” in 2019, thinking in part about climate change and the environment. With Covid, there are new connections: We all had to stay hunkered down indoors, watching the impact of an ecological crisis spread from one part of the world to another.
Travel is a major part of my work. I’ll usually research for a good year or so, and then I physically put myself into the environment. Inhabiting the location becomes a big factor because I try to allow my experience to permeate what I’m seeing. The two-day hike up Mount Tambora was a lot more grueling than I expected. No tourists really go to the island of Sumbawa. I’ve traveled a lot, but I don’t think I’ve ever been anywhere where there really aren’t any tourists. Witnessing was special in that way, but there was also a discomfort, thinking about my privilege as a white visitor and the imperial origins of travel photography. The camera is my medium, and it’s something that I love, but it’s also fraught with this history.
The exhibition includes photographs where I play with these two places—Tambora and Geneva—trying to collide the two together to create a new world. The hanging silk cyanotypes of In the atmospheric distance between you and the mountains, 2020, mimic the layered feeling of the La Becque mountainscape. On both sides of the world, where they felt worlds apart, 2020, is a C-print triptych made up of images from both locations put together so a line connects them like one landscape. Another large C-print, Lake Geneva, 2020, is framed on the wall with Mount Tambora, 2020, a pigment print on transparency film mounted on Plexi, hanging in front. These are two different settings, but when you look through the Tambora view, you see Lake Geneva. When you’re standing at just the right point in the room, the horizons line up and melt into one image.
The film The Year Without a Summer, 2020, is set in a contemporary moment, but I wanted there to be a temporal confusion, a sense of groundlessness. I shot 16-mm on a windup Swiss Bolex camera that holds only about three minutes of film, which limited the time I could shoot. It’s a beautiful medium, making some footage feel almost like a home movie. Working at the La Becque artist residency, I wasn’t sure how to re-create Mary and her circle. I thought maybe I would find actors to play the characters I wanted, until I looked around the residency and realized: Here we are, a group of artists, in this space for a period of time with all the collaboration that goes on naturally. During my stay, I ended up fracturing my hip from a combination of running and hiking too much. That created another set of limitations because I was very much forced to stay at the residency instead of traveling around Switzerland. I ended up having surgery later, and I have metal in my legs, so I became bionic, not unlike Shelley’s creature-monster. I’m forever physically changed from it.
This piece is my most overtly personal because I do comment on my own experience, both the hiking of Mount Tambora and then the three months I spent on Lake Geneva, which is the same period of time that Mary Shelley spent there. I was interested in the story of Mary herself. I think that we can connect through personal stories as a way to understand history beyond the cerebral realm. As Mary was making the creature, she had at the forefront of her mind the loss of her own mother in childbirth, the death of her firstborn, and being a young mother to her second child. Motherhood and birth are interwoven in her book as in my piece. Another theme layered throughout the film is the romanticism of the lone wanderer, but then, on the flip side, there’s the loneliness. The characters in Frankenstein—Dr. Frankenstein, Walton, the narrator, the creature—all have those qualities.
Claire Clairemont, Mary Shelley’s stepsister, is the one person I give a voice to in the film. We hear her thoughts and reflections through the multichannel audio. She was really a renegade in her day, and I became fascinated by her. She didn’t want to subscribe to society and its rules, and I think that she suffered for it in the end. She went after what she wanted. That summer, Claire wanted Lord Byron, and instead of waiting around for him to take notice of her, she plotted, sought him out and persuaded him to go to Lake Geneva. Byron, Percy Shelley, and Mary Shelley all became celebrated figures. Claire didn’t. She was instrumental in bringing Mary and Percy Shelley to Lord Byron, but in a way, she’s this person that history forgot. Without her, Frankenstein wouldn’t have happened. She wasn’t the one doing the writing, but I think she was such a force behind the scenes. I wanted to give her a moment where she’s defiant and looks at the camera, as if to set the record straight.