Be fruitful and increase in number;
fill the earth and subdue it.

~ Genesis 1:28 (New International Version)



God’s very first command to humankind was a resounding directive from which we were surely to reap total environmental ruin.

So I endeavoured to recreate a figure of Adam that would re-express what perhaps should have been the first human perceptions of the ecosystem. Not in the self-serving terms of dominance, ownership, and control, but rather as a symbiotic, interconnected coexistence with all other life on this planet.

It is not without irony, that the creation of this particular piece was to be my demise.

As I searched the natural world for the materials for his construction, I began to explore the evolutionary relationship of our anatomy to the primordial ocean. Representations of our elemental structures revealed themselves everywhere, mirrored, in whole or in part, in cast off remains – the shells and bones that I was collecting.

And for Adam, it was the beautiful striations and colours of the Atlantic blue mussels that were to so wonderfully replicate his muscle fibre.

But little did I know that the mussels were going to impart an urgent message, their last testament, and bequeath to me the agony of their once existence.

These acquiescing bivalves were filter feeders. Trapped in their polluted habitats, and forced to feed in our massively poisoned waters, they had bio-accumulated heavy metals. And as I began to grind and shape the shells to form his body, I too began to accumulate. Lead, arsenic, cadmium, manganese… The injury was extensive. I sustained devastating neurological and metabolic damage, severe hearing loss, and crippling mental health, before my medical practitioners were finally able to identify the poisoning. I will never recover.




My body is now a blundering obstacle where my painful, injured nerves and joints cause my hands to fumble as I push forward to prepare my art. I am impeded by spatial and cognitive confusion and can no longer imagine what a piece looks like turned or shifted one way or another. I have trouble placing parts together and make so many confused mistakes. And I struggle to remember what the inspired delight of creation once felt like.

My ears overwhelm me with deafening noise. It roars like the ocean but at a terrible pitch. At night I long for the peaceful darkness to relieve me for a time. But the cover of night is a shroud in tatters. Every morning I resurrect from its last few remnants of elusive sleep and often weep, wondering how I will rise to another day. And even my despair is not to be trusted, tainted by the poison of my damaged mental health. I am exhausted.

Confined by chronic illness and disability, I have now, only a solitary introspective journey to try to make peace with the failures of my body and comprehend what has become of my life.

I was damaged by the toxic residues of human progress and my body now carries a painful message about the poisoning of this earth. Perhaps I am now a fragile place, a rupture in the artificial barrier that separates humanity from the natural world, where the suffering of this fractured earth, an avalanche beneath our surface, breaks through me to make itself known. Perhaps an invisible sea shell has cupped itself to my ears, filling my mind with an immensity of sound from distant waters eerily receded.

Perhaps when we listen quietly to the hurts of our bodies and the pain in our hearts, when we look deep into our psyche, we can hear the voice of the natural world. It’s its joys, and suffering and the roar of impending catastrophe.




Adam was magnificent.

With his structure and vital organs represented by the remains of other living creatures, we can find not only our symbiotic connection to the ecosystem, but also “Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” (Ernst Haeckel) – that our own cellular development echoes the history of evolution and that all stages of all life are contained within us.

His heart, made from a delicate brachiopod, contains an opal (symbolizing hope) seated where the shell’s inhabitant once resided, as the hopes and dreams of another creature now lost, merge to fill his heart. His brain contains a butterfly pupa as he is transforming. And his passion and our continuance is expressed when a key inserted in his rectum causes his penis to pop up in full erection.

He propels us onwards and inwards through his visceral deconstruction, as we make a subliminal descent to our primordial base, revealing our destiny, inextricably bound to all life on the planet.




I continue to search for the cast off remains of our endangered natural world, with which to make my art. More thoughtful now, of what their existence might have been. More careful now, with my approach.

But when I close my eyes, I am combing an exposed seabed, with its inhabitants gasping to breathe. And I contemplate the amplitude of an imminent second wave.




This is part of ROT, a section of The Learned Pig exploring multispecies creativity through modest tales of collaboration and coexistence amidst world-ending violence and disorder. ROT is conceived and edited by Julia Cavicchi.


The Learned Pig


Gillian Genser

Gillian Genser is a Canadian environmental artist and writer. She studied fine arts at the University of Alberta, Pratt Institute and the Art Student’s League in New York City, and earned a degree in Computer Science from the University of Toronto. She currently resides in Toronto, where she has been a working artist for nearly 30 years. In 2018-19 she received international attention when the story of her art and her poisoning went viral in the international press. Through her work, she continues to examine the impact of humanity on the global ecology, and the reciprocal impact of environmental injury upon our social world.