Responding to Global Warming: An Art World Perspective

Dozens of mothers, fathers, sons and daughters in the Philippine’s Compostela Valley desperately rushed toward cardboard boxes filled with food rations in the days following the December 2012 Typhoon Bopha, a severe natural disaster that resulted in the deaths of nearly 1,000 people, according to UK Reuters. 

Though the Typhoon Bopha may feel very far from the art world, the rising waters and destroyed homes are all too familiar, especially in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, which ravaged dozens of art galleries between 10th and 11th Avenues in Chelsea during the October 2012 storm. 

According to the Germanwatch 2013 Global Climate Risk Index, since 2000, England and Wales have experienced their wettest autumns since 1766, Europe and Western Russia the hottest summers in at least 500 years, and the Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East had their driest winters since 1902.

Artists have long held the responsibility of commenting on their current world environments, to serve as record keepers and critics of their contemporary societies. So how are artists dealing with today’s truly universal phenomenon of climate change and its effects on populations worldwide?

Amy Balkan’s 2004 Public Smog seeks to objectify the abstract concept of carbon credits by creating a conceptual park in the atmosphere, void of smog and fluctuating in size, form and location, based on the financial, legal and political activities surrounding the purchase of emissions offsets. Newton Harrison and Helen Mayer Harrison’s 2007- 2009 project, Greenhouse Britain is direct, proposing alternative landscapes and futures life realities in response to rising water levels and increased storm surges. A voice tells visitors, “The news is not good and it’s getting worse.” Tue Greenfort’s 2007 Exceeding 2 Degrees, made for the Sharjah Biennial, raised the temperature in the museum by two-degrees, directly confronting viewers with the near-future reality. Greenfort took his practice one step further, donating the money saved on air-conditioning to protect a rainforest in Ecuador. Brazilian artists Nele Azevedo’s 2010 Melting Man places 1000 small-scale ice sculptures of people on the stairs of a concert hall in Berlin, each one slowly melting until they collectively disappear.

As artists and art historians, we must ask, what are these works actually doing? Is the purpose to inspire action? Is the work itself saving the environment? Is it informative and is information enough? Should art even play a role in the discourse?

In T.J. Demos’ 2009 essay, The Politics of Sustainability: Contemporary Art and Ecology,” written for the Barbican Art Gallery exhibition Radical Nature: Art and Architecture for a Changing Planet 1969- 2009, Demos reminds his audience that the global warming terminology may be new, but the discourse is not. Haacke questioned water quality with his 1972 Rhinewater Purification Plant, Agnes Dean drew attention to “misplaced priorities and deteriorating human values” when she planted a wheat field in the middle of downtown Manhattan in 1982, and Joseph Beuys planted 7000 trees, each paired with a basalt stone column, throughout Kassel, Germany for Documenta 7 in 1982. His goal was to plant trees around the world as “part of a global mission to effect environmental and social change.”

Demos argues that although artworks concerning the environment may not help heal the planet, they “nonetheless remain urgent at this time.” As informative pieces that engage the public and evoke conversation, these works can provide visual language to a fairly abstract issue. Similar to questions of religion, those of the environment appear to be everywhere and nowhere at the same time.  And regardless of one’s personal stance, the discourse is ominously inescapable when the unknown is suspended above in a hemisphere that is crashing down at an alarming speed. Instead of turning an ambivalent eye, the perceptive and contemplative artist may recognize and choose to merge art with life, to attach an aesthetic to nature’s disruption undoubtedly shaking common ground.

Being in the nation’s capital, DC-based artists are at an incredibly advantageous position. They are able to seize opportunities to participate in and potentially shape the dialogue of not only private persons and their actions, but also the government, and its policies, concerning responses to climate change and to the victims of nature’s consequences, like those of the Philippines’ Typhoon Bopha.

DC street-artist Mark Jenkins has collaborated with Greenpeace to create an installation that placed polar bear heads on dirty human figures to elicit discomforting feelings of displacement and homelessness, an inevitable consequence of melting ice caps. Specialized museums such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science display telling photographs of barren desserts and disintegrating ice shelves in shows titled “Climate Change in Our World” and “Polar Thaw Climate Exhibit.”

But where are our supremely energetic, creative artists acting independently of NGOs and publicly funded research centers? It is time DC-based artists step up, confront the problem that is universally affecting, and ask themselves, ask their viewers, how can we, together, make a change in this truly global epidemic?

Bringing the Art in DC to You,

Roxanne Goldberg