Environmentalist Art and Climate Change

Cape Farewell is an organization dedicated to pioneering a “cultural response to climate change.” They bring artists of all kinds together with scientists on expeditions to the High Arctic and other places to explore climate change. The trips are led by scientists doing research, and the artists follow, learning the facts and creating responses through art.

U-N-F-O-L-D is their latest exhibit, showing until December 15 at The New School for Design to show their work from trips to the High Arctic in 2007 and 2008 and to the Andes in 2009.

The exhibit aims to make visible the invisible, as the gallery observer and greeter, a BA/BFA student at The New School, explained to me.  He believes that the responsibility of activist artists (an identity he proudly claims) is to expose issues that are hard to see or hard to understand fully and bring them to the general public in ways that resonate deeply. David Buckland, the founder of Cape Farewell and one of the curators of U-N-F-O-L-D, describes his motivations for asking artists to address climate change in a video on Cape Farewell’s website:

Climate change is such a strange gray subject, an amorphous subject. You can’t go head on at it. And you understand it—oh, yeah, we got to do something about it, because the science says we have got to do something about it. But at the end of the day, it’s a cultural responsibility. It’s the way we live that is causing climate change.

The Exhibition

The strength of the exhibition was in its diversity, both in the variety of responses to the issue of climate change and in their presentation. The variety of media (including media that required advanced technology) made the exhibit hopeful. It was saying, “Look! we have a problem. But look also at the incredible creativity displayed here. We are creative enough to be able to rethink this and make real change.”

Visual Art

Adrienne Colburn’s “Forest for the Trees” was featured prominently across from the entrance. It is a floor to ceiling installation of paper cuts, prints and metal, “a meditation on the complex relationship between nature and industry; sustained land vs. commodified land; matter on the surface of the earth vs. the matter below ground; the morphing of the forest into an industrial landscape; and the fine lines between use and exploitation” (artist’s statement). It seemed that some of the paint of the forest floor had been applied directly to the wall, which added another dimension to it—the wall and therefore the building became part of the piece: What does it mean to be making art about the relationship between nature and industry in a building in the middle of Manhatten?

Clare Twoney, Specimen (Un-fired China Clay) 2009

Specimen is made of unfired China Clay flowers. Because they are unfired, they are extremely fragile and have been falling apart as they move from installation to installation.

David Buckland, The Great White Sale(Photographic Print, Perspex Mounted) Text by Amy Balkin 2008

The artist’s statement reads, “These images are made in a short window of time when the power of the video projector matches the light of dawn, when there is both message and ice. This fleeting moment of human excess is so short, two hundred years, but for the glacier it is barely a single breath taken.” The art emphasizes the liminality of this moment in history and therefore the urgency of it.

Other Media

Shiro Takatani, Ice Core(Media Installation) 2005

“Ice Core” showed scrolling photographs of parts of an ice core drilled in 2005 at Dome Fuji in Antarctica. The ice itself was beautiful and showed the little air bubbles that scientists use to understand carbon cycling. It created an interesting interplay between the beauty of this ice and its utility for science.

This video of Lemn Sissay performing “What If?” played nonstop in the corner of the exhibit. Its strong beats created a sense of urgency and rhythm for the entire exhibit, and by the time I left, I had memorized most of the words, which can be found here.

Another interesting piece showed a diamond on the head of a pin. The plaque said that the diamond has been made using a special process from the carbon of a polar bear bone. The gallery observer pointed it out to me saying, “so it asks the question: Which is more important or valuable, the polar bear or the diamond?”

“The instability is where artists belong”

David Bucknell understands the collaboration between artists and scientists as making perfect sense—artists like societal transitions, and that is what is necessary here. He says that if you sees this as a challenge for how to advance in a new, sustainable way, that means a shift and “if you get a shift, you can always find an artist in that place, because that’s their territory. They like it when it is unstable and exciting going forward.” The scientists tell us that we have a problem, and the artists ask the questions about envisioning and creating inspiration for the future.