CLIMATE CHANGE HAS ALREADY TRANSFORMED EVERYTHING ABOUT CONTEMPORARY ART

By William S. Smith

May 4, 2020 11:56am

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In New York 2140 (2017), sci-fi novelist Kim Stanley Robinson imagines cultural life in a city changed by the warming climate. Rising seas have flooded this future Gotham, transforming much of the five boroughs into an intertidal zone. The two great “pulses” that inundated downtown Manhattan and other low-lying areas had catastrophic effects on citizens of the former financial capital. The tides also ushered in a thriving, anarchic aqua-urbanism.

The former commercial gallery district in Chelsea is underwater, but artists have never had it better, even if they have to contend with mold in the hastily waterproofed squats they occupy in abandoned buildings around the city. According to one of Robinson’s narrators, the designation Artist, in fact, has become applicable to a wide range of citizens, not just an elite professional caste. New Yorkers prize an ethos of “art-not-work” and seek to realize a vast urban social sculpture: “a giant collaborative artwork; blue greens, amphibiguity, heterogeneticity, horizontalization, deoligarchification; also free open universities, free trade schools, and free art schools.”¹ In Robinson’s account, the dramatic physical transformation upends every social system—finance, education, healthcare, and culture—as new possibilities open up for workers and artists.

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New York 2140 offers a vivid projection of the future, but like all great science fiction, it encourages a speculative look at our own time. What would the bohemian residents of Robinson’s downtown SuperVenice district make of their antediluvian predecessors: artists who worked with an omnipresent awareness of a coming flood (or hurricane, or firestorm, or drought)?

In Robinson’s fiction, every aspect of life in waterlogged New York is saturated with the reality of the flood. Looking back from 2140, it may become apparent that cultural activity now is premised on conditions some of us take for granted: the mild climate, the habitable land, the seeming stability of our infrastructure. The view from the future could reveal that commerce, politics, and art are premised on life in an atmosphere hinging on a delicate balance of nitrogen and oxygen, and already contending with four hundred parts per million of carbon dioxide.

As a number of literary critics have recently noted, there is a dearth of serious novels that grapple with climate change, making Robinson something of an outlier. As novelist Amitav Ghosh argues in his nonfiction book The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (2016), “climate change casts a much smaller shadow within the landscape of literary fiction than it does even in the public arena.”² There is no comparable imbalance in the visual arts, where climate change has become a major subject for practitioners of every sort, from every part of the globe. Climate activists often describe the need for ways to visualize the crisis. Graphs and charts can transform hard evidence into abstractions, making it seem distant and unreal. Mass insect die-offs can be recorded in excruciating mathematical detail, and every inch of a glacier’s retreat meticulously documented. But few of these changes are perceptible in everyday life, complicating the task of persuading people to change their routines, much less advocate for far-reaching policies that could actually mitigate catastrophic effects.

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Olafur Eliasson and Minik Rosing: Ice Watch, 2014, the extraction of twelve ice blocks in Nuuk, Greenland, 2015.PHOTO GROUP GREENLAND.

Artists have taken up the challenge of creating symbols potent enough to break through into public consciousness. In 2014 Olafur Eliasson and his collaborator, geologist Minik Rosing, shipped blocks of ice cast off an ice sheet in Greenland to a public square in Copenhagen. (He repeated the project in London and Paris.) Titled Ice Watch, the work “raises awareness of climate change by providing direct and tangible experience of the reality of melting arctic ice,” according to an artist’s statement. The project establishes an attention-grabbing contrast between the natural world (the fjord where the ice chunks were harvested) and the bustling center of the Danish capital. The image of glacier ice in the streets surrounded by ordinary residents is stunning, but the force of that image, its ability to shock, is predicated on the assumed separateness of the natural and civic worlds. When the ice melts, nature goes back to its realm and city life resumes. Eliasson has made a group of people aware of a problem with nature, but the very strangeness of Ice Watch, its spectacular presence, ultimately does little more than reaffirm how remote this idea of nature is from everyday life.

Artworks designed to raise awareness about climate change have their own blind spots. The global art system is carbon intensive: shipped around the world to venues that art world nomads fly to visit, activist climate art often risks unintentional irony with the emission-producing transport it entails. The strongest works aimed at visualizing the impending crisis also foreground the systems that bring together art and audience. Michael Wang creates sculptural representations of the amount of carbon dioxide generated in the production of monumental artworks like Richard Serra’s torqued steel sculptures and even some of Eliasson’s projects. Wang’s minimalist objects, scaled to approximate the relevant weight of carbon point to processes of carbon-intensive production integral to the art world.³

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Ellie Ga: Gyres 1-3, 2019, two-channel video; in the Whitney Biennial.COURTESY BUREAU, NEW YORK. BOTTOM: PHOTO PAULA COURT.

Among the many recent exhibitions about art and climate change, the more self-critical tend to be those that take the longer historical view. The travelling exhibition, “Nature’s Nation: American Art and the Environment,” which debuted at Princeton University in 2018, and “A Wilderness Distant from Ourselves: Art and Ecology in 19th-Century America,” now closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, but originally slated to be on view at the Addison Gallery in Andover, Massachusetts, through July 31, showed that American artists have long participated in the nation’s politicized representation of the natural world, from the colonial era to the present. Alvan Fisher, a pioneer of landscape painting in the United States, created works like Covered Wagons in the Rockies (1837), included in “A Wilderness Distant from Ourselves,” in tandem with settlers moving West. As environmental law scholar Jedediah Purdy writes, such imagery resonated with attempts to forge an American consciousness: “Conquest, expansion, and fantasies about a people’s identity becoming inseparable from the fertile and dark depths of its land ran together throughout the nineteenth century.”4 Far from a remote “other,” nature has been defined by cultural activity, with the shifting image of the natural world used to justify the exploitation of natural resources, mythical ideas about nationhood, notions of God’s will, and aggressive economic growth.

Exhibitions that take historical views also provide a glimpse of how these processes have been resisted over time, particularly by Indigenous people. “Climate in Crisis: Environmental Change in the Indigenous Americas,” scheduled to be on view at the Brooklyn Museum through January 10, 2021, is a cross-cultural display of objects dating from antiquity to the present. Some of the pieces feature depictions of traditional food production, while others visually reflect today’s activism. A sperm whale tooth engraved by a nineteenth-century Alaska Native artist, for example, shows Indigenous hunting and fishing techniques that sustain human life within an ecosystem without necessarily seeking control over it.

In exhibitions of contemporary art, the “Anthropocene” has become a cliché, folded into the usual mix of art jargon. Recent exhibition titles that include as subtitle some variation of “art and climate change” or “art and the Anthropocene” are too numerous to list. The rhetorical construction alone is telling. Framing the climate as a distinct concept for art, another notion to explore, creates an illusion of intellectual distance. But the reality of climate change isn’t a topic for some art to address; rather, it is a historical condition that informs all contemporary art.

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Las Nietas de Nonó: Illustrations of the Mechanical, 2019, performance; in the Whitney Biennial.

This broadly defined relationship between art and climate change suggests a critical methodology. The implications of ecological upheaval are evident everywhere, but seeing them can be a matter of knowing where and how to look. In literary studies, the term “ecocriticism” has gained currency to describe this approach. Applied to the visual arts, ecocriticism could highlight artworks and exhibitions beyond those that include explicit climate-related content to produce strong countervailing readings of seemingly familiar projects. For example, what would it mean to describe the 2019 Whitney Biennial as an exhibition about climate change? Few, if any, of the many critics who responded to the show foregrounded ecological concerns. The major interpretations of the exhibition emphasized the diversity of the included artists and its political context: protests against board member Warren B. Kanders, whose investments include armament firms. But viewed through an ecocritical lens, the show was marked by climate crisis.

Some works in the show did make explicit reference to the effects of a changing climate. Josh Kline presented a series of images of major financial institutions and government buildings that appeared to be flooding: a pump system fed water into the plastic frames that encased the images. Ellie Ga’s hypnotic narrative video described the vast floating fields of trash in the ocean. But ecological crisis was also in the background throughout the show, subtly manifest in the scavenged organic materials of Daniel Lind-Ramos’s sculptures and the striking human/plant hybrid creatures in Korakrit Arunanondchai’s surreal filmic meditation.

The ambient presence of ecological concerns was most apparent in a remarkable performance by Las Nietas de Nonó, two sisters from a working-class area of Carolina, Puerto Rico. Ilustraciones de la Mecánica (Illustrations of the Mechanical) began as a reenactment of a brutal gynecological operation, a scene informed by the history of medical research conducted on Puerto Rican women. After this intense episode, the curtains defining the initial performance area were removed, and viewers found themselves in a large open space surrounded by a forest of potted plants interspersed with stands displaying smartphones and other digital devices. Botanical life was both present in the space and represented on the screens of the devices, along with shots of the Puerto Rican landscape, as the sisters enacted a kind of cleansing ritual in an Afrofuturistic setting. “Nature” appeared as neither an idyllic alternative to everyday human experience nor as a site to be controlled and exploited. The experience culminated with the performers distributing bowls of stew to everyone in attendance. The overall performance represented ecology as inextricable from questions of social justice, technology, and gendered violence. “Climate art,” in this case, wasn’t about awareness in an abstract sense, but about embedding that awareness in other, powerful feelings, from horror to comfort to belonging in a community.

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An engraved whale tooth by an Alaska Native artist, late 19th century, black ash or graphite on sperm whale tooth, 6 1/2 by 3 by 2 inches; in “Climate Crisis: Environmental Change in the Indigenous Americas” at the Brooklyn Museum.BROOKLYN MUSEUM.

In addition to addressing climate change or symbolizing its effects, artwork can embody ways of thinking about and coping with the environment. The prevalence of assemblage work in the biennial—by Robert Bittenbender, Eric N. Mack, and Joe Minter, among others—highlighted an approach to art-making grounded in recycling. Assemblage represents a way of working with the environment that’s not exploitative, projecting a sense of reclamation and repurposing rather than consumption.

Among those works in the show with a topical political agenda, the most iconic was Forensic Architecture’s video about the widespread use in conflicts around the globe of teargas produced by Kanders’s company. But we should not overlook the fact that the border violence, mass displacements, and struggles for resources depicted in the work are ultimately climate issues—and sure to intensify in the coming decades. The video, as well as the protests and boycotts that targeted the museum, offered evidence of the institution’s precarity in one sense: Kanders resigned to preserve its stability and bankability. In a more literal way, the museum is physically at risk: the structure includes an expensive system of flood walls to handle the inevitable encroachment of the Hudson. Viewed from the future, this is the context for any show at the Whitney: it is not merely a white cube, but a building designed to be a fortress against the rising waters.

This ecocritical approach, highlighting climate change as the ground on which all cultural activities occur, can provide deeper insights into the practices of some of the most prominent artists. Since the 1980s, John Akomfrah has made films about social justice and racial disparity, but his recent video installations, including Purple (2017), focus on environmental degradation and the exploitation of the oceans. Similarly, the work of video artist Hito Steyerl examines the politics of digital culture and the social ramifications of technology, but one of the largest projects she’s realized over the past year have featured botanical imagery: lush flowers produced by artificial intelligence algorithms and shown on arrays of screens. This could herald an “ecological turn,” in which artists with diverse practices suddenly seem to have focused their attention on the climate crisis. But what actually may be happening is that the ecological implications of long-established practices are becoming clearer.

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View of Marta Rosler’s exhibition “Passionate Signals,” 2020, at the Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society, Chicago.PHOTO ROBERT HEISHMAN.

In a recent exhibition at the Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society in Chicago, Martha Rosler presented photographs and films depicting flowers and gardens. The subject matter could have been mistaken for a departure in her work; Rosler is best known for her politicized collages, in which images of victims of war and poverty intrude on depictions of lavish interiors culled from home decor magazines. Yet she has been producing floral images for decades as an extension of her interest in representations of gender and domesticity. For Rosler, tidy kitchens and stylish stylish living rooms are outward manifestations of systemic gender roles. In the garden, such social constraints are intertwined with the natural world, which is presented as something to be admired for its innocuous beauty but also managed and controlled. Just as geopolitical violence surrounds the space of the home in her collages, climate crisis, social struggles, and economic inequities permeate the tended garden. These concerns extend to urban spaces and parks. The interviews and photographs featured in her Greenpoint Project (2011) document the gentrification of her Brooklyn neighborhood, a process in which access to green space is often contested. The work builds on themes evident in her video The Garden Spot of the World: Greenpoint, Brooklyn (1993), which highlights both the neighborhood’s history as a dumping ground for toxins and offers strategies for its working-class residents to fight back. Before climate change became a global rallying cry for activists, Rosler was making work about the class and gender politics of environmental justice.

Since the 1970s, Joan Jonas has employed pastoral imagery in her work, even when employing video and what was once called new media. Her pivotal video I Want to Live in the Country (And Other Romances), 1976, intercuts scenes of Nova Scotia with representations of city life. Rather than upholding the contrast between these two spheres, as Eliasson does, Jonas has worked over the last four decades to show how the ecological world should undergird our thinking about culture. This interest in allowing nature and culture to bleed into each other (“Custom is a second nature,” the old adage goes) is most evident in her signature live performance technique of dancing, manipulating props, and creating drawings in front of large projections. For Reanimation (2010), she showed shots of the Icelandic landscape as she spoke about the country’s myths and literary traditions, which have long been informed by the omnipresence of glaciers.

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Joan Jonas: Moving Off the Land, 2019, performance, at Ocean Space, Chiesa di San Lorenzo, Venice.COURTESY TBA21–ACADEMY/PHOTO MOIRA RICCI.

In her work Moving Off the Land (2019), presented most recently at the 2019 Venice Biennale, Jonas performed in front of aquatic imagery. Wearing the kind of loose-fitting white clothes that have been part of her stage costume since the 1970s, she appeared to be immersed in a world of sea life. If the setting evoked an imminent flood, Jonas’s work seemed to celebrate the birth of a new mode of existence rather than lament an old one. She used props to interact with the animals on-screen and painted schematic drawings of sea creatures that would serve well in magical rituals meant to establish ties between humans and other life-forms: pointing to a way of being beyond the Anthropocene. Jonas avoids narrowing the role of art to making a point about the climate. Her evocations of myth and ritual instead bespeak a much larger range of experience upon which climate touches.

“The future has crashed into the present, and everyone who’s willing to look can see what we’re headed for,” Robinson wrote in a recent op-ed.5 He meant it as a call to action, a catalyst for economic policies that might limit carbon emissions. But there’s an important lesson for art and art criticism as well: the future defined by an altered climate is already permeating the work of the present. In New York 2140, Robinson wisely avoids pinning down details of what art might look like more than a hundred years on, but he does establish some continuities. Art world denizens still listen to the Velvet Underground, talk about Abstract Expressionism, and marvel at the prestigious Marina Abramović Institute, whose headquarters is adorned with spires useful for docking the blimps that serve as a transportation network. But here is one thing Robinson certainly got wrong. In 2140, Jonas, with her mythic mode of expressing the evolutionary link between all life and the sea, and not the spectacle-obsessed Abramović, would be the patron saint of a flooded New York. Indeed, Jonas’s art anticipates the vision of city life as a giant, teeming, social sculpture.

Kim Stanley Robinson, New York 2140, New York, Orbit, 2017, ebook location 3240.
Amitav Ghosh, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2016, p. 7.
See Michael Wang and Nick Lutsko, “Modeling Climate Change,” Art in America, March 2020, pp. 16–18.
Jedediah Purdy, After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene, Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 2015, p. 184–85.
Kim Stanley Robinson, “To Slow Down Climate Change, We Need to Take on Capitalism,” BuzzFeed News, Nov. 16, 2018, buzzfeednews.com.

This article appears under the title “Climate Changes Everything in the May 2020 issue, pp. 28–33.


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