Climate Change and Art September 27, 2019

Increasingly, artists are using their work as commentary on the effects and threats of climate change. History is filled with artists using their voice to affect society. 

For some, this means using empathy and emotion to try to reach people. For others, it’s an attempt to visualize for people what our future may look like if we don’t change course. 

“Only 5 per cent of us speak about [climate change] with any regularity. We need a cultural transformation to break that silence ― we need to offer diverse pathways into climate dialogue and action, including soft ones. Art is a crucial pathway because it works through emotion and the senses, and because it provokes without prescribing.”

Here, then, are seven artists taking on the subject of climate change.

1. ‘Ice Watch’ – Olafur Eliasson

Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson’s work involved transporting 12 blocks of ice that came from free-floating icebergs from the Greenland ice sheet. He arranged them in a clock formation to indicate the passing of time, as they slowly melt. 

His first installation was done in 2014 in Copenhagen. The second one was put on in Paris in 2015, to coincide with the United Nations Climate Change Conference. 

He firmly believes art has the power to make a difference.  “Just informing people, giving them knowledge, often leaves them feeling overwhelmed and disempowered. But a piece like ‘Ice Watch’ offers people an immediate experience of the reality of climate change. It is my hope that this encounter and the feelings it evokes can spur action and move worlds.”

2. “Unmoored” by Mel Chin

New York City is one of the most vulnerable cities facing sea level rises. By 2100, scientists predict sea levels could be up to 75 inches higher than they are today along the city’s coastline and estuaries.

Artist Mel Chin’s Times Square multimedia installation, entitled ‘Unmoored’, sought to show New Yorkers what their city might look like under water. A 60-foot high sculpture of a shipwreck sat in the square. While viewers used smartphones to see the underside of virtual ships floating far above their heads. 

3. ‘Mercy In the Storm’ – Allison Janae Hamilton 

On an island at Storm King Art Center, Mountainville, New York, are three stacks of tambourines all painted white. They form an installation by artist, Allison Janae Hamilton. The title comes from a 1928 hymn, ‘Florida Storm’. The song is about the Great Miami Hurricane of 1926, which devastated large parts of southern Florida, killing nearly 400 people. The piece also references the Okeechobee Hurricane of 1928, which claimed more than 2,500 lives in Florida and the Caribbean. “Through the narratives in my artwork,” says Hamilton, “I explore the changing climate as a palpable, human experience.”

4. ‘Before It’s Too Late ’ – Miami Artists’ Mural

Miami has been called the ground zero of climate change. By 2030, Miami sea levels are projected to rise by six to 10 inches above 1992 levels. Extreme weather events have battered the city – 2017′s Hurricane Irma swept through Florida leaving a trail of devastation in its wake and claiming more than 80 lives in the state.

A group of artists and technologists, anxious to better engage people in the threats posed by climate change, have banded together to create an augmented-reality mural in the city under the banner of an initiative called “Before It’s Too Late.”

The 96- by 14-foot mural features a canary, designed to symbolize the city’s status as a “canary in the coal mine” when it comes to climate change.

Viewers can download an app that allows them to point their smartphones at the wall and see it come to life by way of an augmented-reality film. The film shows two future realities for the city. In one, no action is taken and the city becomes uninhabitable – flooded, decaying and dirty. The second shows a hopeful future powered by renewable energy.

5. ‘Western Flag’ – John Gerrard

Spindletop, Texas is the site of the world’s first major oil discovery, made in 1901. Where, once, 100,000 barrels of oil a day were extracted, the land is now barren. Irish artist, John Gerrard, flew a drone over the area, taking literally thousands of photos, to recreate a virtual landscape for his artwork, ‘Western Flag’.

The focal point of his work is a towering, computer-generated flag belching out black smoke. The flag runs as if in real time: The landscape turns dark when the sun goes down in Texas and is lit during the daytime.

Gerrard wanted to take on oil as something that is central to our reality, a material that has become essential to the way we live our lives both in terms of the advantages it provides and the climate damage it causes.

The flag aims to make manifest this uncomfortable dichotomy. “This flag gives this invisible gas, this international risk, an image, a way to represent itself.”

6. ‘Cascade’ – Alexis Rockman

Alexis Rockman has been addressing climate change through his art since 1994. “I realized that art was one of the few places where you don’t have censorship pressure from capitalism and powerful industries. They don’t have a say if you decide to focus on ideas that might challenge their business model.” Many of his images show landscapes ravaged by climate change and environmental destruction.

Speaking of the Great Lakes, Rockman says “These lakes form one of the most important ecosystems on the planet, holding over 20 per cent of the world’s freshwater reserves.” In his artwork, Rockman depicts both the beauty and the devastating threats the Great Lakes face. When asked if he thought art can spur change when it comes to global warming, he replied: “Part of the reason to be an artist is to get yourself out of bed every morning and try to do something about it, or at least cope.”

7. ‘Lunar Pull’ – Noel Kassewitz

Washington, DC artist, Noel Kassewitz, makes ‘climate change ready’ art. Using found flotation devices, and colour palettes from different periods of art history, Kassewitz’s art aims to bring attention to climate change using artistic humour.

“Humor catches people off guard, and through my current bodies of work, I am often able to spark conversations with people otherwise reluctant to engage with the topic. As for my own amusement, I imagine someday in the flooded future an art collector will be safely sitting on top of their floating artwork exclaiming, “Thank goodness we bought a Noel Kassewitz!”

Never take it for granted that we must be diligent stewards of this tiny rock in space. In my own work, I often try to celebrate the fragile beauty of our precious Great Northwest vistas. Have a look.

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