The Vanishing Point: Artists Respond to Climate Change


The rise of so-called “green artists” answers Bill McKibben’s call for artists in all media to embrace the crisis of global warming, to make it part of our culture. In his 2005 article “What the World Needs Now is Art, Sweet Art,”[i] the founder of 350.org asked, “Where are the books? The plays? The goddamn operas?” To grasp the import of scientific data on global warming isn’t enough, he argued. If we want to create social change, we need to engage the imagination. Photographers like Chris Jordan and David Maisel and mixed media artists like Helen Evans and Heiko Hansen make conservation a priority, mirroring a planet under stress, given to extreme weather events. Using media as varied as LED lights and aerial photographs, they invite viewers to adopt behavior that aligns with and sustains Earth’s natural systems. Many are wasting no time.

British researcher and painter Janette Kerr spent two weeks in the High Arctic in October 2016 on board the Antigua. It was raining. “It shouldn’t have been,” she posted on her blog, “but it does demonstrate the general warming up of the climate.” The University of Western England fellow collected plenty of information about how global warming is affecting Norway’s Svalbard region, its ice sheets and glaciers. The materials she collected will be incorporated into her paintings. She also experiments with ice crystals and frozen colors mixed with seawater. Kerr launched cameras attached to small balloons or kites to capture aerial footage of the shifting landscape, scenes that will end up on canvas. She sold 50 of her works at discounted prices to pay for the trip. (http://extremewavetheory.blogspot.com/ )

 

In Suffolk, England, Matt Clark directs the United Visual Artists art practice. His 2010 expedition to the Svalbard resulted in “High Arctic,” exhibited at London’s National Maritime Museum. Set in the year 2100AD, the installation encouraged the public to contemplate human impact in the Arctic region and how that affects its fragility, beauty, and scale. Using a UV flashlight to interact with animations, visitors discovered 3000 glaciers that will have melted by the end of this century and were confronted with an historical record of man’s presence here. Audio of “The Farewell Glacier,” a commissioned poem by Nick Drake, worked with abstracted sculptures and light to immerse visitors in sensory data. (https://uva.co.uk/works/high-arctic )

 

For her 2007 project “Vatnajökull (the sound of),” British artist Katie Paterson left a gallery empty except for the white neon digits of a telephone number. Visitors who called the number were connected to a microphone embedded in Europe’s largest glacier, which has been eroding since 1930. All callers could hear was the creak of ice and the trickle of melting water. The number, +44(0)7757001122, could be called from any telephone in the world. (http://katiepaterson.org/vatnajokull/ ) Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson also chose the melting Vatnajökull ice mass for his 2013 installation “Your Waste of Time.” Exhibited in a refrigerated gallery space powered by solar panels, the ice “sculptures” broken off from the glacier represented 800 years of earthly existence, putting humans’ physical experience in perspective. (http://olafureliasson.net/archive/exhibition/EXH101036/your-waste-of-time#slideshow )

 

Champs d’Ozone, a 2007 mixed-media installation by He-He (Helen Evans and Heiko Hansen) exploited the analytical data that measures Paris’s air quality. A computer-generated cloud hangs over the city; saturated but always changing color, it reflects concentrations of nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide, ozone, and particle dust suspended in the air. What we see is real-time Parisian air pollution as an artificial cloud floats above the familiar skyline, changing color according to its chemical ingredients. (http://hehe.org.free.fr/hehe/champsdozone/ )

 

New York photographers Susannah Sayler and Edward Morris launched The Canary Project in 2006 after reading Elizabeth Kolbert’s three-part series on climate change in the New Yorker. “These articles changed our lives,” says Sayler, “both in terms of our working together collaboratively and with an urgent resolve on issues related to climate change and ecology.” She and Morris traveled to sites of natural disasters, capturing scenes as different as New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, forest fires, and landslides. Since then they have expanded to support and offer funding to more than 100 artists, designers, writers, educators, and scientists to encourage art and media that deepen public understanding of human-induced climate change and energize commitment to solutions. (http://canary-project.org/ )

Their series of photographs “A History of the Future,” (http://suart.syr.edu/suart-exhibitions/faculty-exhibition-title-tbd/#.WMMuiBg-KCQ) for example, is an ongoing record of global warming in Peru, Antarctica, Niger, the Netherlands – 14 locations in all. Its companion piece, “We Could Just Leave,” presents interviews with people in those vulnerable locations about changes in the landscape where they live and work. Another project documents the living ecology of the formerly heavily polluted Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn, New York. (https://vimeo.com/67812631 ). In 2014 Sayler and Morris collaborated with Kolbert on a video installation at MASS MoCA designed to honor the 100th anniversary of the extinction of the passenger pigeon. Naturally, the participants believe this tragedy is part of a larger story about species collapse that, as Kolbert has written, is “only beginning to unfold.”

 

Thomas Cole’s “View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm–The Oxbow” (1836)

Peter Croteau’s “Road to the Oxbow” (2010)

In the 19th century, Thomas Cole founded the Hudson River school of painting, which romanticized the waterfalls, lakes, and forests in Edenic scenes that contributed to our national wilderness myths. In 2010, photographer Peter Croteau revisited the site of one of Cole’s most celebrated paintings “View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm” (1836), popularly known as “The Oxbow.” What fascinated Croteau about this work was that Cole seemed to prophesize the dark environmental consequences of urban sprawl. The left side of Cole’s painting shows the land untamed, wild and stormy, contrasted with the man-impacted Connecticut River on the right with its new farms and other settlements. “A broken tree in the foreground barely hangs on for its life,” says Croteau, “representing the fragile natural landscape.”[ii]

When Croteau stood in the spot on Mount Holyoke where Cole once set up his pigments and brushes, he faced a massive parking lot. Undaunted, Croteau decided to use Cole’s dramatic effects to explore the region’s transformation. He shot suburban tract houses, industrial waste dumps, abandoned trailers, a Walmart parking lot, construction sites, chain-link fences marked “no trespassing,” power lines, and a Coors billboard obscuring a range of green mountains. In each scene, sky, meadow, and forest convey the power Cole felt in the wild that we have since harnessed for our own uses. Croteau’s series “The Road to the Oxbow” is an homage to the 19th-century painter as much as it testifies to what he calls “dross in the American landscape.” “I constructed each photograph using the tropes of the Hudson River School painters,” he says, “paying attention to powerful lighting, skies and the creation of vast space.” By rejecting an idealized landscape, Croteau’s work suggests a more accurate American identity, one in which consumption and waste have displaced nature. (http://www.petercroteau.photography/the-road-to-the-oxbow.html )

 

“Fossilized in Houston,” a partnership between environmental activists and local artists, took a memorable approach to species extinction. From March to July 2015 residents saw posters, stickers, and lawn signs depicting soon to be extinct species like the Iberian Lynx. Created by 15 local artists, the animal images – all free to residents – were daily reminders of the planet’s stress. Of their public art campaign, organizers Matthew Schneider-Mayerson, Lina Dib, and Tony Day said that their goal was “to contribute to an enhanced intellectual and emotional awareness about climate change and the ongoing mass extinction, and hopefully push decision-makers in energy companies, city planners, and individual citizens to reconsider collectively destructive yet normative behaviors.”

Where better to launch their ambitious project than Houston, home to 5,000 energy companies? “The link between climate change and extinction is about how humans use fossils to create fossils,” they explain on their website http://fossilizedhouston.com .

 

“With the mining sites, I found a subject matter that carried forth my fascination with the undoing of the landscape, in terms of both its formal beauty and its environmental politics,” writes the American photographer David Maisel (http://davidmaisel.com ). At first glance, his gorgeous photographs seem to celebrate the “undoing of the landscape,” but then you take a second look at his deep blue swirls and red craters and realize this is what water reclamation, logging, military tests, and mining have done to transform, especially, the America West. The effect can be terrifying.

What Maisel has done with aerial photos, John Sabraw does with toxic runoff from the Ohio River that he uses to make his own pigments. His yellows and reds are sourced from the oxidized sludge of abandoned coal mines, bringing to light the region’s pollution problem in a startlingly beautiful way. Like many “green artists,” Sabraw believes he has a crucial social function to “see things differently, act on this vision, report the failures and successes.” (http://www.johnsabraw.com ) Similarly, Barry Underwood’s mixed-media installations lure viewers into a pleasing landscape that carries a discordant message about environmental threats like light pollution and deforestation. As he explains, “In the final prints, lights and sculptural alterations appear as intrusions into the landscape imagery. The tension between the familiar bucolic setting and the surreal abstract mark gives the images a strange power.” (http://barryunderwood.com )

All of photographer Chris Jordan’s mixed-media installations testify to what he calls “America’s runaway consumerism.” Starting in 2005, when his coverage of Hurricane Katrina raised the question of to what extent this “natural” disaster was linked to global warming, the artist has made visible the extent of our responsibility for ecological degradation. For “Intolerable Beauty” (2003-2005) he photographed 106,000 aluminum cans, the number Americans dispose of every 30 seconds; 2.3 million folded prison uniforms, one for every U.S. prisoner in 2005; 60,000 plastic bags, the amount used by Americans every five seconds; 213,000 Vicodin pills, equal to yearly emergency room visits because of misuse or abuse; 2 million plastic bottles (their contents consumed every five minutes); and 426,000 cell phones, the number retired in the U.S. every day. “I am appalled by these scenes, and yet also drawn into them with awe and fascination,” Jordan explains on his website (http://chrisjordan.com). “The immense scale of our consumption can appear desolate, macabre, oddly comical and ironic, and even darkly beautiful; for me its consistent feature is a staggering complexity.”

Jordan’s ongoing project “Midway: Message from the Gyre” peers inside the stomachs of thousands of dead baby albatrosses. On this atoll, 2000 miles from the nearest continent, the nesting chicks are fed lethal quantities of plastic by their parents, who mistake the floating trash for food as they forage over the Pacific Ocean. If images of birds choked by our waste doesn’t cause a gag reaction, Jordan’s latest exhibit “Camel Gastrolith” will: He presents a mass of 500-plus plastic bags and other debris removed from the stomach of a dead camel in the Arabian desert. Says Jordan: “My hope with this piece is to create a kind of vigil for one camel, who gave its life to contain this intolerable conglomeration of human detritus. I care about the bigger phenomenon of desert plastic pollution, and what it mirrors back to us about the insanity of our disposable culture.”

Venus, 2011 60×103″ in one panel, and 8×13 feet in three panels Depicts 240,000 plastic bags, equal to the estimated number of plastic bags consumed around the world every ten seconds. (Click the image to go to Chris Jordan’s site and view in more detail.)

In the mid-1980s, I traveled to Ecuador to write an article on 19th-century landscape painter Frederic Church, who immortalized for Americans the active volcano Cotopaxi with its snow-white cone. I didn’t know it then, but the Cotopaxi Glacier, which supplies the capital city of Quito with fresh water and hydroelectric power, had already lost 30 percent of its ice mass because of rising temperatures. In the last three decades it has lost ice even more rapidly, as NASA satellite images confirm.[iii] Church risked malaria, snakebite, typhoid fever, food poisoning, and near-fatal falls to find a monumental setting equal to his vision for a new American art. Paintings such as The Falls of Tequendama (1852) and The Heart of the Andes (1859) communicate nature’s superhuman power.

Today’s artists have a different challenge; in their world human presence looms large, its effect on the landscape inescapable. But how does an artist convert the “bad news” of global warming into social action? Chris Jordan and others have found a unique way of running those scientific numbers:

What I try to do in my work is to take the statistics, the raw data, and translate them into a more universal visual language that can be felt. I believe if we can feel these things more deeply they’ll matter to us. … The big question is: how do we change? I’m not pointing the finger at America, I’m simply saying this is who we are right now.[iv]

Their images of dead birds, melting ice, mining slag, plastic bags, and toxic sludge make visible the unseen damage that’s already changed the planet we know.

 

 

[i] McGibbon, Bill, “What the World Needs Now is Art, Sweet Art,” Grist. April 22, 2005. Available at http://grist.org/article/mckibben-imagine/[ii] Conversation with the artist, March 20, 2016.

[iii] http://unofficialnetworks.com/2015/02/nasa-proves-the-earth-is-melting-in-these-10-images. Accessed on 3-14-2016.

[iv] Jordan’s 2008 TED talk “Turning Powerful Stats into Art.” www.ted.com/talks/chris_jordan_pictures_some_shocking_stats#t-576490. Accessed on 3-14-2016.

 

 

Author’s Comment: We often think of visual artists as removed from social and political issues like climate change yet the warming of our planet clearly affects everyone. I was thrilled to find artists engaged with this public discourse and putting their concerns on canvas (so to speak).

 

 

Lisa Mullenneaux is a Manhattan-based poet and journalist. In 2016 she won the Hektoen Grand Essay Competition and a Distinguished Teaching Award from the University of Maryland. Her essays have appeared in American Arts Quarterly, Women’s Review of Books, and New England Review, among others.

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2 thoughts on “The Vanishing Point: Artists Respond to Climate Change

  1. SuziQ

    I learned so much from this piece — more than I might wish. But the Venus blew me away. A stunning concept and an admirable piece of research. Thank you, Lisa.

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