On the difficulty of making good climate art

<strong>Ackroyd & Harvey </strong><br>Storm Drawings<br />2 ink on paper / 2 luminescent paint<br />2007<br /><br />The ‘automatic’ drawings were created by Dan Harvey during a violent storm<br />whilst crossing the Greenland Sea on board the Noorderlicht. A ball soaked<br />in ink (drawings 1-2) and luminescent paint (drawings 3-4) was placed directly onto seawater soaked paper.<br />

Storm Drawing by Ackroyd and Harvey (image courtesy of Cape Farewell website)

So I could blame my busy life on it taking me ages to write a new blog post.  But instead I am going to attribute the fact that I had the notion of writing a post on the exhibition “Unfold, ” an art/climate change show, but was ultimately left feeling surprisingly apathetic to it all.  My scientific background and day job involve environmental science and my own practice has leanings in those directions, so I had high expectations that were not quite met…

So to begin.  Unfold was an exhibition of art produced on/inspired by participation of expeditions up to the Arctic, down to the Antarctic and into the Andes, facilitated by the Cape Farewell Foundation.  The Cape Farewell Foundation is a remarkable organisation that brings artists, writers, scientists, educators and media together as a cultural response to climate change.  The “scientists” are doing a poor job communicating issues surrounding climate change; climate change involves us all; why not fight with art?  The outputs of their expeditions are substantial– a number of exhibitions, pieces of music and writings including Ian McEwan’s novel “Solar.”

<strong>Chris Wainwright </strong><br>Red Ice 3<br />Colour C Type print on aluminium<br />2009

Chris Waiwright, Red Ice, Image Courtesy of Cape Farewell

So, a number of artists are asking whether they can connect where the scientists have failed; how can a looming catastrophe be expressed?  How can the fragility of our polar landscapes be communicated?  How can scientific data and reasoning be turned into something that connects to the not-so-logical parts of our brains?  In one year, London saw two major exhibitions that tackled (in different ways) this theme: Radical Nature(Barbican) and Earth: Art of a Changing World (Royal Academy).  Of the two, I thought Radical Nature was the more successful, perhaps as it was really more about artists responding to Nature.  Highlights included Robert Smithon’s Spiral Jetty film, Joseph Beuys’ Honey Pump, and a heap of earth Grass Grows, courtesy of Hans Haacke.  These are classics, which have stood the test of time and inspire us to consider our relationship to the environment and the society of which we are a part.  However, I also found the Alaska Pipeline film by the Center for Land Use Interpretation and a project by Lara Almarcegui on the areas of East London destroyed by the Olympic construction to be poetic and provoking.  Tomas Sarecano’s etherial spheres hovered above the main gallery space.

Reconstruction of Agnes Denes Wheatfield- A confrontation in Dalston, part of the Barbican's Radical Nature Exhibition (photo by Johanna Kieniewicz)

In contrast, Earth: Art of a Changing World addressed climate change head on, with a very clear agenda.  It opened with a big sizzling globe.  Thankfully, it wasn’t all that bad.   A diamond made out of the bone of a polar bear by Heath Ackroyd and Dan Harvey, some lovely fragile clay flowers by Clare Twomey certainly made their point and were also featured in Unfold.  Sophie Calle took her mother’s jewelry to the North Pole.  Old works, such as Cornelia Parker’s brilliant Heart of Darkness and Anthony Gormley’s Amazonia Field were repackaged with a new message.

Heart of Darkness (2004), Cornelia Parker

I don’t mean to be flippant, as some of this was actually very good.  I was particularly touched by Ackroyd and Harveys’ trees grown from acorns sourced from Joseph Beuys’ trees; on the opposite end of the spectrum a joyful video, Doomed, by Tracey Moffat made much ado about explosions! and destruction! and Marielle Neudecker’s vitrine was just lovely….. But something was missing.  Maybe the show didn’t hold together in the right way; perhaps too many viewpoints were represented.  Many of the works in themselves were excellent, but when presented together as a whole were lessened.

So, coming back to the Unfold exhibition…. I found that it had some of the same problems as Earth: Art of a Changing World (and indeed featured some of the same artists).  I think that part of the problem is that we are looking at this theme a little too early.  It isn’t mature.  It isn’t an integral part of these artists’ practice.  With the exception of Harvey and Ackroyd, who have an acclaimed history of making environmental art, much of what was presented in these two shows was artists dipping their tow into this area.  Is Tracey Emin really a climate artist?  Not really, but like all the rest of us, she can respond…. But the sound of it all together is a bit of a cacaphony.  We’re talking over each other and nobody can hear a coherent message.  Radical Nature, for all the variation in media, and the mixture of classic land art with contemporary environmental art had a tighter focus and less of an agenda, aside from perhaps evoking a feeling of longing for what we are losing.  The artists in “Radical Nature” made nature, one way or another, an integral part of their practices and were able to engage with it in a highly sophisticated way.

To come back to my initial feeling of ennui and apapthy about climate art…. I do feel more optimistic than I did, initially walking out of the Unfold exhibition.  Perhaps I am looking for more artists who use the climate as a medium in their art and engage with this in a serious way.  And there are so many ways to do this.  In future posts, I hope to cover the Harvey and Ackroyd practice in greater detail, but also get into some really innovative uses of climate data in art.


About sciartsci

I would like to consider myself both scientist and artist and am profoundly interested in the overlap, intermingling, and interface between these two worlds. I had an academic position (in science) at a university in the USA, which I left (in part) to spend a year in London doing art in a Foundation programme at Byam Shaw/Central St Martins. I now find myself back working in science but maintaining a high level of involvement in art (sculpture, painting, drawing, photography). I have a pretty cool job and this blog reflects only my opinions and not those of the fantastic institution I happen to be lucky enough to work for.
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4 Responses to On the difficulty of making good climate art

  1. Will says:

    Creating artistic expressions of a scientific-derived phenomena. It’s funny, because there are some topics in climate science that are incredibly tired (e.g., the greenhouse gas diagrams that all of us could draw by heart), and others that we know, but no one really understands (e.g., how do changing surface temperatures translate into turning off ocean circulation? I have no idea, I just believe that it could happen). On one hand, I would like to think that artists can indeed fill in those gaps with Info-Art. On the other hand, I’m very skeptical that they could do that through the normal mediums of fine art; for those purposes, I’m probably more likely to be influenced by very well-done graphics, diagrams, and scientific animations. Artistic Information, if you will.

    The only “environmental/nature” art that has really stuck with me so far, has been simple pieces, placed in the outdoors. For example, Andy Goldsworthy. His stuff seems to bypass my cerebral cortex and it taps directly into my emotional connection to nature. A connection that we all have.

    I haven’t thought about this to its end yet, but I might question your stated goal of climate art to “communicate the issues”. Those issues have already been communicated through newspapers, magazines, and movies. What seems to be missing (amazingly) is for people to really care. And that would be my goal for climate art. I know there are lots of goals of art, but the kind that I really search for and love attempts to create something visceral for the viewer. And “climate art” could do that. Pieces that would make it clear to me what my own feelings (rather than thoughts) are on climate change.

    PS – “Red Ice” is not going to do it for me. Niether would a sizzling Earth. But if Avatar can evoke such strong feelings of environmentalism, I’m sure someone else can too.

    PPS – Why ARE you running two separate blogs?

    • sciartsci says:

      I definitely agree that land art is the best environmental art out there (or it can be). Its medium is consistent with its message and I appreciate that. I have mixed feelings about Andy Goldsworthy… a bit too beautiful and lacking in impact sometimes (in my opinion). But it usually has to do with my mood at the time. That said, his film Rivers and Tides is definitely worth a watch.

      I don’t think that I think climate art has to communicate the issues… it is a response by artists against climate change and can take any number of forms. But I agree that the two best ways to do this are either to use the medium of the earth itself or use ‘information.’ The information thing is also difficult to do without heading into the realm of what is just good design. I would encourage you to look at the work of Tom Corby and the artist duo Lise Autogena and Joshua Portway. Would be curious to hear your thoughts. Planning on writing something on this brand of stuff in the near future, hopefully!

      On the two separate blogs, I decided a while back I preferred the WordPress platform, but haven’t figured out whether it makes sense to migrate that one over (since they do have a slightly different topic). Although the other one isn’t dead, I am using it to ‘publish’ some of my better work.

  2. Pingback: Really good immersive environmental art | SciArtSci

  3. Ross Brier says:

    Great post,

    Would our Yin Yang Earth qualify as climate art?

    The yin yang earth is one of 3 new designs we hope to launch, each with their own message. Instead of creating an installation, our medium is the clothing you wear. We hope you like them.

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