Well, last month’s column was a little dark. What can I say? I was in a bit of a mood. I do stand, mostly, by what I wrote then: I’m pretty sure we’re all fucked. It was pointed out to me, though, that it may only be awareness that is on the increase, not existential threats themselves. After all, things looked pretty apocalyptic when we Europe lost a quarter of its population to the Black Plague, and we made it through that all right.
If we are going to survive the next few decades, the next century, it seems pretty clear that some issues are going to need pretty immediate addressing. The two biggest threats to the survival of civilization as we know it are, I would argue, militant Islam (in the short term) and climate change (in the long term). Artists have addressed both sets of subject matter. The question, however, remains: can artists actually play a role in crafting a solution to the issues, or do artists merely document this moment in civilization’s crisis without meaningfully altering the outcome?
I have written previously about the problems with political art: when too overt, too direct, it fails as art, falling into the role of propaganda, but generally lacking the mass media distribution of actual propaganda, it falls short of the goal of communicating a message clearly to large numbers of people. In some cases, politics may inspire a great work of art (e.g. Guernica), but the artwork doesn’t change the world (the Spanish Civil War still happened). The question is, need this always be the case? Can a work of art actually have the power to alter the course of history, allowing us to avoid these potential threats to the world as we know it?
I have already written about the threat of militant Islam in a previous article, and so I think it fitting to focus here on a few artists who deal directly with environmental themes in their work, and who might stand a chance of making an impact on the world.
Jenny Kendler’s work routinely addresses the idea of engangered species. Very often this subject matter manifests itself as aesthetically beautiful images or objects, quite successful as art objects in and of themselves. The question remains as to whether these images or objects can do anything to save the creatures so endangered. In most cases I am skeptical of their influence, but in at least one case, Jenny found a way to engage viewers/collectors in the actual building of awareness with regard to an endangered species.
In February 2012, I attended the College Art Association conference in Los Angeles, where Kendler told me about an event she was involved with, In A Landscape Where Nothing Officially Exists, at UnSpace Ground. This was situated in the outdoor plaza in front of the Los Angeles Convention Center, where CAA was taking place. For this event, eight artists and one biologist collaborated to create 35 art works representing endangered species living in southern California. In order to spread awareness of the endangered status of these organisms, viewers were invited to sign up to take custody of a work of art, in exchange for a commitment to learn and care about the species represented, and to reproduce or represent the artwork online. I wrote an article as my fulfillment of the pledge that I took on that day (this paragraph is a condensed extract from that article). The format ran something like a silent auction, with viewers selecting the work and species they wanted to care for, and signing up on form. As the event unfolded, Jenny announced each species, artwork, and its new caretaker, auctioneer-style. Both Stephanie Burke and I took custody of pieces by Jenny Kendler, a friend of ours whose work we have admired for a long time. Kendler’s work frequently addresses issues of ecology and conservation, but what I’ve always appreciated about its soft, quiet beauty, which has always reminded me of the animated film The Last Unicorn. This delicate aesthetic carries through her drawings and paintings, her sculptures, and makes an important subject palatable, avoiding any possibility of being called shrill or preachy. It is pretty with a purpose.
Kendler’s contributions to In A Landscape Where Nothing Officially Exists were rendered in graphite and watercolor on little circles of paper, which were then mounted on vintage ribbons, like one might get for Best Pig at the county fair. They are similar to, although I believe separate from, an installation called Selection: 23 Endangered Species, executed in the same medium and also mounted on ribbons. Stephanie took custody of Muntz’s Onion, and I went for the Southern California Steelhead Trout.
This project, unlike most environmental art, required viewers to actively engage in the issue of endangered species, not merely to gain an awareness themselves but to share that awareness with others.
Another friend of mine who makes work addressing environmental themes is Osvaldo Budet. Osvaldo is a Puerto Rican artist who has, in his recent work, been specifically interested in the warming of the Arctic. He discusses this at length in the artist statement on his website:
Beneath the scenic surface of this frozen landscape lies another history rooted in human exploration and exploitation. European explorers, sailers, hunters, fur trappers and whalers used these shores for riches as early as the 17th century. But the Arctic wilderness is also rich in natural resources and has long been dotted and scarred by coal ming communities and structural remains. Through these lands, above and below the surface presents a remarkable story of twentieth century man’s struggle against the elements and our present technocratic society’s challenge to fathom the speed and implications of this changing place. In conjunction with the ‘Alfred-Wegener-Institut für Polar and Meeresforschung’ and the ‘Hanse-Wisseschaftskolleg Institute for Advanced Study’, I embarked on a month long expedition as artists in residence to the ‘AWIPEV-Koldeway Station’ Arctic Research base in Ny- Ålesund, Svalbard. Here I lived and worked with the community and the scientists working there to respond to the physical and political dimensions of the changing polar environments stressed by profligate human activity. Using the mediums of painting, photography and documentary film making I used this white stage of the Arctic to explore the idea that the landscape is a construct or reflection of our culture and interests of the system we inhabit. I photographed the visible scars and human impact of the landscape with the intention to then construct a ‘new reality’ in the studio and artificially ‘clean’ and change the images to create vistas that encompass the beauty of the wilderness we may expect to find in this region. By digitally eliminating any visible human activity in the landscape I aim to question the the social and political implications of our technocratic societies management of our resources and lands in such fragile part of the world. These fictitious places I create in my photos are imaginary vistas of grandeur and serenity; the ideal Arctic which we project in our collective memory and expect to find there in the flesh. In opposition to these romantic looking photos, my simplistic graphite line drawings of out of place and awkward structures and people, dwarfed in white space of the sheet of paper describe exactly that which has been eliminated, void or missing in the photographs. These drawings record the missing human dimensions of the photos and all at once the graphite and ink drawings point to unreal looking situations and an even stranger reality. Playing with reversals of imagination, construction and elimination these photos and drawings invite us to discover contradictions and connections, continuities and breaks which are a contradictory experience to the harsh reality of the places I seek to evoke.
Osvaldo’s partner Shonah Trescott works with similar themes at times, and the two have collaborated on several pieces including the artist residency that involved an expedition to the Arctic. Their work generally fits the traditional gallery model in which artists makes commodities for wealthy collectors to purchase, and therefore while inspired by and based on a vital environmental concern, the works themselves may not reach a wide enough audience to alter the course of climate change. (That being said, Osvaldo is fairly well recognized internationally, and his prominence may bring some additional attention to the issue.)
However, Osvaldo has also worked in documentary film, and he and Shonah were the subjects of a BBC short documentary called “Drawn Into The Light.”
The documentary film ‘Drawn into the Light’ follows the artists Shonah Trescott and myself on expedition to the high Arctic to live and work for a month in the most Northern Settlement of the world. Featuring interviews with the artists, international scientists, policy makers, builders, researchers and ordinary citizens. The film asks, “Who is allowed to shape our landscape, and what are the criteria for these decisions? Questioning the well-documented concerns that we are in the throes of a climate crisis that threatens life on Earth as we know it. I delved into a world of ice and snow, to tells a story woven in ice, revealing the heavy human ties which bind us all with this fragile region of the world.
Documentary film is an excellent medium for activism, and by its wider distribution may reach audiences that the artworks themselves do not.
A final artist I would like to mention in closing is Grant W Ray. I wrote about his 2010 exhibition at Spoke in my former project, the Chicago Gallery Snack Report at Art Talk Chicago. Ray’s piece in which viewers were invited to attempt to clean pieces of coal with a toothbrush and soapy water was hilariously Sisyphean, and made the point (that coal will always be a dirty fuel) in a fun, playful way.
Despite my earlier doomsaying, there are some artists who see the problems facing humanity in our future, and are not dismayed, but rather encouraged, in that they see the situation as being resolvable with sufficient effort. These artists are making work that is not only based on environmental concerns, but represents a real effort at working towards a solution.
- Artist Residencies:Are They Worth It?(Part 2 of 2) - August 4, 2015
- Artist Residencies:Are They Worth It?(Part 1 of 2) - July 7, 2015
- Turning the Titanic: Artists as Agents of Change - June 2, 2015