Combating climate change with art: These artists are creating work that highlights and raises awareness about the changing state of our planet.
Words by Hudson Brown | AUSTRALIA
The United Nations describes climate change as “one of the most pervasive and threatening issues of our time”, but the global science community and much of the broader public have grown frustrated with the seeming lack of progress made by elected officials. Many hoped that the landmark 2016 Paris Agreement would usher in a much-needed turning point for global climate legislation, but when the 175 governments in attendance failed to reach a binding agreement, it left an opportunity for world leaders to reconsider their nation’s environmental commitment. Throughout this inaction, many amongst the creative class have become dedicated to exploring societal concerns around environmentalism – conveying both the long-term impacts and the potential solutions to climate change. Generating a myriad of provocative and engaging projects, contemporary artists have found their voice promoting positive environmental causes to the wider public.
“Occupying galleries, streets and public spaces, artists have become a mainstream voice with the power to lead discussion and play a universal role in climate discourse.”
Environmentally conscious art has continued to grow in significance, having first emerged in the 1960s during the rise of the ‘arts industry’. Occupying galleries, streets and public spaces, artists have become a mainstream voice with the power to lead discussion and play a universal role in climate discourse. Globally recognised as one of the world’s most important environmental artists, Olafur Eliasson’s work has developed far beyond gallery walls and led to a practice that is equal parts activism, science and creative genius. Harnessing the power of large-scale public demonstrations, Eliasson’s work faithfully expresses his desire for art to serve as a “means for turning thinking into doing”. From guerrilla-style interventions like turning the rivers of Stockholm into a radiant green colour to transforming Denmark’s Louisiana Museum of Modern Art into a biodiverse riverbed, Eliasson’s high-profile pieces have tirelessly generated important conversation about the natural world.
In the lead up to the 2014 IPCC’s ‘Fifth Assessment Report’ on the state of global environmental science, the Danish-Icelandic artist produced Ice Watch, which saw 12 large chunks of ice calved from a disappearing Greenlandic ice sheet and transported across the sea. The frozen masses were positioned in the shape of a clock at Copenhagen’s massive City Hall Square to melt over a three-day period as both families and demonstrators engaged with the busy community space. Bringing the ongoing environmental crisis to the forefront of the public’s mind, the work provided a simple but provocative reminder of challenges faced by the global community.
Speaking at the 2016 World Economic Forum while accepting his Crystal Award for ‘exemplary commitment to improving the state of the world’, Eliasson stated “Art helps us identify with one another and expands our notion of ‘we’ – from the local to the global”.
Like Eliasson, Philadelphia-born sculptor Stacy Levy hopes to bring communities closer to their immediate natural surroundings. Particularly interested in urban waterways, Levy’s art is focused on promoting the lush ‘hidden worlds’ concealed within our streets and buildings. Levy is currently exploring Philadelphia’s relationship with the Schuylkill River, a major tidal waterway where the ebb and flow is generated by the ocean’s energy more than one hundred kilometres away. A constant presence within the lives of the local residents and fisherman, Levy’s work features a series of colour-coded buoys that are driven by the current and help passersby visualise the river’s continual change as the tide comes and goes.
“Artwork can foster a deep engagement with the river, setting people on the journey from knowing to caring, which is the path to stewardship.”
On her Tide Field project, Levy explains: “The tidal fluctuation of the Schuylkill gives us a sense of the enduring quality of natural processes … artwork can foster a deep engagement with the river, setting people on the journey from knowing to caring, which is the path to stewardship.”
“Bullôt’s photography comments on the fragile relationship that humans maintain with the built and the natural world – one that has become increasingly one-sided.”
Claiming ownership of our future landscape is also important for New Zealand-based photographer Wara Bullôt’s, whose art practice takes a direct approach to considering the “ongoing influence of humankind within our cities”. Creating images that envision possibilities from the not-too-distant future, Bullôt’s Know Where series combines banal landscapes of concrete and paint with organic backdrops and smatterings of surviving greenery. As cities grow and urban infrastructure continues to take over the environment, alongside likeminded photographers such as Mustafah Abdulaziz and Edward Burtynsky, Bullôt’s photography comments on the fragile relationship that humans maintain with the built and the natural world – one that has become increasingly one-sided.
Four years after the publication of the IPCC’s ‘Fifth Assessment Report’, which inspired Olafur Eliasson’s renowned Copenhagen project, the same panel has recently released a special report that offers a devastating critique on the current state of climate change policy and its increasing impact – or lack thereof – on the world’s environment. Described as a “final call”, the report pleas for unprecedented changes on both a societal and individual scale. However, in a world where information fatigue has created an atmosphere where crucial information is constantly disregarded, as renowned art critic Ben Davis has previously argued, contemporary art showcasing our dystopian downfall might be cool to observe, but it’s up to artists to ease the “cultural demoralisation” around climate change. Artists have the creativity necessary to transpose these complex scientific findings into vivid projects that accurately convey their gravity. And, as their voices become louder, now more than ever they’re needed to deliver the hope and inspiration for all of us to effect fundamental change.