Using material like huge inflated balloons, recordings of the sound of icebergs melting, or fictional news reports from the future, an increasing number of artists around the world are turning their attention to climate change. Their works explore the implications for the natural world, people and society, both now and in the future. But what can art do in the face of climate change?
Open a newspaper, turn on the TV news or listen to the radio and you are likely to read or hear about climate change, often with ominous warnings of disasters. The issue is at the top of many people’s agenda, but the deluge of information on the subject can mean that people risk being desensitised to the problem. Art, however, takes a different approach and can fire our imaginations into thinking about possible solutions.
“The role of artists is to inspire, educate and engage. Art works engage a different part of the brain from bare facts,” explains Randy Rosenberg, the curator of ‘Envisioning Change: Melting Ice/A Hot Topic’, a major exhibition on climate change. “People can hear or learn about issues such as the melting of the icecaps, but they react differently when they actually see it,” she adds.
The exhibition, organised by the United Nations Environment Programme and the Natural World Museum, brings together 40 works by artists from 25 countries. Throughout 2007 and 2008, the exhibition will be travelling from Oslo, Norway, to Brussels, Belgium, then Monaco, before finishing in Chicago, in the United States.
It is up to us
The works in the exhibition look at various aspects of climate change – the causes, the impact all over the world, and the solutions that we need to find. Although the subjects covered and the methods to communicate them are very different, a common theme is that both the impacts of climate change and the actions that we need to combat them are at a personal level.
Rosenberg has seen a positive shift in public opinion since she started preparing the exhibition. “[Two years ago] people were still denying climate change. But there has been a shift in consciousness since then,” she says. “As the science of climate change has become more certain, the conversation has shifted from ‘Is climate change happening?’ to ‘What can we do about it?’”
Photographer Subhankar Banerjee, whose work features in the exhibition, has been photographing the Arctic and the people who live there since 2000. He explains how art can help encourage people to be part of the solution: “Art can make us curious again – that is its fundamental role. Curiosity leads to discussion and community engagement.”
With a problem as huge as climate change, many people feel that personal action cannot make a difference. Artist and film-maker David Buckland thinks that artists can help reconnect individuals to the problem: “We intend to communicate through art works our understanding of the changing climate on a human scale, so that our individual lives can have meaning in what is a global problem.”
Buckland has led a number of expeditions of artists, scientists and young people to the Arctic as part of the Cape Farewell project. For the artists, the expeditions have given them the chance to see the changes that are happening first hand and inspiration for their work. Sound artist Max Eastley collected the noises of ice melting and other elements of the polar environment to use in his work. One of his over-riding impressions was the speed of the changes that are taking place. “We sometimes think of nature as being slow, but we’re missing it all the time. It’s very, very fast."
Learn more about the artists who are working on climate change
- Antony Gormley and Peter Clegg – Three made places, sculpture, 2005
- David Buckland – Ice texts, photography, 2005
- Subhankar Banerjee – Caribou Migration I, photography, 2002
- Don and Era Hamaji Farnsworth – Mythos VII, Deluge Thangka, State I, tapestry, 2006
- Xavier Cortada – The Longitudinal Installation, installation at the South Pole, 2007
- Jonas Liveröd – Expanding Pressure, balloon, 2007
- Strijdom Van der Merwe – Tanqua Karoo, mixed media, 2007
- Gilles Mingasson – The End of Shishmaref, photography, 2005
- Ichi Ikeda – Moving water days, video, photos and objects for backpacking water, 2006
- Sant Khalsa – Western Waters, photography (gelatin-silver prints), 2000-2002
- Gautier Deblonde – from the Svalbard series, photography, 2003-2005
- Heather Ackroyd and Dan Harvey – Ice lens, ice sculpture, 2005