Magazine article Tate Etc.

Climate Change: Can Artists Have Any Influence?

Magazine article Tate Etc.

Climate Change: Can Artists Have Any Influence?

Article excerpt


JM Ledgard

Human systems are failing to manage water, soil, or air for the healthy continuation of life on Earth. Wild creatures are being annihilated. Climate change, the spread of plastics and toxins, the advance of monocultures and vermin suggest a bloody, infested near future. Predictably, politicians are in denial of science, such as on the loss of sea ice. Further to this litany, there is a clearer appreciation that Mars and Titan are barely habitable, while promising exoplanets beyond are going to be more difficult to reach than we could have hoped. In short, we are on our own - and we are up against it.

Can artists influence any of this, beyond the scream? The answer is yes. The first and most obvious reason why art will have agency is that everything is in play, positive futures are possible, and many artists care passionately, almost painfully, about the living world. The blog roll of those working on climate change issues alone runs to the hundreds. Admittedly, some are vulnerable to missionary positions and green agitprop, but others strike home with melancholic intensity. I think of Rachel Sussman's photographic series documenting the world's oldest living things - trees, shrubs, lichen, coral - including a portrait of a 13,000-year-old plant she found at the edge of Pretoria, on which she has crossed out the plant's age and inked in the word 'DECEASED'. And it is not just the artists who care. Patrons are also inclined to spend money on ambitious installations dealing with natural destruction.

The second reason is an alliance between art and science at a level not seen since the 18th-century foundation of the Royal Society and French Academy. By backing up the conceptual with the scientific, art has gained in heft. For instance, Olafur Eliasson's ice sculpture for the 2015 UN Paris Climate Change Conference depended on a collaboration with the geologist Minik Rosing, whose work on Greenlandic ice reset the age of life on Earth. Eliasson had the idea of placing the ice next to humans so they could touch, circle and see themselves as flushed, hot and fleeting against something so clear, cold and ancient, but it was the science that made it profound. The third reason is that artists are more trusted than politicians and are likely to remain so in the confused populist moment. The very unguardedness of art, its intuition, and the fact that it works through wordless light, colour, shade, form and space gives it a separate authority.

The fourth reason for betting on artists is technological. The near future is going to be one of visual fragments, of meta-visions, reconstituted in isolation by individuals on smartphones and mixed reality headsets. This next online life, probably with augmented technology into the human body itself, is going to be a rich area for artists to colonise in ways that are now hard to predict, but will likely contrast the 'simulacrum' and the 'natural'. Perversely, in response to digital connectivity, art shown in public spaces will become more social and coherent, and perhaps more meaningful.

The final reason is that there are not many alternatives to seeing intensely. The scope of the ruination is so grave and fast it is difficult for the polity to conceive of. Economists, philosophers and neuroscientists have all demonstrated that humans have a limited capacity to project themselves into the future. But art can move effortlessly outside of time and space, highlighting the absurdity of naming the year 2017 on a planet that is 4.5 billion years old. …

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