Artists’ Response to Extreme Weather Events and Extinction.
The talk on weather events and mass extinction of flora and fauna sounds like a bunch of clichés nowadays but actually is a frantic response to the realisation of our self-destructive nature. The extreme weather events are caused by none other than the infamous global warming. For the last 50 years, the rate of increase in temperature has almost doubled and this has created a dominos effect that has resonated worldwide. Some of the extreme weather events include the rise in overall global temperatures, melting of ice caps leading to rising in ocean levels, irregular weather patterns and increase in frequency and intensity of natural calamities like flooding, forest fires, hurricanes, and cyclones. Mass extinction of plant and animal species is attributed to climate change and human effort where in recent years, near extinction of famous animal species like white rhinos has occurred where only two female rhinos exist in the whole world. Weather changes have caused the extermination of plants and animal habitats. These habitats support a delicate ecosystem which upon their end, the animals thrive in these habitats become extinct. Direct human efforts that lead to extinction include poaching of wild animals which is killing of the animals in order to sell the animals’ body parts. Humankind has become the architect of its own destruction by increasing the carbon dioxide levels through the burning of fossil fuels and destroying the forests that clean up the atmosphere.
Intensification of campaigns on climate change
The past decade has seen the intensification of campaigns against climate change and extinction and one mode of these campaigns are through arts. Many artists have created art in support of the fight against climate change and extinction and also spoke of the same across many platforms like social media. Some of these artists include Joseph Beuys, Olafur Eliasson, James Turell, Lucy Orta, and Jorge Orta. This essay will look into the ways in which the artists have responded to the subjects of extreme weather change and extinction.
Joseph Beuys was a German artist whose work span across several disciplines of art which included performance arts, painting, sculpting, etc. During his lifetime, Beuys campaigned tirelessly for environmental causes. One of the most notable responses to climate change by Beuys is his planting 7,000 oak trees and including a basalt column maker on the trees where the columns according to Beuys were a symbol for defying human extinction. Beuys led the tree planting excursion between 1982 and 1987 in Kassel, Germany. The project came to be known as the 7,000 Oaks project and Beuys’ intention was to intertwine art and social processes in an aesthetic nature. Beuys said that the task was a “symbolic communication with nature” (Rae, 2015) with the purpose of driving transformation by enduring ecological consciousness. Beuys championed the concept of Social Sculpture where the social and moral dimension of artistic practices is the centre of the concept “to channel creativity onto the concrete social tasks that need doing – that is to say, toward the moral shaping of culture itself” (Rae, 2015). Beuys defined working with the imagination to foster social and ecological transformation, as ‘social sculpture’, asserting the entire society could be viewed as a colossal work of art where each and every individual contributed creatively. Beuys contemporary ideas of expressing social conscious issues into art were ahead of his time however, his efforts have influenced generations of curators and artists in the areas of environmental art. Beuys’ work in Kassel went to influence the same tree planting practice in Baltimore, USA and the projects in both towns have been maintained by the local government up to today.
Olafur Eliasson is an artist of Danish-Icelandic decent whose area of expertise is in sculpting and large-scale art installation. One of Eliasson’s latest projects is the new iteration Ice-Watch which alludes to the observance of the melting ice caps due to global warming. Following the 2030 deadline set by the UN as the no-return point if the carbon footprint is not drastically contained, Eliasson collaborated with Minik Rosing, a geologist, on the project that involved placing 24 ice blocks outside Tate Modern in London. The blocks were brought from the waters of Nuup Kangerlua fjord, Greenland where the blocks were melting into the water after separating from the ice sheet. The purpose of the project was to confront the Londoners and the world at large with the existential crisis of the tangible effects of extreme weather change. Statistics show that an alarmingly large portion of the human population believe that global warming is a societal hoax with clandestine intentions and perhaps provision of a physical representation of direct effects of climate change could change minds. Eliasson said that “By enabling people to experience and actually touch the blocks of ice in this project, I hope we will connect people to their surroundings in a deeper way and inspire radical change.” (Baines, 2018). Eliasson explains that individual recognition that the power to bring environmental change from individual actions will push systematic change and transform knowledge of climate into climate action. Furthermore, watching a glacier that has existed for 15,000 years brings time as one of the themes of the project and how natural structures that have stood the test of time become no match to human carelessness. Eliasson had previously done the same evocative and grand artwork under the Ice-Watch movement in Paris at the Place du Pantheon in 2015. He placed pieces of ice carvings also transported from Greenland in a circular pattern with an intention to evoke the same emotions as discussed before and finally to potentially translate to individual efforts against climate change.
Lucy Orta and Jorge Orta are an artistic duo where both are contemporary visual artists. Many of their art installations have targeted issues brought about by climate change like extreme weather events. One such installation is referred to as LIFEGUARDS was created by Lucy and Jorge and exhibited in Florence, Italy in April 2015. The artwork featured the posture of a human figure surrounded by a collection of functional and symbolic objects that suggest the increasing delicateness of these important resources because of climate change and the exploitation of natural resources. The purpose of the art is to deliver the need to create more sustainable methods of utilisation, protection, and conservation of these resources for posterity.
Lucy and Jorge organised the fifth version of Antarctica World Passport through their company, Studio Orta and the passports were distributed during Migration Week of December 2018 in Marrakech, Morocco. Migration Week is a key global policy-making event and as such, Lucy and Jorge proposed a specialised version of the Antarctica World Passport that was distributed among invited guests and delegates together with an engagement activity for the purpose of magnifying the stage on disaster displacement messages. The aim of the events mentioned was to create greater support for enhanced assistance and protection for the millions displaced annually across the year because of the effects of extreme weather events and climate change. The curatorial mission advanced by such an event is to deliver art practice and research to bear on international policy-making that address displacement that relates to weather disasters and climate alteration.
One other way that Lucy and Jorge responded extreme weather changes is by having their company, Studio Orta install a new Antarctica World Passport Delivery Bureau which was within the exhibition group dubbed Warmingland. The exhibition’s name playfully alluded to the famous film franchise, Alice in Wonderland and it depicted how our wonderful planet is rapidly heating up. The projects of Warmingland help reflect the extreme case scenario due to climate change where it shows a world of disappearing islands, bleached corals, polluted air, and overall rising of ocean levels. On the other hand, Warmingland projects also display how the world could be beautiful if climate change campaigns become successful. Such a world display the beauties of nature with the aim to mobilize and push citizens to participate in safeguarding the environment. According to Lucy and Jorge, Antarctica is a target area that shows the effects of global warming that consequently affects the whole world eventually. Therefore, the Warmingland project for Lucy and Jorge embodies a utopia where research happens, information and ideas shared without the limitations of borders for the common good of all humanity.
During the UNTITLED MIAMI art show of 2017, Lucy and Jorge installed a solo show with the artist, Jane Lombard. The installation involved varied emblematic works that included, Antarctica, Totipotent and Ortawater architecture, operational and poetic aesthetic strategies that target the themes of diminishing resources, forced migration, and climate change. The artworks join together to form a conceptual realization of Jorge’s large scale assemblage of paintings named, Derrame. The centre of the abstract gesture outlined by this paintings is an accidental instance that creates distinctive pigmentation and organic structures, where the accident as an unrestrained phenomenon; mirrors the destructive force of extreme weather calamities bolstered by human neglect and socio-political cataclysms.
Another art installation by Studio Orta that target the effects of climate change was Raft of the Medusa which was a solo exhibition, a part of Hull UK City of Culture 2017. The exhibition dubbed Somewhere Becoming Sea, referring to rising sea levels that are slowly covering islands was held in Humber Street Gallery on April 2017. The artwork took a nearer look into constantly changing boundaries between sea and land and also to explore Hull City’s role as the North Sea gateway and beyond. The art also reflected on the nature of water expanse that separate countries and at the same the expanse are channels that connect the nations. Especially at a moment in history where climate change threatens to gradually blur the boundaries more and invite expansive economic impacts, the exhibition captured the elemental power of the sea and ask a thought-provoking question; “is everywhere now Somewhere Becoming Sea?” ()
The solo exhibition termed Symphony for Absent Wildlife by Studio Orta primarily dealt with the subject of species loss or extinction and drew intersecting links between resource scarcity, migration and climate change. The exhibition was held in Attenborough Arts Centre in Leicester starting January 2016. The newly adapted work was meant to create an immersive experience using audio installation using sculptures of masked creatures who blew sculptured bird whistles. The bird tunes were played in a crescendo to a down chorus that ended in an abrupt censure with the purpose of leaving the audience a loss sentiment. The artists meant to utilise the feeling of loss to evoke the sense of loss of animal species.
Extinction is not only limited to species but also varieties and therefore in another solo exhibition termed Food, Lucy and Jorge organised the art installation at City Gallery and Museum in Peterborough, England beginning September 2016. The exhibition examined the “politics of food” that involved rituals connected to eating together. The work involved installation Seeds that encompassed 31 unique Murano seed pods displayed to evoke a larger-than-life essence while the pods were framed by a group of intricate drawings using watercolour to create a metaphoric seed bank. The diversity and intricate beauty of the natural world were depicted prevalently in artists’ intention to sensor the need for preserving food varieties that are threatened by extinction.
James Turell, an American artist who deals in Light and Space art installations, is one of the artists whose works have dealt with the issues of extreme weather change and extinction. One of his artworks dubbed Backside of the moon that he installed inside a building called Minamidera in Honmura town, Japan explores the metaphoric of extinction. Using the art of Light and Space, Turrell imagines the death of a species as putting out light or vital spark (Benson, 2015). While a viewer enters into the building, he/she is met by total darkness at first but as the pupils dilate and adjust, the shape of room space reveals itself in a surprising manner. What seemed as complete lack of light turns out to be relative darkness. The art thus literalized through immersive sensory experience evokes a manner of thinking about the literary and conceptual history of extinction. The building is located on a former shrine where the same area was ravaged by the tsunami and this fact also alludes to effects of extreme weather change that brought the extinction of plant and animals unique to the area.
In conclusion, several influential artists of the past and present have utilized their art to explore the issues of extreme weather events brought about by climate change and the issue of extinction. The most prolific artists whose work in the areas of climate change and extinction is on a larger scale are the husband and wife duo, Lucy and Jorge Orta. The artists have consistently organised art that targets the subject matter above of which some few of the art installation is discussed in the essay. Notably, also, the work by Joseph Beuys influenced generations of artists to use their art to affect societal change. Other artists that dealt with issues of weather events and extinction through art expressions include James Turrell light and space artworks and Olafur Eliasson’s art projects of ice watch. (Benson, 2015)
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