A Guernica for Gaia: the UK art world gets serious about climate change

0 Posted by - March 5, 2010 - Blog, Installations, Visual art

Earth: Art of a Changing WorldA Review of Cape Farewell’s SHIFT Festival at the London South Bank Centre and the exhibition Earth: Art of a Changing World at the Royal Academy, London.

There has been a centuries old tradition for artists to act as the handmaidens of the powerful and the wealthy, commissioned to celebrate victories in battle, coronations of potentates or vanity portraits. In our relatively more democratic age the link between artists and patrons has become more problematic, allowing artists a greater freedom to plough their own furrows towards indigence or fortune, to indulge their own interests or, stepping outside of their private bubbles, to respond to the issues of the day.

It was the supreme narcissist, Pablo Picasso, who, in the nineteen-thirties, most spectacularly confronted the issue of his day, the danger from the rise of militarism and fascism, in his monumental work Guernica. Now, in our own perilous times, Guernica seems to have replaced the polar bear1 as the creative community’s icon of preference, a template with which to confront our own Armageddon, the threat to the planet from climate change and global warming.

Picasso’s masterpiece was used to illustrate the need for artists to respond to the crisis of climate change in an article published by Art Threat in June 2007. Two years later the power of Guernica was invoked again, this time to encourage responses from artists to global warming (“Where is the Guernica of climate change”? Guardian newspaper blog, October, 2008). More recently, the artist and ceramicist Grayson Perry’s work The Walthamstow Tapestry was celebrated as “The Guernica of the Credit Crunch” in the Art Newspaper, September, 2009.

The discussion with artists did not shy away from contentious issues, like the carbon footprint resulting from their Arctic travels.

The phrase “A Guernica for Gaia”, apart from its alliterative appeal, was prompted by the publication of the environmental scientist James Lovelock’s book, The Revenge of Gaia, in 2006. Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis, first made public in 1972, presents the world, our planet, as a self-regulating entity of which humanity is a part and in which we, together with other natural forces, have a role to play in determining its future, frightening evolution.

In response to this need for artists’ engagement with global warming, London hosted a climate-change-inspired art bonanza at the turn of the year. It attracted a cosmopolitan array of the art world’s great and the good. Timed to coincide with the Copenhagen Climate Conference, whose unhappy outcome can only reinforce the need for new initiatives, it was the brain child of Cape Farewell, a charity formed in 2002, to research and provide public education on the impact of human activity and pollution on the North Atlantic Ocean and to make a cultural response to climate change.

The link between what is ostensibly a scientific charity and the arts developed very quickly and the first expedition to the Arctic, involving both scientists and artists, took place in 2003. Since then there have been six other expeditions involving many well-known artists from the British, European and World art scene. The painter, Gary Hume, produced his Polar Bear painting after the first trip, and others who have enjoyed Cape Farewell’s patronage have included the artists Sophie Calle, Antony Gormley and Rachel Whiteread, the musicians Laurie Anderson, Jarvis Cocker and Martha Wainwright and the writers Vikram Seth and Ian McEwan.

Earth: Art of a Changing WorldCape Farewell’s SHIFT: Artists’ Take On Climate Change, at the London South Bank Centre, was a festival of artworks, music, writings and performance inspired by artists who had joined Cape Farewell expeditions to the High Arctic. Central to the festival were the SHIFT Encounters, open forum discussions involving a selection of artists as well as scientists from the expeditions.

The discussion with the artists did not shy away from contentious issues like the danger of the participants compromising the artistic authenticity of their work, or the carbon footprint resulting from their Arctic travels2; nor from the humility-hubris contradiction of their often described awe and fear in the face of the raw power of nature, on the one hand, and the equally oft-expressed concern, on the other, for the fragility of an environment that we puny mortals were at one and the same time both destroying and trying to save.

The Australian artist, Michele Noach, was clear about the artistic legitimacy of the program. There was no remit from the organizers or sponsors, no requirement to produce environmentally correct art. Each artist was left to respond as they saw fit; to find the experience of the Arctic transformative or not; to produce no art or art that was driven by an inner passion and, perhaps, after exposure to an ecosystem that was beautiful, precious and fragile, that set out to save it.

Professor Chris Wainwright, artist and academic, focussed more on the entirely legitimate role of the artist as a social critic and on the social function of art. If the business community is expected to demonstrate Corporate Social Responsibility, with its triple “bottom line” of People, Planet, Profit, then why not the cultural community? And, as far as art education was concerned, as head of a consortium of London art colleges, he was determined that his students should see art as a virus that would “fold back art into society”, each individual act of creative endeavor rippling across society like a pebble dropped in a pond.

If the business community is expected to demonstrate Corporate Social Responsibility, then why not the cultural community?

David Buckland, the founder of Cape Farewell, emphasized that the organization was never propagandist or cause-driven but always knowledge-driven. In the Arctic, the ice cap was melting, it was there that the battle to save the planet needed to be fought, it was vital to find out what was happening and, then, to spread the word. He saw the role of artists primarily as adding an emotional understanding to the scientific research results.

Artists have ideas “on the edge of knowing”, ideas that they strive to articulate through their practice. When they work they produce good art and good art provides an emotional ballast for the science. There is much evidence today that the scientists are not winning the argument, the propaganda war for hearts and minds. They need the support of an emotional dimension that only art can provide. Good science needs good art.

The exhibition Earth: Art of a Changing World (at the prestigious Royal Academy of Arts, founded by Sir Joshua Reynolds in 1768), filled the Academy’s extension in the former Museum of Mankind, a suitably anthropological base for the anthropogenic essence of the show.

The Belgian artist, Luc Tuymans, has commented that paintings succeed where words fail but, here, the curators felt the need to provide lengthy explanatory notes as if, without words, the art would fail, not, perhaps, as art but as a commentary on the issue that the show set out to confront – the effect of human activity on “the natural balance and physical cycles of our planet”. To misquote Marshall McLuan, the message is the message rather than the medium. [For those who missed the show the small catalogue is worth getting hold of and includes illustrations of all 35 artists’ work together with the exhibition texts.] The show presents the artist variously as “interpreter, recorder of disaster and provocateur”.

The Canadian artist, Edward Burtynsky, ticked several of these boxes, especially with the brutal aesthetic of his photograph Alberta Oil Sands. Burtynsky is perhaps unusual in being one of the few artists whose practice is centred on environmentalism. Tracy Emin’s is certainly not. When invited to produce a piece of work for the exhibition, the controversial YBA artist replied that, whilst she knew she would never understand the science of climate change, she just knew that she cared. Her work, especially created for the show, eschewed her stock-in-trade of explicit, autobiographical installations and consisted of delicate drawings of birds and flowers, echoing the fragility of so much of the natural world.

Some installations had a more-or-less literal form – an installation evoking the meteorology of clouds (Sunlight in an Empty Room, 2004, by the American artist, Spencer Finch), or Mona Martoum’s fragile steel globe (Hot Spot, 2006). Other work was made of living organisms (Ackroyd and Harvey’s planting of saplings, a homage to Joseph Beuys (Beuys’ Acorns, 2007 +), or of organic matter now dead, the product of man-made or natural disasters (Cornelia Parker’s Heart of Darkness, 2004, and David Nash’s Ash Dome, 2009).

There was a good deal of video and photographic work. The Finnish artist, Antti Laitinen’s video of his attempts to construct his own island in the Baltic against a decidedly uncooperative sea (Its My Island, 2007), and Shiro Takatani’s Ice Core, 2005, a DVD representing part of an Antarctic ice core containing the history of the planet’s carbon dioxide content over the last 800,000, perhaps most clearly demonstrated what the exhibition set out to achieve — a scientific message embedded in good art.

The last word, in the catalogue, goes to the novelist Ian McEwan, a participant on the 2005 Cape Farewell expedition and whose much anticipated new novel is said to be a satirical look at climate change. Are we, he asks, “living in an Edwardian summer of reckless denial? Is this the beginning or the beginning of the end?” The last word in the exhibition, from the work that lingers most ominously in the mind, is in fact not a word, nor even an image, but a sound: The sound of the 567 digital wall clocks of Darren Almond’s sound installation, Tide, 2008, that each minute, with a jarring, mechanical cacophony, give warning of the unstoppable progress of the planet towards a tipping point, a mere 96 months away. that, once reached, could lead to sudden, irrevocable climate changes, disastrous for the survival of mankind.

1. Whatever Happened to the Polar Bears? Landscape and Arts Network Journal, April 2006.
2. Review of Cape Farewell Ice Garden Exhibition, Oxford, 2005.
Images from Earth: Art of a Changing World.

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