Indicators: Artists on Climate Changeby Patrick Jaojoco
STORM KING ART CENTER | MAY 19 –NOVEMBER 11, 2018
Since the institution’s founding, Storm King Art Center’s mission to elaborate on art in the natural landscape has sought to evolve with the times. As sea levels and global temperatures rise, Storm King has followed contemporary artists into the conceptual fray of what constitutes “nature” in this day and age. The current exhibition, Indicators: Artists on Climate Change, is the latest evolution of this focus, presenting diverse investigations into the complexities of climate change. Spanning the indoor galleries and various locations in the sculpture park, the exhibition—while falling short on some of the political points of climate change—has strengths in its inquiries into society and futurity.
In the museum building, a small gallery draws attention to itself, illuminated only by a neon sign reading “Sometimes lies are prettier” in cursive text. It bathes the room in icy blue light and reveals other items: a flag brought to the North Pole (Who Deserves Aquamarine, Black, and Gold (FLAG), 2005 – 06) and a panoramic lightbox depicting a black man with the flag planted in Arctic snow (Standing Alone, 2013). Paying homage to the underappreciated African American explorer and two Inuit guides who helped “discover” the North Pole in 1909, Tavares Strachan’s Sometimes Lies Are Prettier (2017) and work from his 2005 Arctic expedition beautifully commingle expeditionary histories with histories of erasure.
The provocation is key to climate histories, and yet it is not quite elaborated upon in the exhibition. Instead, immediately outside of the building, visitors are treated to less political projects focusing on other species: Jenny Kendler’s elegiac Birds Watching (2018) confronts viewers with the unblinking eyes of soon-to-be-extinct birdlife, resulting in a perhaps unintentional indulgence in anthropocentric shame. Meg Webster’s solar-powered garden project, Growing Under Solar Panels (2018), is an act in sustainability that neatly grows native plant life to eventually be replanted across the park. Maya Lin’s science-project-cum-artwork, The Secret Life of Grasses (2018), reveals grasses’ root systems, hopeful in its monumentalization of plant life as a potential aspect of future architectures. These outdoor, non-human sculptural projects, though interesting, distract from the cultures and genesis of climate change in favor of responses to the so-called “natural” world. While considerations of other species are important, it is perhaps more crucial to establish climate change’s roots in a complex web of various landscapes’ racial, economic, and industrial histories.
Steve Rowell’s profound Midstream at Twilight (2016), tucked in a corner on a standard forty-inch screen, usefully articulates these structures. The twenty-minute film is primarily from a drone’s-eye view, meditating on destructive transit pathways of a fossil fuel called petroleum coke. Notably, the film depicts neither industrial workers nor the displaced indigenous communities over whose traditional land many of the pathways cross. From the corporate headquarters of Koch Industries, Inc.—the largest dealer of “petcoke” in the US—to the ports of Los Angeles, to the fuel’s endpoint in China where it is burned in power plants, its route and toxic fate are seen as part of an inhuman industry. This plays into the broader idea of the “Capitalocene” (proposed by sociologist JW Moore and further articulated by Donna Haraway, Simon Lewis, Mark Maslin, and other writers), which links climate change more specifically to capitalist growth rather than general human activity.
Race, in this sense, is an important and inextricable aspect of industry’s colonial origins and is thankfully explored in several works. In addition to Tavares Strachan, communities of color are represented in Alan Michelson’s video installation derived from indigenous wampum design, Wolf Nation (2018); Allison Janae Hamilton’s monument to black survivors of hurricanes, The peo-ple cried mer-cy in the storm (2018); and Gabriela Salazar’s Matters in Shelter (and Place, Puerto Rico) (2018). Salazar’s temporary structure is one of the strongest works in the exhibition in its political and aesthetic complexity: raw wooden poles support a blue mesh, poised above a grey cinderblock floor. A scent of old coffee wafts through the structure, emanating from brown blocks made from the beans that require continual replacement as they bake in the sun. Referencing temporary sanctuaries for Puerto Ricans who lost their homes to Hurricane Maria, as well as the artist’s familial ties to the Puerto Rican coffee industry, Matters in Shelter compresses cultural history, increasingly devastating weather events, and contemporary processes of care in light of the Capitalocene’s racial and national divides. These divides are particularly pressing, as (mostly non-white) island nations are most at risk to sea level change and storms whose building strength can be correlated to warmer ocean temperatures. This, however, is not adequately explained in the exhibition materials.
Such projects, along with David Brooks’s bronze casts of natural forms Permanent Field Observations (2018) and the collective Dear Climate’s pithy phrases printed on black and white flags, pose important ontological inquiries into humanity in our current age. Unfortunately, the exhibition as a whole does not do justice to the cultural complexity in these works beyond narratives of nature loss. While offering some worthwhile indications for the future, Indicators ultimately forgoes historical and philosophical cohesion in favor of romanticism and elegy: artistic modes that are sometimes just too pretty to pass up.
PATRICK JAOJOCO is a contributor to the Brooklyn Rail.