Calling out the climate crisis through the prism of art

American novelist Helen Phillips once said that we have been raised with the belief that art can’t be didactic. “That art can’t be political, that if it’s political it’s not art, it’s something else”. Yet, in today’s world, where changes and sudden events are continuously shaking our lives, that doesn’t feel true anymore. “Art isn’t just a separate aesthetic realm, it actually has political implications, and in the climate discourse art can actually make people look at the future in a way that they might not otherwise”. Personal Structures brings those discourses and ideas into the exhibition and does so thanks to the participation of artists who have included the ecological in their work.

Photo credits: Matteo Losurdo

Throughout the different venues, from the vast interiors of Palazzo Mora and the historical walls of Palazzo Bembo to the gardens of Marinaressa, artists have presented different viewpoints on the relationship between the human and the natural. They emphasise taking better care of our environment and underline that the most urgent planetary challenges of today cannot be addressed without a profound social and cultural mentality shift. The Center for Environmental Arts and Humanities from the University of New Mexico (UNM) together with the Environmental Studies Department from Davidson College put the focus on just that. 

In two different installations, a Library at Palazzo Bembo and a Classroom at the Marinaressa Gardens, these two institutions bring climate change to the forefront of the discussion. The climate emergency is finally receiving public acknowledgement and has sparked grassroots social movements all over the world. However, there is still a tendency to isolate the environmental emergency and neglect its deep connections with other aspects of society. This impelled UNM and Davidson College to make biodiversity — the crisis and mitigation — a key focus of their project. Their installations present themselves as a space to sit, as an opportunity to take the time to reflect on those changes that are urgently needed.

'Library' by UNM and Davidson College | Photo credits: Federico Vespignani

'Classroom' by UNM and Davidson College | Photo credits: Federico Vespignani

To that effect, the team of the pioneering scientific project called “Divided Generations” (DiGe project) from Ca’ Foscari University of Venice already provides some answers. At Palazzo Mora, their work emphasises the importance of biocultural diversity in the European context. They underline the importance of local ecological knowledge and the need to preserve this knowledge through modern means of education, in order to not lose the experiences of many generations.

DiGe project

This approach of observing and listening as the first step towards action quite resonates with The Migration Blanket by award-winning British artist and activist Salma Zulfiqar. Exhibited at Palazzo Bembo as well, The Migration Blanket is a short animated artfilm created through ARTconnects workshops that features the works and conversations of more than 150 young women in more than 20 nations. The film includes these female voices that are calling for action to save our planet, capturing the climate injustice faced around the world. During its elaboration, the movie not only provided comfort in times of need but also made sure their voices were not left unheard ー they were brought into shape through personal drawings and creative expressions.

The human footprint

For a long time, our attitude towards the climate crisis has been that the effects resulting from it ー floods, storms, shortages, droughts ー are happening somewhere else. As we can see now, that is no longer the case. Climate change is happening everywhere, from our backyards to our neighbouring countries and faraway places.

Artist Ronit Keret offers a beautiful example of how our actions of today are having an impact on our surroundings and can jeopardize the tomorrow. Her work deals with ecological crisis and the melting glaciers, and she focuses on industrial waste such as Styrofoam packaging, which is the material used at her installation TEARS as an analogy for global warming: it is the best insulation material for protecting valuable items, yet it is injurious to the environment.

This insight induced Keret to create the large scale, multi-layered TEARS installation made from thousands and thousands of little Styrofoam elements that the artist collected from trash and industrial areas and cut to resemble blocks of ice. When you visit her room on Palazzo Mora’s second floor, you are encompassed by the whiteness and absorbed by the two video projections that depict beautiful black horses galloping between the ice fields accompanied by a sense and sounds of distress in the air. The giant glaciers ultimately crash into the ocean and the herd plummets into the abyss in an endless loop. The glistening, sparkling whiteness of the Styrofoam creates an atmosphere that Keret hopes will make it difficult for the viewer to ignore, in utter contrast to ignoring the demise of the glaciers.

Installations such as TEARS leave a strong impression as it makes us think about the way we are treating the planet, and there are many other artworks at Personal Structures that are brave enough to highlight our faults. 

Sculptor Laura Santini, for instance, reminds us through her work Ramazza in Palazzo Bembo about the world of disposability, consumerism, waste, non-renewable products, and sometimes lack of respect for nature. Shaped as a garden broom but cast in bronze, Ramazza offers the observer a path back to a time before we lost our footing in the natural world, reminding us that many of the cheap, synthetic, stylized products we use today were once simple objects that were found in nature, used in their natural state, and returned to nature. Similarly, Argentinian artist Elisa Insua also explores the concept of disposability.

On show at Palazzo Mora, her work DNA of the Future is a QR code made out of single-use plastics that is a clear reflection of our society and shows where this culture of immediacy, accumulation and profit-seeking at all costs has brought us. Also in the same location, we can witness the works of Tina Zimmermann, Etty Yaniv and Dominique Paulin, three installations linked in concept but different in approach. 

'Ramazza' by Laura Santini | Photo credits: Federico Vespignani

'DNA of the Future' by Elisa Insua | Photo credits: Federico Vespignani

In Tina Zimmermann’s installation, Amazon Tsunami, the public is surprised with hundreds of cardboard pieces ripped from Amazon shipping boxes that depict the waste they leave behind, the pollution they cause in production and transport, and the pressure of the workers behind it. It is a call for the overconsumption of today’s society. 

'Amazon Tsunami' by Tina Zimmermann | Photo credits: Federico Vespignani

Also Etty Yaniv repurposes materials from her daily life to create her site-specific Inversion. Throughout this visceral installation, made of hundreds recycled material pieces from Yaniv’s daily life as well as paintings, drawings, and photographs, the artist reflects on the complex intersection between water and human footprints. Yaniv’s act of layering repurposed materials, both found and recycled from her previous installation works also expresses her preoccupation with transformation and ephemerality, hinting at survival in the context of social and ecological transience.

'Inversion' by Etty Yaniv | Photo credits: Federico Vespignani

In a nearby room, we can find Dominique Paulin’s paintings. What might first come across as a triptych of monumental dimensions representing a mountain, this installation ends up revealing on canvas the raw manifestation of the act of creation. Paulin uses oil, pastel and ink to paint but, over the last ten years, she has also added the use of make-up and cosmetics. The recycling of these luxury materials has quickly become a sesame for Dominique Paulin, and the necessary ingredient for her paintings which she makes up, like women do, playing with appearance. By making up her paintings, the works are truly magnified through these new materials (varnishes, powders, eye- shadows, eyeliners, foundations, etc…); materials that are saved from destruction due to obsolescence.

Dominique Paulin’s paintings | Photo credits: Federico Vespignani

A garden of reflection

When talking about ecological art at Personal Structures it is almost imperative to pay a visit to the Marinaressa Gardens, one of the European Cultural Centre’s venues where artworks enter in dialogue with the surrounding.

A first stop is Karen McCoy’s Floating Garden for Venice, a sculpture that responds to the ecological and social crisis, and more specifically to the sea level rise that threatens the city of Venice. What is interesting is that this plant structure is envisioned in a way that would continue to live and survive in face of flooding and water rise, almost like adapting and mitigating the effects of climate change. This work is conceived with a long-term approach; a structure built to last. In this sense, her work presents an opportunity to extend the idea of gardening through an engagement with the dynamics of planting, growing and adapting to changed conditions—the idea is to encourage self-sufficiency and health leading to the evolution of our collective consciousness. 

'Floating Garden for Venice' by Karen McCoy | Photo credits: Chiara Dalla Rosa

'Floating Garden for Venice' by Karen McCoy | Photo credits: Chiara Dalla Rosa

In the same garden and as a perfect continuation of McCoy’s work, we can find The Tree of Life Which Is Ours by sculptor Romolo Del Deo. This unique artwork has two important takes. On the one hand, it brings forward a sustainable art practice for the 21st century which the artist calls Long Art: a creative platform for environmental and sociocultural activism that embraces greener heirloom practices that produce artworks with superior ecological and curatorial stability over time instead of relying on expedient synthetic products and processes that drive global warming. On the other hand, it incorporates the dead trees and remains that are washing up on our shores as a symbol of the importance of water conservation and protection. Combined with the myth of Daphne, Romolo Del Deo draws attention to the imperative of sea level rise, an existential threat to humanity and specifically to the site of the sculpture on the shoreline of Venice in the Marinaressa Gardens.

'The Tree of Life Which Is Ours' by Romolo Del Deo | Photo credits: Federico Vespignani

All of these installations convey an undeniable truth, the systemic changes affecting the planet and the livelihood of many, and remind us about the futility of consumerism, profit, bureaucracy, boundaries and speciesism. As Masoud Akhavanjam shows us with Conflictus there is an omnipresent struggle and conflict of interest about what is the primary concern, creating a difficult dilemma for decision makers of today. But as Albert Scopin ironically portrays with his sculpture Dance, baby, dance, “the truth is that reality will not bend to suit human convenience” ー all the superfluous, artificial, fast and uncontainable will ultimately succumb to the Anthropocene unless we change course, we change today.

'Conflictus' by Karen | Photo credits: Clelia Cadamuro

'Dance, baby, dance' by Albert Scopin | Photo credits: Clelia Cadamuro

Visit all participant's installations at Palazzo Mora, Palazzo Bembo, and Marinaressa Gardens until the 27th of November or discover their work by exploring the virtual tours online. Discover more about the artist on their profiles online.

 

**Credits: Interview with American novelist Helen Phillips retrieved from "The Art and Activism of the Anthropocene, Part III: A Conversation with Helen Phillips, Amitav Ghosh, and Nathan Kensinger" by Amy Brady (here).

Calling out the climate crisis through the prism of art

American novelist Helen Phillips once said that we have been raised with the belief that art can’t be didactic. “That art can’t be political, that if it’s political it’s not art, it’s something else”. Yet, in today’s world, where changes and sudden events are continuously shaking our lives, that doesn’t feel true anymore. “Art isn’t just a separate aesthetic realm, it actually has political implications, and in the climate discourse art can actually make people look at the future in a way that they might not otherwise”. Personal Structures brings those discourses and ideas into the exhibition and does so thanks to the participation of artists who have included the ecological in their work.

  • Published: 14.09.2022
  • Category: In Focus
  • Subject: Exhibition
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