Burning issues

By GREG COOK  |  June 20, 2007
inside_globwarm
COLD AS A THING OF THE PAST? That’s the question Joe Milutis’s video Line of 32 asks.

The most prominent example of global-warming art is, of course, Al Gore’s 2006 documentary film An Inconvenient Truth, which has to be judged as one of the most significant examples of political art of the past century, up there with Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle and Rachel Carson’s non-fiction book Silent Spring, for its success in bringing public attention to the problem of global climate change. (I’m using the term “art” broadly to describe any creative endeavor, from painting to journalism to boat building.) Along with Elizabeth Kolbert’s reports on global warming that began appearing in the New Yorker in 2005 and Jared Diamond’s 2004 book Collapse, a study of how societies mismanage their relationships with the environment, An Inconvenient Truth sparked much of the global-warming art now appearing in galleries and museums.

The Institute of Contemporary Art opened its new building in South Boston last December with an exhibit featuring Jane Marsching of Roslindale and three other finalists for its Foster Prize, which honors “a Boston-area artist of exceptional promise” with $25,000. Marsching, the most prominent local artist addressing global warming, presented Arctic Listening Post, which featured riffs on the Arctic and climate change including goofy invented photos of explorers clowning in the Arctic and video appropriated from the US government’s North Pole Webcam.

Marsching’s most promising piece was Climate Commons. She and assistants built a table and stools from scraps recycled from the construction of the new ICA building. There visitors could sit at laptops to read a blog about “climate change, sustainability, and the Arctic” authored by Marsching and collaborators including an Episcopal priest, a journalist, a scientist, a comedian, and activists. The blog was successful as a clearing house for links to on-line eco-information, but I’d hoped for more discussion and new ideas arising from cross-pollination among the heterogeneous contributors. Still, it shows how global-warming art crosses boundaries among art and science and journalism, and how object making can lead to public discussions.

Marsching was also one of the artists featured at Newclimates.com, an on-line global-warming art-exhibition blog that Brown University student Shane Brennan launched in March. It offers videos of skies, styrofoam models of the Arctic, and maps of data. Providence artist Joe Milutis’s video Line of 32 shows footage of satellite weather maps, people walking snowy streets, and ice rolling on slushy water; meanwhile, a man says, “I have started to think of cold as a rare thing, part of the past, I don’t know if I believe it exists anymore, so I drive for hours just to find a place where it dips below 32.” The video feels like a sketch, but it’s filled with the sad sense that winter is becoming an endangered species.

Global-warming art tends to come in two main styles: sci-fi futures (Rockman) and data processing (Gore, Marsching). Flooding is a reoccurring motif, as you can see in Fort Thunder co-founder Brian Chippendale’s 2005 screenprint of Providence flooded in 2046 and Boston artist Gail Boyajian’s landscape paintings Climate Change Capriccio and Back Bay in Ruins, which were exhibited at the Judy Ann Goldman Gallery in January. Last month, the Pepper Gallery exhibited New York artists Nicholas Kahn and Richard Selesnick in “Eisbergfreistadt,” which featured narrative photos, prints, and sculptures — all based on the artist’s elaborate tall tale of a giant iceberg, loosed by “heat from factory smoke,” that ran aground in a German port in 1923, melted, and flooded the town’s industrial zone.

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