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Climate art is mostly a form of activism

Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, The Wilding of Mars (simulation screenshot), 2019, unity simulation, 4 screen video installation with sound, 1 hour. Courtesy of the artist.

This summer has been defined by record heat around the world due to climate change, with global communities facing floods, fires, famine and pestilence. In the United States, July was the third hottest on record.

What will happen to the planet if we don’t intervene in the climate crisis as soon as yesterday? How can we adapt as a species to our changing, damaged environment? What would a non-human-centered approach to living on Earth look like, one that put the Earth first?

These are the questions at the heart of “MYR,” an exhibition on view at McEvoy Foundation for the Arts, featuring 25 sculptures, textiles, photographs and videos by six artists from around the world. The show’s cryptic title is a bit of jargon borrowed from Earth science and astrology meaning one million years. Here, that unit of measurement is a reference to “deep time,” the scale of geological events unimaginable by human standards. Human configurations of time, and humanity writ large, as the show does well to point out, are a relatively recent phenomenon. But are they also fleeting, doomed to disappear?

Many of the works on view propose solutions that decenter humanoids in an attempt to move away from the negative impacts of the Anthropocene (the current geological age during which human activity has dominated). Miriam Simun’s wall vinyl “Training Transhumanism (I WANT TO BECOME A CEPHALOPOD),” 2022, is an instructional graphic for exercises meant to train new sensitivities and capabilities in the human body, based on the cephalopod, including shape-shifting, camouflage and distributed intelligence. Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg’s “The Wilding of Mars,” 2019, is a four-channel video simulation of the growth of a wilderness of Earth lifeforms on Mars.

Other artworks are more poetic meditations on the big picture. Katie Paterson’s “Ideas,” 2016, is a series of six small, waterjet-cut sterling silver phrases dotted throughout the gallery, such as “The scent of rain left on the moon” and “The speed of light slowed to absolute stillness.” Their placement at random intervals reads like a voice responding to or contemplating the other pieces in the gallery. Paterson’s “To Burn, Forest, Fire,” 2021, is a repurposed stick of incense, presupposing the day when the scent of trees is a rarity as well as insinuating the reason for their disappearance.

“MYR” gave me a surge of anxiety. In that respect, the exhibition was probably a healthy kick in the pants: It can’t hurt to be reminded how dire the global warming situation is. But can it really help? I’ve seen plenty of art about climate change and it usually affects me as a form of activism, but rarely moves me as art.

“The vastness of geologic time stretching backwards remains an abstract truth,” writes the exhibition’s curator Elizabeth Thomas, “while its reach into the future is increasingly apocalyptic as humans confront the climate crisis. To imagine the millions of years behind us, we must also imagine the millions that might pass after us, on earth and throughout the universe.”

I agree with Thomas on the necessity of considering the impact of our actions on the future. But it doesn’t necessarily make for good art.

The most conceptually compelling piece in the show is Heather Dewey-Hagborg’s “Lovesick,” 2019, a multimedia piece incorporating video, sound, sculpture and a custom-made retrovirus that increases the infected individual’s Oxytocin production, literally making them sick with love. An audio component of the piece proposes the virus as “a cure for the coming alienation” resulting from the escalating climate crisis. But alienation isn’t a thing of the future. And neither is the cure.

Art, for me, functions as an antidote for alienation. It gives me the feeling that someone has been here before, that someone else has passed through whatever difficulty I am experiencing in the present and lived to tell of it, or that they have glimpsed a more beautiful vision of life and are offering it to me as a tool for my own survival. In other words, art is about a kind of communion. It is someone from the past reaching out a hand to me in the present. When we relate this way, we have no use for the future.

It is for policy makers and multinational corporations to solve the issues of climate change, for which they are largely responsible, while each of us chip in at the individual level. But it isn’t the job of artists to solve the world’s problems. And that is not to diminish what art can do. What art can do is of much greater value in an immediate sense. Because art can improve life and create connections between people in their fraught experiences of alienation.

Part of my discomfort viewing “MYR” comes from my genuine concern around the climate crisis. If the work in the exhibition offers me any sort of consolation, it’s in knowing that others are anxious about the future as well, and equally uncertain how to proceed. But that shared anxiety doesn’t get me very far and it doesn’t give me a rewarding art experience. Just like my best experiences with art, the future can be altered only by acting in the present.